National Geographic : 2014 May
88 national geographic • may 2014 eight-mile stretch of the coast. Each yard was secured behind high fences topped with razor wire. Guards were posted, and signs warned against photography. Outsiders had become especially unwelcome in recent years after an explosion killed several workers, prompting crit- ics to say the owners put profits above safety. “But they can’t block the sea,” the local said. So late one afternoon I hired a fisherman to take me on a water tour of the yards. At high tide the sea engulfed the rows of beached oil tank- ers and containerships, and we slipped in and out of the deep shadows cast by their towering smokestacks and superstructures. Some vessels remained intact, as if they had just arrived. Oth- ers had been reduced to skeletons, the steel skin cut away to reveal their cavernous black holds. We drifted alongside barnacle-encrusted hulls and beneath the blades of massive propel- lers. I read off names and flags painted on the sterns: Front Breaker (Comoros), V Europe (Mar- shall Islands), Glory B (Panama). I wondered about cargoes they had carried, ports where they had called, and crews that had sailed them. The life span of such ships is roughly 25 to 30 years, so most of these likely had been launched during the 1980s. But the rising cost to insure and maintain aging vessels makes them unprof- itable to operate. Now their value was contained mostly in their steel bodies. Nearly all the demolition crews had left work for the day, and the ships stood silent, except for the gurgling in their bowels and the occasional echo of metal clanking. The air hung heavy with the odor of brine and diesel fuel. Making our way around one hull, we heard laughter and came upon a group of naked boys who had swum out to a half-submerged piece of wreckage and were using it as a diving platform. Just beyond the line of ships, fishermen were casting their nets for schools of tiny ricefish, a local delicacy. Suddenly a shower of sparks rained down from the stern several stories above us. A head appeared over the side, then arms waving vigor- ously. “Move away! We’re cutting this section,” a man yelled down at us. “Do you want to die?” Oceangoing vessels are not meant to be taken apart. They’re designed to withstand extreme forces in some of the planet’s most difficult en- vironments, and they’re often constructed with toxic materials, such as asbestos and lead. When ships are scrapped in the developed world, the process is more strictly regulated and expensive, so the bulk of the world’s shipbreaking is done in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, where labor is cheap and oversight is minimal. Industry reforms have come in fits and starts. India now requires more protections for workers and the environment. But in Bangladesh, where 194 ships were dismantled in 2013, the industry remains extremely dirty and dangerous. It also remains highly lucrative. Activists in Chittagong told me that in three to four months the average ship in Bangladeshi yards returns roughly a one-million-dollar profit on an invest- ment of five million, compared with less than i had been warned that it would be difficult to get into Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards. “It used to be a tourist attraction,” a local man told me. “People would come watch men tear apart ships with their bare hands. But they don’t let in outsiders anymore.” I walked a few miles along the road that parallels the Bay of Bengal, just north of the city of Chittagong, where 80 active shipbreaking yards line an By Peter Gwin PhotoGrAPhs By Mike hettwer Peter Gwin wrote about the psychology of risk taking in June 2013. Mike Hettwer photographed a Stone Age cemetery for the September 2008 issue.