Every year since 2006, people of Bangladesh observe the 26th of August as ‘Phulbari Day’. This is a day to remember people’s resistance against an open pit mining project proposed by Asia Energy; to celebrate people’s power and people’s resistance against plunder and destruction; a challenge against anti-people ‘development’ paradigm to assert new direction for peoples’ sustained welfare and development.
The Project: From BHP to Asia Energy
Bangladesh government had originally awarded an exploration license for Phulbari to the Australian company BHP Minerals in 1994 and discovered Phulbari coalmine. But they did not continue. In 1997, Asia Energy (AEC) was formed mysteriously and in 1998 BHP transferred its license to this newly formed company. The question why BHP, after discovering the Phulbari mine, withdrew from this huge profit opportunity is a very crucial one.
I found the answer when I met a former consultant of BHP, Nazrul Islam, at a seminar in Sydney, Australia. He had been involved in the whole process of BHP entry, discovery and departure. Later he wrote about it too. He explained, ‘BHP was interested in open-cut mining on consideration of several factors, profit and its own expertise. But BHP could not locate a shallow coal deposit around 100m depth; the Phulbari deposit is much deeper between 150m and 260m. BHP knew very well that an open-cut mine at such depth would need multi-dimensional long-term environmental studies besides tackling geological and engineering problems. Considering flood-prone deltaic region having numerous rivers with heavy monsoon rainfall, it is easy to understand that it would be rather impossible to pass through environmental regulations of any country, not to speak of comparable Australian standards.’
Nazrul further pointed out, ‘BHP did not want to create another environmental disaster like Ok-Tedi Copper Mine in Papua New Guinea where it had to quickly abandon the mine and paid hefty compensation to the surrounding inhabitants. The poisonous mine water seepages contaminated the nearby river and destroyed everything downstream. It is obvious that open-cut coal mining in Bangladesh is far more complex’.
Yes, this explains the causes behind BHP’s departure. But the questions that how Asia Energy was quickly formed and why a reputed company like BHP transferred its license to this inexperienced unknown company, and moreover how the government of Bangladesh could recommend this transfer, still remain to be answered. Nazrul knew about license transfer to AEC, and he insisted that, ‘a new company like AEC that does not have any mining expertise, Bangladesh cannot afford the luxury to take that sort of a gamble.’
Asia Energy planned for 15 million tons of coal extraction yearly, 75-80 per cent of the coal to be exported through Sundarban mangrove forest against only 6 per cent royalty for Bangladesh. An expert committee was formed by the then government to examine the development plan submitted by AEC. The committee submitted their report in September 2006. It was headed by Dr. Nurul Islam, a senior Professor of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). After long examination and critical analysis the committee rejected the project and termed it as legally flawed, environmentally disastrous and economically harming national interest. Two years later, mining expert Roger Moody in his study ‘Phulbari coal: a Perilous project’ examined company’s environment impact assessment (EIA). On the other hand, Jennifer Kalafut, a rehabilitation expert, studied company’s rehabilitation plan and published her analysis and findings in ‘Phulbari Coal Project: A Displacement Disaster in the Name of Development’. Both of these reports also showed in details how the company’s plans and reports were full of ambiguity, misinformation, contradiction and gaps; in both assessments whole project was fraudulent to say the least. All these revealing studies forced ADB to pull out from the project in 2008.
Peoples resistance and Phulbari Agreement
In fact, people’s assessment of the project was correct from the very beginning before experts spoke out. Therefore it was not a surprise that the project faced huge resistance first by local community, then by national alliance for safeguarding national interest and environment. When the company continued their activities and tried to create support base by bribing, cheating and using thugs then people reacted sharply. And a ‘gherao’ (siege) of the Asia Energy field office on 26 August 2006 in Phulbari was declared.
From the morning on that day, processions came streaming into the town, gathered at the Phulbari Dhaka moar and GM Pilot High School. A procession of more than 80 thousand women, men, Bangalee and indigenous people marched towards the Asia Energy office there around 3 pm. Police and the then BDR, para military force, obstructed them on the way at the bridge over Choto Jomuna River after Nimtala corner. After getting assurance from the district administration about withdrawal of Asia Energy from the area, the leaders declared end of the programme with relevant ultimatum. After few moments, BDR fired on the protesters.
Three young boys– Tariqul, Al-Amin and Salekin– were killed on the spot and hundreds were injured, 50 were bullet-hit, and others injured in baton charge when law enforcers turned brutal on the agitators who joined the gathering. It was cold-blooded murder in favour of the Asia Energy to terrorise agitating people. Section 144 was declared in the area. But people did not stop.
