Saturday, December 22, 2007

Urgent Appeal by World Organization against Torture: Risk of Violent Suppression of Public Opposition to the Phulbari Coal Mine Project



Your action is called for to suspend the Phulbari Project until community concerns are met

OMCT is concerned that police and security forces may again employ violence to deal with public opposition to the Phulbari open-pit mining project

The International Secretariat of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), on the basis of reliable information received, expresses its concern that communities affected by the proposed Phulbari open-pit coal mine in the Dinajpur District of Bangladesh, have been neither adequately consulted not fully informed regarding this significant project.[1] Estimates put the number of people affected by the mine at anything between 50,000 and 500,000, including a number of indigenous communities. Many of these affected will be forced to leave their homes and land.

A public demonstration against the mine in August 2006 saw at least five persons killed and fifty others injured by the police and personnel of the Bangladesh Rifles. OMCT expresses its serious concern that further violence, ill-treatment and even deaths may ensue if local communities again seek to give public expression to their opposition.

To prevent further human right violations, and having regard to the strong local opposition to the project, OMCT calls upon the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to instigate a thorough independent investigation into the human and environmental impact of the Phulbari coal mine project, ensuring the full and informed participation of all local communities, to make the findings of this investigation available in a public report and to abide by the recommendations of this report. It also calls for the Government to lift the restrictions on public demonstrations imposed under emergency rule and take all necessary steps to prevent future episodes of violence by police and security forces against persons defending their human rights.

OMCT calls upon GCM Resources Plc (GCM) - the company in charge of the Phulbari project - to suspend its activities in this area until this investigation has been conducted and to abide by the recommendations resulting from this investigation. It also calls upopn GMC to fully respect the land rights, resources and livelihoods of all local communities affected by any subsequent mining activity and provide fair and adequate compensation wherever appropriate.

Finally, OMCT calls upon UBS, RAB Capital and Barclays, all of which have significant financial interest in GCM, to use their influence to ensure that the company abides by the recommendations issuing from the independent investigation and to make certain that it complies fully with national laws and international human rights standards.

The Phulbari coal mine project

The Phulbari coal deposit, in the Dinajpur District of Bangladesh, was discovered during the second half of the 1990s by the Australian mining company BHP. In 1998, the Government of Bangladesh awarded the licensing agreement for mining the deposit to the Asia Energy Corporation (Bangladesh) Pty Ltd,[2] a wholly-owned subsidiary of British-registered Global Coal Management Resources Plc. (GCM). The Phulbari mine is expected to lead to a 1 per cent increase in the gross domestic product of Bangladesh over the next 30 years, bringing more that US$ 21 billion to the Bangladeshi economy.[3] The Asian Development Bank is scheduled to approve a US$100 million private sector loan and a US$200 million political risk guarantee in favour of the Phulbari project on the basis of environmental and social impact studies included in a Definitive Feasibility Study carried out since April 2004.[4]

The Phulbari project is an open-pit mine.[5] In order to access the coal seams, it is reported that between 140 and 300 metres of earth will need to be removed, affecting an area of 59 km2. In terms of the human impact of the project, there are differing views. According to estimates from GCM, the mining company involved, the project will affect approximately 50,000 people (a total of some 12,000 households), including some 2,200 indigenous people. Of this total, some 43,000 will be displaced from their homes and land by the mine. This number will be higher if the full-scale expansion plans for the mine are carried out. On the other hand, according to the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Electricity and Ports, the number of people potentially affected could be as many as 470,000, including indigenous peoples belonging to Santhal, Munda and Mahali tribes, who occupy some 100 villages in Phulbari and surrounding sub-districts.[6]

In terms of the impact upon community structures, it is reported that the project will involve the closure of 50 educational institutions, including six colleges and 18 madrasas,[7] as well as 171 mosques, 13 temples and other religious establishments.[8] The mine will also have a significant environmental impact due to the considerable waste material produced in the extraction process. This in turn will have serious implications for the livelihood and, potentially, the health of local communities: the area around Phulbari is one of the most productive agricultural zones in Bangladesh, and the project will not only destroy productive farmland, but also cause the diversion of the Choto Jamuna River from its natural course. According to Professor Anu Muhammad in the Faculty of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh, studies in other countries have shown that rivers as far as 160km away from an open-pit mine can remain polluted for three decades as a result of the waste generated. He concludes that "in a country like Bangladesh, with hundreds of small rivers linked like a huge net, polluted water can travel long beyond the mining area."[9] Despite these concerns, on 11 September 2005, the Bangladeshi Department of Environment approved the Environmental Impact Assessment Report prepared by the Asia Energy Corporation and granted environmental clearance for the mining operation.[10]

