Phulbari town in Dinajpur district is burning in people’s anger and also in fire. The situation has turned from bad to worse. This is a consequence of the killing of at least five persons on 26 August during a massive protest of farmers, ethnic communities and those of the town against Asia Energy, a UK-based company. The foreign company has been exploring coal and intending to initiate an open cut mine in this northwestern corner of Bangladesh.
The demand for expulsion of the company from Phulbari and also from the country has become stronger after the killing on 26 August. The protesters set a deadline for the foreign company’s exit at 11:00 A.M. on 28 August. Given that Asia Energy’s employees were still there, the angry protesters burnt the information center of Asia Energy and ransacked its laboratory that stores samples of coal extracted from 150 drilling sites. Finding no way out, the Asia Energy staff then sealed their main office and left Phulbari in a roundabout way, viz., through Dinajpur, under police escort. The people also ransacked and burnt the houses of a number of people identified to be accomplices of Asia Energy.
The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port organized the protest against the open cut mining and seize of Asia Energy’s offices. Around 50,000 protesters from villages in the mine area and those of Phulbari town took to the streets and approached the offices of Asia Energy to demonstrate their “no” to the foreign company’s attempt of open cut mining. Hundreds of paramilitary forces—BDR, police and other security agencies—heavily guarded the offices of Asia Energy. It is reportedly the BDR that opened fire on the demonstrators, killing at least five people and injuring many others. This caused uproar among the protesters.
This is an unprecedented scenario at a time when Bangladesh is hoping for a major step forward in the mining industry and attracting Foreign Direct Investing (FDI). But the trouble has grown out of the method of mining, viz., open cut, requiring massive relocation of people. People in the mine footprint are dead against the open cut mining although the company has always set aside peoples’ discontent.
On 26 August the protesters including ethnic communities assembled at the Dhaka Morh (circle), the entrance of the Phulbari town. They had sticks in their hands. The Santals joined with their drums, bows and arrows. Led by the leaders of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port, the protesters began their march towards the offices of Asia Energy at about 3:30 P.M. On the way to the main office of the company, some stones were thrown at Asia Energy’s information center that is located in the middle of the town. The main part of the Phulbari town lies on the east side of Chhoto Jamuna river with a small bridge over it. The security forces put barricades at the bridge site. The leaders of the national committee talked to Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO), who according to Prof. Anu Muhammad, gave his words to move the Asia Energy out of the town.
According to eyewitness some protesters crossed the river. A rally also approached from the western side of the river. The protesters on the western side of the river actually came under massive gunshots from the BDR and teargas shells from the police. The bloodshed led to a seemingly unstoppable protest leading to a continued strike in Phulbari and the burning of houses of beneficiaries or accomplices of Asia Energy.
The home minister has asked for inquiry into the causes of peoples’ discontent in Phulbari. Newspapers on 27 August reported Asia Energy’s Chief Officer Mr. Garry Lye’s statement: “It is most unfortunate that unrepresentative outsiders have come to cause trouble in our community”. Actually Lye pointed his finger at the organizers of the protest and seize program.
Condemning what Lye says about the organizers, Md. Khorshed Alam Moti, the joint convener of the Phulbari Raksha Committee, said to this writer: “The people of Phulbari and others of the mine area spontaneously participated in the protest program on 26 August. No outsider came to Phulbari to cause trouble. We want to get rid of Asia Energy. We want Asia Energy’s immediate expulsion from our land.”
What has been happening in Phulbari is tragic and it is important that all concerned honestly look into the factors that has led to this catastrophic situation.
An Australian company, BPH, started the coal exploration in Phulbari area. The Bangladesh government signed a contract with BPH through an open tender. In 1998, the contract was transferred to Asia Energy. Asia Energy, after estimation of coal reserve, has submitted to the government a plan of operation. The government has already granted environment clearance to the company.
According to Asia Energy, 5,900 hectares or 59 sq. km. land area is required for the mine. The area covers more than a hundred villages of seven unions in four Upazilas—Phulbari, Birampur, Nawabganj and Parbatipur—and part of Phulbari Sadar Upazila, under Dinajpur district. Thousands of acres of cropland fall within its boundaries.
