This project follows arsenic—one of the deadliest earth poisons, whose identification was most crucial to the formation of the forensic science of toxicology—in order to explore complex entanglements of natural and human violence. Case studies range from murder trials in Victorian England to environmental poisonings in Bangladesh and West Papua. The project claims that in contemporary times the entanglement of natural and political violence is so extreme that forensic investigations must look at complex and diffused structures of causality. It is in response to these entangled causalities, involving human and nonhuman actors alike, that the legal forums of the future must emerge.
The cyclone captured in the iconic “Blue Marble” image taken by the crew on the Apollo mission in November 1972 came to stand for the entanglement between natural and political violence in Bangladesh’s war of national liberation, Nasa’s Landsat satellite program, the launch of the Green revolution as a neocolonial system of agriculture around the world, as well as a record of how cyclones can return as affect.
The Bhola cyclone plays a major role in the modern history of Bangladesh. It was one of the worst natural disasters recorded in human history. In November 12, 1970, it devastated Bangladesh’s coastal zones and killed, according to some estimates, half a million people. Trying to subdue separatist sentiments, the ruling government in West Pakistan mishandled the relief effort and on March 24, 1971 launched a military offensive on Bengali civilians that escalated into what is called the Mukti Judho (War of National Liberation) in Bangladesh. The military and its collaborators were later accused of the genocide of three million people, a violence that still haunts the nation today.
Although the war and genocide remain central to the political imagination of every Bangladeshi, the role of the cyclone remains largely unknown. More than just catalyzing the sequence of events that led to the birth of the Bangladeshi state, the cyclone and genocide led to the reconceptualization of the tool of contemporary humanitarianism. It saw two new types of response that are still with us: on the one hand the humanitarian rock concert, and on the other, military intervention propounded as a means to stop genocide.
Interview with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1971 calling for a military intervention on humanitarian grounds in support of Bangladesh. India entered the conflict on December 3, 1971. BBC, 1971.
There was immense destruction of physical infrastructure in Bangladesh in 1972 following the war of independence. The same year saw the launch of a new land survey satellite, LANDSAT 1, for the acquisition of satellite imagery of Earth. One of its first applications was to rationalize the Green Revolution by reading land cover changes for crop and water management. Aimed at solving the world’s food shortage, this was a US-led global agricultural program that the Americans hoped would pacify the planet’s poor and prevent uprisings.
Freedom fighters led a guerilla war for independence until hostilities ceased on December 16, 1971, when the Pakistani military command surrendered to the allied forces.
Animation of arsenic contamination at a territorial scale showing spatial variability in arsenic concentration from <0.25 μg to 1660 μg. The highest arsenic concentrations are shown to be in the alluvial and deltaic sediments.
Arsenic is the perfect poison because the traces it leaves behind are hard to detect. Complicating the matter was the fact that in Victorian times, it was present in a domestic setting, especially in wallpaper and paint. The toxic Victorian house has metaphorically and literally anticipated the large-scale environmental contaminations of the present.
In 1972, Bangladesh emerged as a new state after the cyclone and national war of liberation. Following the war, UNICEF, inspired by the Green Revolution, undertook a major public health engineering project that aimed to provide safe drinking water by drilling millions of hand pumps. Over subsequent years, constructing private tube wells became normative practice. Although considered a major success, it exposed a significant part of the population to ground water aquifers (underground layers of permeable rock, sediment, or soil that yield water) rich in arsenic. Several decades on, the gradual environmental damage continues to have an impact upon populations in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. The same state and humanitarian players implicated in causing this damage are now charged with dealing with its consequences. Binod Sutradhar was the lead claimant in Sudtradhar v. NERC, the only legal case brought against the British Geological Survey and the National Environmental Research Council by a group of NGOs and lawyers who were seeking redress for the victims of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh. They attempted to sue for negligence in failing to test for arsenic in Sutradhar’s well water in 1992. The BGS technical report was used by the state to draw up a national water policy that did not include arsenic testing.
The Grasberg Mine
Arsenic is a main by-product of copper mining. One of the most devastating contemporary examples of territorial arsenic-related environmental poisoning is from the Grasberg mine. Containing the world’s largest gold and copper reserves, it is located high in the mountains of West Papua, a troubled province of Indonesia with an ongoing indigenous independence movement. The mine is at the heart of the ancestral land of the Amungme and the Komoro, two of the many ethnically Melanesian indigenous peoples that make up Papua. Freeport PT Indonesia, a subsidiary of the US mining company Freeport McMoRan, began a large-scale mining project in West Papua while Papuan territory was still the subject of dispute with the Dutch in the 1960s. Handed over several years before the so-called 1969 “Act of Free Choice,” the Freeport Grasberg mine came to both symbolize and act as a site of conflict for the annexation of indigenous territories. Using remote sensing technologies, the project seeks to unpack the complex processes of territorial poisoning emanating from the Grasberg mine.
In the Stomach of the Dragon, Survival International and Small World Productions. Shot undercover and in secret inside West Papua in the 1990s, this film exposes atrocities committed by the Indonesian military against the Amungme and documents the environmental impact of the Grasberg copper and gold mine. Courtesy of Small World Productions.