In order to gain the consent for the project from local communities, Asia Energy reportedly distributed colour televisions, cash, cloths and blankets to affected populations.[11] Furthermore, Asia Energy also reportedly refused to be bound by the 1894 Land Acquisition Act which regulates land acquisition and/or expropriation by the Government, and demanded the adoption of special laws in order to avoid the obligation to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of the affected communities.[12]

On 31 August 2006, five days after large and violent demonstrations against the Phulbari project, the Junior Minister for Food and Relief declared that the Government had revoked all existing agreements with Asia Energy and that a moratorium had been imposed on all open-pit mining in Bangladesh. On the same day, Asia Energy declared that it had received no official communication to that effect, and that the position of the Government remained to be clarified.[13] In practice, coal mining remains an important element in Bangladesh’s development strategy: on 17 November 2007, the Coal Policy Review Committee adopted a proposal encouraging partnerships between the Government and foreign firms engaged in mining in order to promote investment in and develop of the coal sector. The Committee also suggested strengthening the existing Bureau of Mineral Development so that it could deal more efficiently with foreign companies in leasing transactions and indicated its intention to establish coal-based power plants in rural areas.[14]

Local resistance to the project and violence against protesters

“What will happen to us if we are forced to move from here? What will happen to our livelihoods? I don't want us to live like this. Our mosques and holy places and the places we were born will be destroyed. What will happen to the graveyards of our ancestors?”
75-year-old man, resident of Phulbari sub-district[15]

Resistance to the proposed Phulbari project is widespread in the areas. On 26 August 2006, an estimated 50 to 100,000 demonstrators, mainly farmers and indigenous people, protested against the project.[16] At least five demonstrators were killed and about fifty others reportedly injured and taken to hospital after the police and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) opened fire on demonstrators.[17] The exact death toll as a result of the shooting remains unclear, and may be as many as ten - it was reported that the BDR dumped some of the dead bodies.[18] Furthermore, the Bangaldeshi Daily Star newspaper reported that, according to eye-witnesses, BDR personnel threatened Magistrate Abdul Aziz with a gun in order to make him sign the authorization to open fire on the protesters.[19] Neither the Government nor the Asia Energy Corporation have taken any responsibility for these events.

Under the Emergency Rule declared by Bangladesh’s military government in January 2007, fundamental civil rights have been suspended and public protest banned.[20] These Emergency Rules effectively remove the possibility of the populations affected by the Phulbari mine engaging in peaceful protest, and OMCT expresses its strong concern that, should such protest nevertheless take place, they will be met with further and possibly more extreme violence on the part of the police and security forces.

Despite the violent suppression of public protest, resistance to the project remains high. On 15 December 2007, representatives of the sub-districts of Phulbari and neighbouring Birampur, Nababganj and Parbatipur wrote to the president and executive Directors of the Asian Development Bank expressing their concern that the project will “increase the poverty of the local population as well as cause environmental disaster”.[21] In this letter they claim that the social impact analysis carried out misrepresented the nature of public consultations around the project and that consultations emphasised the potential benefits of the project while failing to provide information on the negative impact. Furthermore, the community representatives express concern that only minimal information was provided in Bengali regarding the environmental impact of the project and that, to their knowledge, the environmental impact assessment has been neither translated nor summarised in the local language. They also underline that other media must be employed to communicate with a population of which approximately 60 per cent is illiterate. Additionally, they express serious concerns that land compensation and resettlement plans are insufficient to meet the losses likely to be incurred by local populations as a result of the mine, and that Asia Energy/GMC’s claim that 50,000 persons will be directly affected (and hence entitled to compensation) is a significant underestimation.