The area of Phulbari Thana Sadar that falls within the project area has brick-built houses, schools, colleges, tarmacked roads, railroads, business facilities and so forth. Outside the township lie vast crop fields, forest patches and plantations. Beneath the expanse of beautiful landscapes lies the 38m thick (on an average) coal fossilised over 270 million years. According to Asia Energy the coal reserve in this mine is 572 million tons. The company believes, if explored, more coal will be traced in the south of the present mine.
Who benefit and who lose from open pit mining?
Appointed by Asia Energy, GHD, an international organisation, prepared a report for the company that claims Bangladesh will receive benefits worth US$21 billion over the 30 years of the mine's lifetime. Of this, US$7.8 billion will come as a direct benefit and US$ 13.7 billion, as indirect or multiplier benefits. The mine itself and the coal-fired plant for production of electricity will contribute one percent per annum to the GDP of the country.
The inhabitants of the mine area complain that people living in other parts of the country do not realize their plight, nor do they foresee the disaster the open pit mining is likely to cause to this region.
"We heard there is a coal deposit in this area. But the people engaged by Asia Energy did not let us know that the method for mining would be open cut, which necessitates eviction and destruction of our houses, schools, colleges and all other establishments in the mine footprint. All of us, irrespective of party affiliations, are against it," said Md. Khurshid Alam Moti, leader of the Phulbari Raksha Committee. He is also the principal of Phulbari Women's Degree College and chairman of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in Phulbari.
According to Asia Energy that is in contract with Bangladesh government for exploration of coal, 40,000 people need to be relocated from the mine footprint. But according to Phulbari Raksha Committee that is composed of people from all parties at the local level contend the company’s estimate. “We understand that about 150,000 people of the mine area will be directly affected and 200,000 to 250,000 would be affected indirectly,” said Moti.
Nima Banik, a lecturer at Phulbari Women's Degree College says, "No matter wherever we are put, if we get evicted from our homes, we will lose our traditions, social organization and businesses. These losses are beyond compensation. Moreover, we do not trust Asia Energy. Its estimate is unfounded."
M. Anwarul Islam, Asia Energy's general manager (environment and community) disagreed and said, "We have always mentioned the idea of open pit. In Phulbari, there is no other option."
According to the company all the damages will be compensated and the condition of the inhabitants of the mine area will be better than before. However, the aura of distrust and the demand of the locals is clear: "We do not want open pit mining." From June 2005 the Phulbari Raksha Committee has been organising processions and meetings every Saturday in Phulbari in protest against it.
Asia Energy claims that Bangladesh has no risk in the Phulbari mine project. The company claims that Bangladesh will receive half of the total profit accrued from the mining operation. The profit includes 6 percent royalty, 45 percent corporate tax and 2.5 percent import duty. The other gains of Bangladesh as the company mentions will be "a new source of energy for the country, a new commodity for export, new industries, employment opportunities, regional development, poverty alleviation, growth of nascent industry, new rail and port infrastructure."
Professor Anu Muhammad's fear is: "It is Bangladesh where the coal has been found; and a foreign company will become its owner. There is no proper way to measure the actual benefit of Bangladesh and the price it would have to pay for it. What becomes clear is Bangladesh will have to buy its own coal from the company at an international price."
Impacts on environment
A serious concern of open pit mining is its environmental impacts. The method requires the mine area to be completely dewatered so that the hollow of the mine does not get immersed in water. Not an easy task. Large pumps are required to suck out underground water around the mine round-the-clock during the entire lifetime of the project. The impact on the already dry Barind Tract is obvious. Water level runs lower in Barind Tract during dry season and make it difficult for the tubewells to draw water. When dewatering starts for the mining, the shallow and deep tubewells will not draw enough water for farmers in the larger area near the mine.
Asia Energy's solution is to distribute the water pumped out among the farmers. It is an open question if the water distribution would be even-handed. The government and non-government organizations have been trying many options including tree plantation for many years now to prevent desertification in north Bengal. If dewatering in the mining area hastens the desertification process, pouring water above the ground remains a doubtful viable option for agricultural sustainability.