The protestors called a strike for an indefinite period. Roads and rail routes to and from Phulbari were blocked. Women took the lead from 27 August and made a historic uprising. Asia Energy officials fled from the area, BDR were withdrawn on August 28. Protestors were in control of all the six thanas and the town. People all over the country including capital city Dhaka expressed their solidarity by different means. National Committee declared countrywide strike on 30 August, 2006.
After days of strikes, protest, demonstrations and blockades, the then BNP-led government was compelled to sign an agreement on August 30. ‘Phulbari Agreement’ (as it is known) was signed between the government of Bangladesh and the people (National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Port and Power represented the people.) The main points of the agreement were:
1. ‘Phulbari coal project will be scrapped and Asia energy will be ousted from the country.’
2. ‘No open pit mining will be allowed anywhere in the country’.
3. ‘Mining method and other steps for coal development and utilization will be taken after proper consultation with the people, keeping national interest in tact’.
The then opposition leader and the present Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Phulbari on September 4, 2006, and extended her full support to the agreement. She also made strong commitment to implement this agreement if people allow her to form government. Despite this commitment, the agreement has yet to be implemented. On the contrary, the company lobbyists have been busy in creating support base for the project by spending money earned from the fraudulent share business.
Asia Energy changed its name to Global Coal Management (GCM) after August-2006 bloodshed and uprising. It had been incorporated in London Stock Exchange Alternative Investment Market (AIM). It is the less regulated market as Wikipedia describes it as a ‘sub-market of the London Stock Exchange, allowing smaller companies to float shares with a more flexible regulatory system than is applicable to the main market. ..’
Experts opinion against open pit mining
The latest ‘expert committee’ was formed in September 2011. The main report of the committee (date shown January 2012) had following observations (italic mine) on open pit mining in Bangladesh:
“In case of coal reserves in Bangladesh it is a fact that open pit mining could increase the productivity of the mine manifold making it extremely attractive for the investors, but damage to the environments as well as irreparable loss to the social and ecological spheres could be far more than the apparent benefit from the increased output of coal. Though scientifically it can be argued that strip mining will enable to use land after a few years; but in practice it may be impossible to restore the land to its original fertility once the top soil has been removed.” (Page 15)
“Damages resulting from the open pit mining may be too much to be accepted. Apparent gain from the open pit mining may in fact prove to be not justified if all the future factors are cautiously discounted.” (Page 15)
“Dewatering of the UDT aquifer to ensure safe mining conditions will require extraction of ground water over the whole of mine life. Ground water flows from a system of high yielding bores surrounding the mine of up to 7500 l/s will be required and there will be regional drawdown impacts.” (P. 28)
“The loss in agricultural products due to coal mining by open pit mining could be such that the prospect of adequate food grain production in the country may be at stake. Under such circumstances the coal mining may not be the option for supplying energy to the country.” (p. 44)
“Open pit mining is less costly but more damaging for environment. It requires large area for dumping overburdens. According to estimate, the ratio of overburdens and coal is 25:1 that is 25 metric tons of overburdens would have to be removed for one metric ton of coal. This underground predominantly pollutants will be dumped in the poor subsistence agricultural plots surrounding rivers, water bodies or open marshy lands. The pollutants will not only contaminate the surrounding water bodies but the rivers, canals and water bodies of entire lower riparian.” (p. 49)
Implementation of Phulbari Agreement must be the first step
Despite million-dollar lobbying for billion-dollar mine, the cases against Phulbari open pit mine project by Asia Energy getting stronger. Phulbari agreement, a historic document of socio-political contract, remains as people’s verdict written by blood and endorsed by two major political alliances of the country. In addition to that, independent experts from home and abroad have repeatedly rejected open pit project at Phulbari as technically unfeasible, environmentally catastrophic, socially and economically disastrous.
Bangladesh needs to follow a different direction to get rid of corporate hegemony over natural resources, change policies of sacrificing people’s interest for giving benefit to a few, and find the way to solve power and energy crisis in a sustainable way. Full implementation of Phulbari agreement is a must as a first step in that direction. The government of Bangladesh and all the relevant people must note that people in no way will allow them to destroy and plunder the country this way. The shareholders must quit this fraudulent project of GCM to save their money, the government must implement Phulbari agreement to earn credibility; the mercenaries must stop lobbying for plunderers. People have given their lives, sustained injury. Still they are morally strong, united and vigilant to protect resources of this country.
Anu Muhammad is a teacher, economist, researcher and member secretary of Oil Gas Protection Committee.