Economic Social and Cultural Rights

Bangladesh acceded to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on 5 October 1998, and consequently the Government of Bangladesh has the duty to ensure the protection, promotion and enjoyment of these rights for all its citizens. The Phulbari mine project jeopardises the human rights of thousands of people due to the mass evictions and destruction of agricultural land it will require and to the pollution that will result from the extraction activities. In particular, OMCT is concerned that the mine will seriously compromise the rights to health and to an adequate standard of living (including access to housing, land, adequate food and clean water) of those affected.[22]

OMCT also wishes to underline the comments of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, who has expressed his concerns that the resources of indigenous communities are being appropriated and utilised, without prior consent, by powerful economic consortia, and that this “is currently one of the most controversial issues involving indigenous people, the State, and private enterprises, and often also the international financial institutions.”[23] In addition, the recent UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples' Rights states that, “indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.”[24]

The role of financial investors

According to the information received, UBS, RAB Capital and Barclays financial institutions all have an interest in GCM, the sole owner of the Asia Energy Corporation and the Phulbari Coal Project. In particular, UBS is the second largest listed shareholder, owning 11.39% of GCM.[25]

OMCT regrets the lack of transparency demonstrated by UBS in responding to civil society queries regarding its involvement in the Phulbari project. In response to questions on its position, the Bank denied that it had any strategic interest in the company and, noting that “it does not comment on potential or specific client relations or transactions or its investments in any particular company” indicated that its purchase of GCM shares “may or may not” have been carried out on behalf of a third party or parties.[26] OMCT calls upon UBS, as a leading financial institution operating in the global market, to lead by example in establishing a more transparent system of accountability, assessing the human rights and environmental impact of potential investments and assuming responsibility for investments in activities that breach international law and violate human rights.

Requested actions: Please write to the Government of Bangladesh asking it to:

Instigate a thorough independent investigation into the human and environmental impact of the Phulbari coal mine project, ensuring the full and informed participation of all local communities. Make the findings of this investigation available in a public report (including appropriate language versions) and abide by the recommendations of this report. Request assistance from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to help ensure that the investigation is in conformity with international standards.

Impose a moratorium on any other open-pit mining in Bangladesh, as initially announced on 31 August 2006, until the full impact on human rights and the environment of this activity has been assessed.

Fully respect international human rights standards in any subsequent mining activity at Phulbari or elsewhere. This includes engaging in meaningful prior consultation with affected populations, ensuring that they are fully informed of the project proposals and their own rights in this regard, and providing fair and adequate compensation for loss of land, housing or livelihood where displacement is unavoidable. Ensure in all such cases an adequate and appropriate resettlement programme.
Ensure that the proposed coal policy review strictly adheres to international human rights standards and to international principles relating to forced evictions and indigenous peoples.

Lift the restrictions on public demonstrations imposed under emergency rule and take all necessary steps to prevent future episodes of violence by police and security forces against persons defending their human rights.

Please write to GCM Resources Plc asking it to:

Suspend activities in Phulbari until a thorough, independent and fully-consultative investigation into the proposed project’s human and environmental impact has been conducted and abide by the recommendations resulting from this investigation.
Fully respect the land rights, resources and livelihood of all local communities affected by any subsequent mining activity, and provide fair and adequate compensation wherever appropriate.

Take all necessary measures to minimise the environmental impact of mining activities and avoid the pollution of watercourses.

Comply fully with national laws and international human rights standards in all aspects of its activities, in particular as regards the adverse effects of these activities on indigenous and local communities. Only carry out operations subsequent to a full human rights impact assessment, and having fulfilled, inter alia, the legal requirement to engage in meaningful prior consultation with persons affected.

Please write to UBS, RAB Capital and Barclays asking them to:

Call for a thorough independent investigation into the human and environmental impact of the Phulbari coal mine project with the meaningful input of local communities.

Use their financial influence in GCM Resources Plc. to ensure that the company abides by the recommendations issuing from the independent investigation and to make certain that it complies fully with national laws and international human rights standards.

Carefully evaluate the impact of their current investments on the enjoyment of human rights around the world, and include a clear human rights impact assessment in future investment decisions. Promote greater transparency in their financial transactions.

