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Bread basket, not black hole

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Rachel Salmon
WVoN co-editor 

Rumana Hashem  is one of a group of campaigners successfully fighting plans by a British company to dig a massive open cast mine on prime agricultural land in north western Bangladesh, which could displace nearly a quarter of a million people.

I spoke to her recently about the campaign and how she became involved.

 

 

 

 

Hashem first discovered in 2006 that Global Coal Management (GCM) planned to develop the mine, an area the size of Edinburgh, near the town of Phulbari in her native Bangladesh.

I wanted to find out how many people would prosper and what the mine would be used for,” she said.

She researched both sides of the argument; first, the company analysts who said the mine would produce 15m tonnes of coal a year, contribute billions to the economy and help the country meet its energy needs. 

They said that 50,000 people would be displaced over the course of its 35 year lifespan and that measures would be taken to address water depletion, noise and pollution.  GCM would build a new town to house the displaced.

And then she spoke to opponents, like the International Accountability Project (IAP), which said the project would lead to disaster. 

It estimated that water levels would fall by 15-25m a concern, as most local people use tube wells.

IAP claimed the project could damage the Sunderbans, a UN-protected mangrove forest, home to endangered species like the Royal Bengal tiger, as GCM planned to transport eight million tonnes of coal a year by barge, and build a reloading port just off the coast.

Eighty per cent of the coal would be exported.

An expert committee, established by the Bangladesh government in 2005, concluded the project broke laws and regulations prohibiting open cast mines of more than eight square kilometres and stipulating that licences should only be granted for a maximum of 10 years initially. 

In 1994, when the initial agreements were signed, tax on coal was 20 per cent, but in 1995 the government reduced this to six per cent, and GCM were granted an initial nine-year tax holiday.  No export duties would be paid.

The committee found that, given the number of leases and exploration licences held by GCM, and given the population density and predicted growth, the mine could displace up to 220,000 people.

It reported widespread local opposition, and was worried by claims that consultation forms had been printed in English, and believed some of the information put out by GCM to local communities was misleading.

Hashem travelled to Phulbari and the following day was interrogated by the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), an elite corps originally established to tackle crime and terrorism which, according to Human Rights Watch, has been responsible for the deaths of over 1,600 people since they were formed in 2004.

This made me more worried about the situation.  I wanted to find out why people were not allowed to enter the region,” she said.

On August 26, 2006 Hashem attended an 80,000-strong demonstration organised by the National Committee for the Protection of Oil Gas Mineral Resources Power and Ports.

The BDR were everywhere and they were the first to open fire. I believe they were advised by the company,” she said.

They tried to stop people joining the demonstration and said there would be violence. 

This gives us an indication that violence was being planned. 

Local people told me that they were being intimidated and company agents warned them that there would be serious violence,” she said.

Three people were shot and 200 injured. 

Since then groups opposed to the project have complained of mass arrests of demonstrators, beatings and interrogation.

In 2007 a local National Committee leader, SM Nuruzuman, claimed he was arrested and tortured, and its general secretary, Professor Anu Muhammad, said he had received abusive messages and at least one death threat from GCM investors.

The area around Phulbari is extremely fertile and densely populated,” he said.

It is also one of the few regions in Bangladesh that is safe from flooding and other natural catastrophes, and therefore plays a key role for the food security of the entire country.

The proposed ‘development’ project is merely a scheme to loot natural resources from a poor country for the rich.

We will not allow GCM Resources to turn a land of food for the people into a black hole for corporate profit.” 

Hashem said she was called a ‘door mat’ and a ‘bad omen’ by an investor in 2010, whilst picketing a meeting in London, and received threatening phone calls.

In October 2010, Hashem said she discovered a fire at her home and she and her husband were forced to move out for six months while the house was rebuilt.

She believes the fire was started deliberately and was linked to her opposition to the project.

Some experts, like geologist Mark Muller, believe open cast mining is unnecessary in Phulbari, and claim alternatives like Coal Bed Methane (CBM) and Underground Coal Gasification (UCG), are cheaper, quicker, cleaner and almost as efficient as mined coal.

The Bangladesh government is beginning to listen.

On January 14, in a speech to the Institute of Engineers, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, indicated she was against extracting coal in areas of high population density, and that it should be left in the ground for future generations while the country waited for new technology. 

But four days later Alamgir Kabir, chairman of the Bangladesh Power Development Board, invited tenders to help build four new coal-fired power plants.

He said the new plants would “initially utilise imported coal” but that “local coal will be utilised once the country starts extracting local coal significantly”.

On February 1, GCM reported a loss of £690,000 after tax in the last half of 2011, but chief executive Steve Bywater said the company had continued to meet with government officials to convince them of the project’s benefits.

“Because of the unique contribution that the project can make to the development of the electricity capacity of Bangladesh, we have confidence that it will ultimately be developed,” he said.

Professor Muhammad said the struggle was not yet over, but public opposition to open cast mining was so strong that any attempt to give a licence to GCM or any other company would be disastrous for the Bangladeshi government.  

It is the people’s victory.  Nevertheless, for obvious reasons, we should remain vigilant and active,” he said.

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