The odor struck me first: the sulfurous smell of thousands of cow and goat hides stripped bare and left to dry in the baking heat. As my rickshaw drew closer to the village, the driver covered his mouth with a cloth to dampen the stench before approaching the sprawl of houses, shops and leather tanneries. Discarded strips of leather were strewn everywhere on the ground. Bamboo bridges tenuously connected mounds of leather hides that formed islands over pools of toxic chromium-laden azure wastewater. I was in Hazaribagh, a village on the banks of the Buriganga, and the heart of Bangladesh’s leather industry.
The Buriganga River is a central artery of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Hazaribagh, the leather village down the river from Dhaka, means “a thousand gardens,” a reference to the patches of grass floating upon the river’s waters. But today, toxins have pushed aquatic life around Hazaribagh to the brink of survival.
The runoff water from the tanneries. Toxic water, plastic, animal and human waste, all flow together into the Buriganga river. Residents of Hazaribagh fish in the river and ingest some of the chemicals released by the tanneries, elevating their risk of fatal diseases. Photo: Adib Chowdhury
I have traveled to Bangladesh, my parents’ homeland, almost every other year throughout my life, and it remains my favorite country to photograph. Life is so raw, with a spontaneity that an outsider can’t help but appreciate. For locals, that spontaneity has adverse effects: political corruption, sudden labor strikes, hazardous roads and economic uncertainty. The situation in Hazaribagh is emblematic of many of those problems throughout the country. It is a story of corruption and negligence that poisons the veins of the country, and leads to the slow death of the Buriganga River. In 2013, environmental groups listed the tannery site fifth in a list of the world’s most polluted places.