Please write to the Asian Development Bank asking it to:

Recognise the discontent of the majority of the local population at the manner in which the preparatory phases of the Phulbari project have been conducted and insist on the production of a comprehensive human rights and environmental impact study with the full and informed participation of all local communities as a fundamental condition for financial support. Continue to monitor the human rights situation in Phulbari and surrounding sub-districts should the project be approved.

OMCT also asks the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, the UN Special Representative on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, and the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing to monitor closely developments as regards the Phulbari coal mine project.

List of addresses

Government of Bangladesh and other Bangladeshi institutions

Cabinet of the Government of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh,

Cabinet Division,

Building No. 1, Room No. 301,

Bangladesh Secretariat,



Tel.: 88-02-7162099

Fax: 88-02-7160656

Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed,

Chief Adviser Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh,

Office of the Chief Advisor,

Tejgaon, Dhaka,


Tel: +880 2 8828160-79, 9888677

Fax: +880 2 8113244 or 3243 or 1015 or 1490

Barrister Moinul Hossain,

Adviser, Ministry of Law, Justice & Parliamentary Affairs,

Bangladesh Secretariat,



Tel.: +88-02-7160627

Fax: +88-02-7168557

Mr. Mohammad Ruhul Amin,

Chief Justice,

Supreme Court of Bangladesh,

Supreme Court Building,

Ramna, Dhaka-1000


Fax: +880 2 9565058

Barrister Fida M Kamal,

Attorney General of Bangladesh,

Office of the Attorney General Supreme Court Building,

Ramna, Dhaka-1000,


Tel: +880 2 9562868

Fax: +880 2 9561568

Mr. Nur Mohammad,

Inspector General of Police (IGP),

Bangladesh Police,

Police Headquarters' Fulbaria,



Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of Bangladesh to the United Nations in Geneva, 65 rue de Lausanne,

1202 Geneva,


Fax: +41 22 738 46 16,


Embassy of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in Brussels,

29-31 rue J. Jordaens,

1000 Brussels,


Fax: +32 2 646 59 98;


Please also write to the Indian Embassy in your country.

The Mining Company

GCM Resources Plc,

2nd Floor, Foxglove House,

166 – 168 Piccadilly,

London, W1J 9EF,

United Kingdom,

Tel.: + 44 (0)20 7290 1630

Fax: + 44 (0)20 7290 1631


Financial Interests

Mr. Marcel Ospel,

Chairman, UBS AG,

Bahnhofstrasse 45,

8001 Z├╝rich


RAB Capital,

1 Adam Street,

London, WC2N 6LE,

United Kingdom.

Te.l: 0870 702 0000

Fax: 0870 703 6101


1 Churchill Place,

London, E14 5HP

United Kingdom.

The Asian Development Bank

The President and Executive Directors,

Asian Development Bank,

P.O. Box 789,

0980 Manila,


Tel.: + 632 632 4444

Fax: + 632 636 2444


Information on action taken and follow-up

OMCT would appreciate receiving information on any action taken in relation to the matters dealt with in this Action File so that it might be shared with OMCT’s network and others interested in this issue. Please quote the code of this appeal on the cover page in contacting us. ***

Geneva, 21 December, 2007

W o r l d O r g a n i s a t i o n A g a i n s t T o r t u r e

P.O. Box 21 - 1211 Geneva 8


Tel.: 0041/22 809 49 39 / Fax: 0041/22 809 49 29

E-mail: / Web:

[1] Thanks to BanglaPraxis for support in preparing this appeal.

[2] Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network,

[3]BBC News: Bangladesh coal divides region,

[4] See Asian Development Bank – Projects,

[5] Open-pit mines are also known as opencast mines. Both terms refer to the extraction of rocks or minerals by excavating earth to create pits rather than sinking shafts and digging tunnels.

[6] The Daily Star: Rehabilitation issue makes it a tough task,

[7] the Arabic term for “schools”.

