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Men work on a muddy embankment with a river in the foreground and simple houses in the background. ;

Supporting Climate Justice in the Sundarbans

Stephen Matthews

Faculty Communications Manager

27 October 2021

Climate change is already having a significant impact on some of the poorest communities on the planet, threatening livelihoods and creating new climate refugees. So what do corporations need to consider when investing in projects that will contribute to the climate emergency?

King’s Legal Clinic has launched a new partnership to look at the impact of climate change on traditional communities in India and Bangladesh and whether large international investors are doing enough to assess the impact on human rights and provide remedies.

The Clinic’s project focuses on the Sundarbans region, which spans the India-Bangladesh border, and is a partnership with staff and students from Jadavpur University and West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, and Krishnendu Mukherjee, a renowned barrister from Doughty Street Chambers.

A mangrove forest with simple houses, a river and palm trees.

The Sundarbans is a low-lying delta region, rich in biodiversity, which borders the Bay of Bengal. It comprises 104 river islands, of which around 50 are inhabited and, on the Bangladesh side, includes The Sundarbans Reserve Forest, one of the largest mangrove forests in the world.

In 2017, the area was thought to be home to 4.5 million people – three times the number in 1951. The region has seen a significant rise in sea levels in recent years – the incursion of salt water has made agriculture unsustainable for some, and also disrupted the fishing industry.

The impact on local communities has been magnified by frequent tropical storms. High population density has meant that climate change phenomena, such as tidal surges, can result in significant loss of life.

Men work on a muddy embankment with a river in the foreground and simple houses in the background.

The very real impact of climate change on the Sundarbans and its people provides a clear example of the effects being felt by already-impoverished communities around the world.

Sue Willman, Assistant Director of King's Legal Clinic, is leading the project: “We've chosen the Sundarbans because it's a compelling example of how our reliance on fossil fuels, in general, is having an adverse effect on certain communities.

“From a UK perspective, the impact of climate change might seem remote, but if you are in the Sundarbans your traditional way of earning a living, through agriculture or fishing, may already be unsustainable. You may already have been forced to abandon the land your family has farmed for generations. You might need to leave the area entirely – we are already seeing climate refugees, with families leaving the Sundarbans to move into crowded flats in cities like Kolkata, to work in factories and low-paid jobs.

“Through this project, we can highlight these direct impacts of climate change to people in the UK.”

A series of small rowing boats are silhouetted against a wide river.

The situation facing the Sundarbans has been exacerbated by previous developments, including the Farakka dam project. Students will look at the role of investors in new projects, the duties placed on corporations and whether there is a need for remedy.

Sue Willman: “The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, propagated by John Ruggie, set out the duties placed on businesses to respect human rights, and to offer a remedy when they get things wrong.

“If an investment can be shown to have contributed to climate change, the remedy for people in the Sundarbans might be a voluntary grievance process in relation to the company, or in the long run it might be a criminal complaint if environmental harm is caused."

A line of people in brightly-coloured clothes queue for food with pans.
Four men and women are crouching on the floor, sorting food at a flood relief project.

The project will bring together expertise in law and climate science, to help identify possible adaptation and mitigation measures alongside opportunities to use a Business and Human Rights approach to provide remedies.

Students will also benefit from the involvement of leading barrister Krishnendu Mukerjee, from Doughty Street Chambers. Krishnendu has extensive experience of representing rights holders before the Indian courts. He also advises clients on how to assert their human and environmental rights against business entities.

Sue Willman says the project will also help student members develop valuable skills: “It’s increasingly important that lawyers going into the commercial field understand the connections between business and human rights and business and the environment.

“Today’s students need to be aware of the need for companies to conduct human rights due diligence and environmental due diligence, as they may be giving legal advice to companies in this situation in the future.”

The Sundarbans Justice Project is a partnership with staff and students from Jadavpur University and West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, and Krishnendu Mukherjee, a barrister from Doughty Street Chambers. The project will be hosting an online launch event on 1 November which will hear from a member of the Sundarbans community displaced by climate change alongside experts in law and climate science from the partner universities and former Indian Supreme Court judge Rt. Hon. Justice Madan B Lokur. A panel discussion will be chaired by The Rt. Hon. Lord Carnwath of Notting Hill.

In this story

Sue Willman

Sue Willman

Assistant Director of King's Legal Clinic and Lecturer in Law (Education)

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