In a skiff stacked with branches coated in fuel oil, a 15-year-old boy scraped oil off mangrove roots with his bare hands.
"I know it's bad for my health," he told VICE News, "but I'm poor and the government is paying me 400 takas [around $5] a day to do this work, so that's why I'm doing it."
Hundreds of others like him were busy collecting oil along the muddy banks of the Shela River, a UNESCO world heritage site in Bangladesh's southern Sundarbans region.
On the edge of the jungle, home to hundreds of Bengal tigers and the world's largest mangrove forest, locals are busying cleaning up what Sharif Amed, one of the country's leading environmental activists, called "an unprecedented environmental catastrophe for Bangladesh."
The oil tanker that leaked oil into the Shela river. (Photo by Gilles Bonugli Kali)
The spill occurred last Tuesday morning when an empty tanker rammed another anchored oil tanker in heavy fog. An estimated 93,000 gallons of fuel oil — the type used in furnaces and boilers — seeped into the river, which is located 220 miles southwest of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The tanker, which is now moored to another vessel in the small port of Mrigamari, was chartered by the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation, a government agency that is now paying locals to collect the spilled oil.
The slick has already spread over 50 square miles, and it's only expected to grow as tides spread the oil across the floor of the mangrove forest. Environmentalists have criticized the government's inaction in the face of the ecological catastrophe, which is the region's first oil spill.
A week into the incident, the oil has completely blackened the shoreline, coating docks and tree roots with a thick, black sheen.
Pinaki Roy, a reporter with The Daily Star, one of Bangladesh's largest newspapers, told VICE News the landscape was "much worse" in the days immediately following the catastrophe. "Everything was black," he said.
Two fishermen who were paid to cover the oil with mud before the media arrived. (Photo by Gilles Bonugli Kali)
On a recent visit, plants on the forest floor were smeared with oil, and the surface of the river was coated with a thin, oily film. Under the palm and banana trees, the oil had already seeped into the ground.
"I walked into the forest and saw oil everywhere," Zahir Hossain, an attorney and environmental activist with the Save the Sundarbans Foundation, said.
Environmentalists warn that the spill threatens several endangered species in the region, including rare Irrawaddy dolphins.
"The oil is accumulating precisely where the dolphins are accustomed to coming up for air," A.K.M. Wahiduzzaman, an environmental activist and professor at Bangladesh National University, told VICE News. "If they try coming up, they will automatically breathe in toxic air. It's an ecosystem that is unique in the world because of its diversity, and it is now endangered."
The disaster could also have a tremendous negative impact on the region's economy, which plays an important role nationally. A handful of local fishermen are still going out on their boats — but to no avail.
"For one week, we've caught nothing," one fisherman told VICE News. "It's like everything died."
Oil-coated plants are heated to extract the oil, which is then sold back to locals. (Photo by Gilles Bonugli Kali)
The area is home to many aquaculture operations, and, according to Sheikh Faridul Islam, president of Save the Sundarbans foundation, "the worst thing for the region's economy would be a decline in shrimp farming."
Despite the ramifications of the catastrophe, the government of Bangladesh has so far refused to declare an environmental state of emergency, and failed to deploy adequate resources to clean up the spill. Locals have taken on the lion's share of cleanup efforts, relying on makeshift resources — like fishing nets strung between trees — to collect oil.
A local fisherman-turned-oil-collector told VICE News that the authorities paid him to camouflage the extent of the damage. "I'm covering the ruined shoreline with fresh mud, before the media and international organizations show up," he said.
People haul the oil on improvised boats to a local collection site, where they exchange the toxic bounty for cash. At the collection site, an elderly man heated oil-soaked plants to extract the precious liquid. He said he planned to bury the waste in the ground.
A young boy cleaning up oil. (Photo by Gilles Bonugli Kali)
Locals sell the "recycled" oil back to the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation, which pays them 30 takas for a liter of oil. The company resells it for around 70 takas per liter.
"The government should give us more," aquaculture farmer Suman Ahmed said. "We are putting our health at risk. They should send protective gear — at least masks and gloves."
The Ministry of Shipping was not able to answer questions when contacted by VICE News.
According to bdnews24.com, Shajahan Khan, the shipping minister of Bangladesh, discussed the spill with reporters on December 13. "The government and the shipping ministry are not indifferent," Khan reportedly said. "We are taking various measures to solve the problem."
Khan was quoted as saying the government has formed three investigation committees and detained the ship that caused the spill. He also said nets and cloths would prevent the spill from spreading.
"Experts have confirmed to me that this won't cause serious damage," Khan said. "The damage would've been far greater if it was diesel or petrol instead of furnace oil."