[8]The Daily Star: Rehabilitation issue makes it a tough task,

[9] BBC News: Bangladesh coal divides region,

[10] Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network,

[11]The Daily Star: Cancellation of Phulbari Coal Project demanded,

[12] Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network,

[13] Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network,

[14]Government Prime Role Recommended in Coal Mining:

[15] BBC News: Bangladesh coal divides region,

[16]Bangladesh News - Phulbari Coalmine Killing, 28 August 2006,

[17]The people were identified as: Tariqul Islam (24 years-old), Ahsan Habib (35), Osman (24), Raju (8) and Chunnu. Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network,

[18]Bangladesh News: Phulbari Coalmine Killing, 28 August 2006

[19]The Daily Star: Magistrate forced to give firing order,


[21] see “Phulbari communities write to ADB President and Executive Directors”,

[22] The Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement prepared by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing clearly define forced evictions as a violation of human rights, Basic principles and guidelines on development-based evictions and displacement, A/HRC/4/18 5 February 2007

[23] A/HRC/4/32, 27 February 2007

[24] UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - Article 10,

[25] as of 15 November, 2007

[26] see

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Phulbari Communities Write to ADB President and Executive Directors

December 15, 2007

President and Executive Directors
Asian Development Bank
Manila, Phillipines

Dear Mr. President,

We are writing to you on behalf of the people of Phulbari, Birampur, Nababganj and Parbatipur upazillas (subdistricts), Bangladesh to request Asian Development Bank (ADB) to remove its support of investment and political risk guarantee for the Phulbari Coal Mine Project. The ADB offers loans in the name of reducing poverty, but if realized, we believe that this project will increase the poverty of the local population as well as cause environmental disaster. The ADB will be helping Asia Energy, a private subsidiary of a UK owned corporation, in violating ADBs own policies regarding public disclosure and subsequently its environmental and social safeguards, Bangladesh laws and condoning internationally recognized human rights violations associated with this project. We have also learned that the planned project violates ADB’s own energy policy.

We address each of our concerns in turn and request that you take them with utmost seriousness.

1) Misrepresentation of Community Support in ADB document

Realizing that “good governance”, “transparency” and “accountability” are major tenets of your organisation, you should know that Asia Energy documents approved by you misrepresent facts as we have experienced them. For instance, the SEIA misrepresents the nature of public consultations held around this project and claims for “broad support” for the project. This is done not only through what the document claims but also by what it omits.

For the record, the vast majority of the Phulbari area communities were open to consultation up to January and February 2005 when little was revealed by Asia Energy about the technicalities and impacts of the mine—the fact that it would be an open pit mine. Up to that point, only promises were made about the benefits of the mine to the people. No negative impact of such technology was mentioned.

Once we educated ourselves on the fact that Asia Energy planned to have an open pit mine in the area that would impact large number of hectares, lead to de-watering, destruction of farming and other long term and short term consequences of the project, there has been clear and widespread opposition to the mine.

Land compensation and resettlement for the vast majority of the people in the area will not result in people being better off or even the same as before the project. The costs of destroying the land, our environment and thus our livelihoods are far greater than what a compensation package could give us.

While it is true that a handful of people have been in favor of the project, any attempt to state that the project has support from the citizens of the four upazillas has no factual basis. On August 26, 2006, this opposition was expressed by a peaceful march of close to 100,000 people from Phulbari and its adjacent areas demanding that Asia Energy leave Phulbari. Sadly, this march ended with the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) shooting into the crowd, with the instigation from Asia Energy and its brokers (dalals) of killing three people and injuring more than 200. Several articles and upcoming documentaries on this incident can be shared with you.

Some specific examples of the misrepresentation of facts in the ADB approved SEIA:

• The SEIA highlights two consultations (22 March and 7 Sept 2005) that supposedly represented local opinions; however, it fails to note that in July-August 2005, Phulbari Municipal Chairperson Shahjahan Ali Sarkar, on behalf of the municipality council, withdrew the “no objection” letter to the mine.

• The SEIA says that the information center has “an average of 20 people” visiting per day and that 80% of them have written “in support of the project.” The fact is that anyone entering the visitor’s center had to sign the book and this fact did not indicate support of the project. Secondly, many of those people listed as “supporting” the project were not from the area and some do not even exist! The ADB should not take these claims by Asia Energy as prima facie without verifying the truth on the ground.

• We know from certain NGO representatives that they have been associated with such consultations by Asia Energy claims, though in reality, they were never present. We are happy to discuss this with you in detail and provide contacts of these individuals. You should also know that several people of the communities have been either bribed or intimidated into attending these meetings.

