Case Study: Bangladesh 2006 – 2014

IssueAugust - September 2017
Comment by Ryan Leitner, Andres Cordero

Goal: To stop open-cast coal mining.

Phulbari is an important agricultural region in northwest Bangladesh that also contains a low-quality coal deposit. Several companies have proposed using open-cast (or open-pit) mining techniques in Phulbari, which would displace thousands of people (many of them indigenous people), destroy farmland and homes, and divert water sources to the mining process.

Australia-based mining company BHP Billiton, which discovered coal in Phulbari, sold its rights to the London-based ‘Asia Energy Corporation’ in 2005, after concluding that mining would be so destructive it would breach Australian law.

Asia Energy Corporation proposed a 36-year open-cast mine that would extract up to eight million tons of coal per year. The Bangladesh department of environment granted the project ‘environmental clearance for mining’ on 11 September 2005. The project then awaited government approval.

On 26 August 2006, 50,000 people marched in protest against the proposed mining project. The Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary organization, fired on the protesters and killed three people. Over 100 other protesters were injured.

General strike I

Two days later, protesters organised a national strike that down shut the country for four days. The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources and Ports ended their strike on 31 August when the government signed a six-point agreement which banned open-cast mining in Phulbari and excluded Asia Energy Corporation from the country.

A local leader of the national movement opposing the mine, Mr Nuruzuman, was publicly tortured by the Bangladesh military in February 2007. Asia Energy Corporation, which had fled the country, changed its name to Global Coal Management (GCM), with its Bangladesh subsidiary taking the name Asia Energy Corporation (Bangladesh), hereafter referred to as AEC (Bangladesh).

In August 2008, 110 organisations worldwide signed a letter to companies investing in the open-cast mine project calling on the companies to end their investment. On 8 October 2008, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays Bank and the Asian Development Bank sold their shares in GCM. AEC (Bangladesh) apparently re-opened its offices in Bangladesh, although the timing is unclear.

On 10 March 2009, the Bangladesh government’s energy division reported that they had lost the report of a government-formed expert committee. This committee had concluded that GCM’s agreement with the government was illegal, and that an open-cast mine in Phulbari would not be viable.

In October 2010, tens of thousands of protesters joined a seven-day, 250-mile march to protest against the Phulbari coal project.

On 28 February 2011, 2,000 protesters blockaded a highway in the Phulbari region and demanded that the government honor the six-point agreement. The government deployed its Rapid Action Battalion to intimidate protesters and guard GCM’s office. The Rapid Action Battalion has been denounced by international human rights organisations as a government death squad because of its routine use of torture and extra-judicial killings.

“Tens of thousands of protesters joined a seven-day, 250-mile march to protest against the open-cast coalmine”

On 5 May 2011, the National Committee reported that local anti-coal mine protesters, including women and children, were attacked by ‘some hooligans backed by the minister’.

On 7 May 2012, police attacked and beat demonstrators calling for a ban on open-cast mining and demanding renewable energy projects. 15 of the protesters were injured.

General strike II

On 23 November 2012, Bangladesh government authorities imposed Section 144, banning gatherings of more than four people indefinitely in an effort to stop the movement. Thousands protested in the streets of Phulbari, breaking through police barricades to take to the streets.

The campaigners declared a two-day general strike, halting trains, blocking roads, and closing businesses and schools. During the strike, protesters burned an effigy of Dan Mozena, the United States ambassador to Bangladesh. Mozena was chosen because in 2012 it became clear through Wikileaks that the United States had been lobbying the Bangladesh government to push the open-cast mine project through.

On 1 January 2013, protesters in Phulbari told AEC (Bangladesh) that if they did not vacate their offices by 30 March 2013, protesters would destroy the offices.

In January 2013, Polo Resources, the largest investor in the Phulbari coal project, announced that they were looking to sell their 30 percent stake in the project a month after protesters interrupted their December 2012 shareholders’ meeting to deliver coal to the company’s investors.

On 26 August 2013 activists held their annual Phulbari Day commemoration, marking the anniversary of the 2006 killings, with rallies and speeches from a range of organisations.

Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, conceded on 6 February 2014, saying: ‘Right now, we want to leave the issue of coal extraction to future technology, as food security and protecting the land of the farmers is the first priority.’

The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, and Ports seems to be preventing the development of the Phulbari coal project by maintaining a threat of action.