According to Asia Energy sources the average thickness of coal's layer in Phulbari is 38m. In order to reach the layer of the coal, overburden between 150 and 250m needs to be removed, leaving a thousand-foot deep hollow. Once used up, the hollow will be filled with earth and a new area will be dug out. The area filled up does not become useful in many years. According to a high official in Asia Energy, topsoil will be removed and preserved once the mining operation begins in a particular block. Topsoil will be brought back and spread on the top of the area filled in. But no one can say when the land becomes cultivable again. The other question is: will the company fill the hollow with the same care as it is done in the developed countries? Non-compliance of existing laws is a common practice in Bangladesh.
At the final stage of the mining operation, in about 30 years after the operation begins, Bangladesh will get a huge lake that according to the company will be filled up with fresh water providing a big source of water, fishery and recreation. But mining experts warn that the final hollow, after 30 years of digging and other activities, will contain toxic substances. It may not be realistic to envision this polluted lake becoming a source of fresh water.
Handling the other forms of environment pollution is also a challenge. There will be routine dynamite explosion inside the mine to break the rocks and the coal. Heavy machinery will be set up in and outside the mine. Heavy 240-ton trucks and trains will carry the coal causing noise pollution. Coal dust will be a major source of air pollution. If the enormous amount of polluted water generated from washing of the coal is not properly treated before it is dumped into surrounding water bodies, it will kill fish and other forms of life. Further, the earth through such deep digging and many types of pollution will lose all its micro-organisms. Air pollution from burning of coal to produce electricity is a big concern. Air polluting agents such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds (VOC), mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic will contaminate earth, water, plants and animals.
Eliminating pollutants is extremely difficult. Asia Energy expects to keep the pollution within a tolerable level. However, there is a fear that the company will not adopt adequate measures to mitigate pollution because these involve much effort and cash.
Transportation of the coal is another concern. In order for marketing, the coal will be carried to the deep seaport through the Sundarbans. New seaport and railroads need to be built for this. On the positive end, this will create employment and bring in revenue, but it also adversely affects the environment of the Sundarbans (the largest mangrove forest on earth). The noise and water pollution created by the Mongla Port has already become a threat to the animals, plants and other life forms in the mangrove forest. The added transportation over the 30 years of the mine's lifetime will increase threats to the Sundarbans.
The environment and social impact assessment (EIA and SIA) of the Phulbari Coal Project has already been carried out and approved by the Department of Environment of Bangladesh government. Three hundred consultants of several international and national companies, some Bangladeshi environmental organizations and individuals have done the EIA and SIA. They have produced 2,600-page reports after 18 months of work. This is where many question if the EIA and SIA commissioned by the same company that will extract the coal have been impartial. Asia Energy claims it will do all that is needed for the protection of environment and social harmony.
Although the people of mine area and their supporters stand against the open pit project, they are not against extraction of the coal in general. Their understanding is that the ownership of the coal and fate of the affected people just cannot be handed down to a foreign company. They suggest waiting until the country develops its own mining expertise and technology. "We may give our consent when the country will be able to mine the coal resource with our own technology," said Principal Moti. There are many others whose voices join with Principal Moti's.
Asia Energy had turned down the demand of the Phulbari people to wait until Bangladesh builds its own expertise and mining technology. It says that by the time Bangladesh has it own mining expertise and resources, the fossil fuel may not be required any longer. The company claims that it is high time to extract the coal. Now the local communities have contested the company with their blood.
The past week has been a week of violence, expression of anger and mistrust of the people of Phulbari town and the mine area. All that has happened there has shaken the whole nation. The whole world has also looked at Bangladesh with concern and curiosity. It is difficult to predict how Phulbari will return to normal life. Application of the state security forces against the people has caused uproar in their minds. They send a very strong message to the state agencies and the company that it is their land that contains 270 million year old coal. It is them who decide if the resource is to be shared in the best interest of the community and the nation. It is the state that must protect the land and the communities. It was certainly a fatal mistake to attempt to resolve a serious human problem with bullets and teargas. If the state of Bangladesh is really for the people, its functionaries must bow before the people’s power and salute their courage. If that happens, it will be a step forward for providing political protection to those who need it most.