2) EIA-related Documents did not exist in Appropriate Form or Language

• Potential project affected people have been given minimal information in Bengali about environmental and social impacts associated with the mine. Project information mainly consists of propaganda by the company in the form of brochures. We learned that only recently have they opened up a website in Bengali.

• We are unaware of any EIA having been translated or even summarized in the local language. This is in spite of the fact that about 60% of the population is illiterate in the area, and the majority of the literate population do not have internet access or adequate knowledge of English to process such information.

• We have been informed that information and a consultation should have been provided to us, as project affected people, when the EIA fieldwork began and when the draft was completed, in the appropriate local language and form. However, the majority of people in the area have no idea whether such consultations took place and who was present and whether documentation/information was provided in a manner that would enable input. The SEIA also does not provide this information.

• We believe that these issues are in direct violation of both your public communications policy and your policy on environmental safeguards.

3) Involuntary Resettlement Plans and Indigenous People’s Plan

• Given Asia Energy’s misrepresentations about consultations and opinions about the mine, the mistrust that has been generated by the company with the people of the area, it is highly unlikely that the company’s draft plans on these issues will be accepted by affected communities. There has never been any translation and availability of such material in an appropriate form or language, though we came to learn that such plans have been available on the Asia Energy website for months.

• There are serious issues of contention about whom we consider “affected” people. We do not accept that approximately 50,000 people would be affected by the project. Based on our census of number of families in each neighborhood, we believe that this number will range somewhere from 200,000 to 500,000.

• The population density in the area (4,245 people/sq. km) is extremely high combined with immense value of the land given that it is extremely rich in arable land, livestock, fisheries and forestry.

• Moreover, the communal harmony between the indigenous people and the Bengalis as well as different religious groups that has long existed in the area was threatened by the dubious activities of the company. On August 26, 2006, however, people from various religious and ethnic groups came together against such conspiracies.

4) Violation of Bangladesh Laws

Asia Energy’s contract with Bangladesh violates laws of the country. If ADB endorses this project, it will essentially endorse these violations of national law. For instance,

• Mines and Minerals Rules (MMR) of 1968 (amended in 1987 and 1989) stipulates 20% royalty on coal and other minerals; however Asia Energy negotiated a 6% royalty deal.

• The government did not officially endorse the original BHP contract in 1998 through a “gazette notification” and thus the contract transfer to Asia Energy also remains illegal

• According to the MMR 1968, Asia Energy was required to deposit three percent of the total value of investment as a Bank Guarantee, but failed to do so.

• Similary, clause 41 of MMR 1968 allows only 400 hectares for open-pit mining, but the Asia Energy project is for 5,900 acres.

• Clause 43 of the Rules allows for ten year leases with extension based on review. However, Asia Energy has been allowed a 35 year mining lease.

• Thus as it stands, Asia Energy has no legal basis as a project sponsor in Bangladesh on Phulbari. Finally, while ADB supports “competitive bidding” in contracts, this private sector project has not been a result of competitive bidding but a simple takeover from BHP.

5) ADB’s violation of its Energy Policy

We have also been informed that the ADB is not allowed to fund coal projects that are not specifically for power plants. Phulbari is far from a power generation project even though a 500 MW power plant is planned. Eighty percent of Phulbari coal will go towards exports to international markets and India. Some of the coal would be used for steel. Thus, it appears that the ADB is also violating its own Energy Policy in supporting this project.


The long struggle of the people of Phulbari and the sacrifices made for this cause firmly state that open pit coal mining in a densely populated region like Bangladesh will not be accepted by the local people. Coal extracted from this country should only be used for the benefit of this country. No percentage of the coal will be exported. Therefore, we, the people of this potential mining area, request the ADB to remove its financial support and political risk guarantee from the Phulbari project. In doing so, the ADB will avoid violating its own policies as well as take a firm stance on behalf of the people. Otherwise, it would be obvious that the ADB is taking a position against national interest, the environment and the people of Bangladesh by prioritizing the business interests of a company like Asia Energy.

Monday, December 17, 2007

UBS alerted over Phulbari Coal mine: Human rights concerns for Bangladesh mine investment

Banktrack and Berne Declaration, Zurich, Utrecht, December 17 2007.

UBS, a financial heavyweight from Switzerland, is facing scrutiny by civil society organisations for investing in a proposed coal mine in Bangladesh. The Phulbari coal mine, proposed by GCM Resources Plc, is set to cause major social and environmental upheavals in the region, displacing upwards of 50 000 residents. Despite strong local opposition, investors UBS, RAB Capital and Barclays continue to back GCM with significant shareholdings. GCM Resources' strategic focus is the mine, and financial institutions with sights on easy profits derived from expropriation and significant environmental damage, are propping up a shaky project which has already been stalled for over two years.

Swiss based Berne Declaration and the BankTrack network recently wrote to UBS on behalf of local community representatives outlining the grave environmental, social and human rights problems associated with the project. As proposed, the Phulbari Coal mine is "open cut" meaning that between 140 and 300m worth of earth will need to be removed to access coal seams deep under ground. Some 50 000 residents will need to be relocated, potentially reaching 200 000 should full scale expansion plans be realised. Extensive damage to the UNESCO declared world heritage site Sundarbans mangrove forest, the largest single block of mangrove forest in the world, is also expected from port facilities. Energy production from coal poses substantial impacts on climate change, and is also inappropriate at a time when Bangladesh is appealing to the rest of the world to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the project having reportedly cleared by advisors Barclays to satisfy the Equator Principles, development standards which encompass community and social considerations, the undertaking faces immense local opposition. In August 2006, 50 000 people protested outside the local offices of Asia Energy (now GCM Resources Plc). A paramilitary force peppered the crowd with bullets, killing five people, including a fourteen year old boy. Approximately 100 individuals suffered injuries from the shootings. Since then, GCM Resources Plc has fled the site and the Bangladesh government has signed an agreement with the local communities promising that the coal mine would be stopped. In January 2007, Bangladesh declared a state of emergency, and a military backed government was installed. The current ruling party has proceeded to infringe of fundamental rights of countless citizens whilst maintaining relationships with transnational corporations in an attempt to stoke foreign investment and additional income.

Without the developer's presence in the region and fearing reprimand from a heavy handed government, local opponents to the projects have little recourse within their own country or with project sponsors. Responsible financial institutions have been approached with evidence of environmental damage and extensive social harm, and have been asked to respect the human rights of those affected by divesting.

The Berne Declaration and BankTrack have offered to put financial institutions in direct contact with communities in the area.

Responding to questions about on their 11% investment listed in GCM Resources Plc, the second largest listed shareholding, UBS denies any strategic interest in the company. The large multinational communicated that "it does not comment on potential or specific client relations or transactions or its investments in any particular company". UBS vaguely asserts to civil society and the communities affected that its holding may or may not be on behalf of other people.

Andreas Missbach from the Berne Declaration says "responding to victims of actual and potential human rights abuses in this way, UBS has shown complete disregard for its duties to stakeholders, selectively and irresponsibly hiding behind bank secrecy provisions".

The transparency of financial institutions shareholdings is of major consequence to determine who is responsible for facilitating dodgy investments. Determining whether banks themselves are actual shareholders, or whether they are holding shares on behalf of another party, can sometimes be an impossible task for local communities. Banks have been known to take advantage of these vagaries to shun their responsibilities. Whoever are the real shareholders in GCM, by virtue of their involvement in share listings, financial institutions must fulfil their duty to respect the human rights of stakeholders.

Read and download the letter to UBS

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Right to info a must before any int'l deal: Says roundtable on energy security

Staff Correspondent, The Daily Star, November 18, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The government should ensure the people's right to information before signing any international deal or formulating any policy, especially for energy or coal, speakers told a roundtable in Dhaka yesterday.

The roundtable on 'Energy Security and Right to Information' was organised by weekly magazine Shaptahik 2000, and moderated by its Acting Editor Golam Mortoza.

The speakers also pointed out that the caretaker government has no legitimate right to approve energy or coal policy, or sign any international agreement for the sector, as it is not an elected government.

They said the deals made by previous governments with a few multinational companies including Kafco and Lafarge, leaving the people of the country in the dark, are ultimately taking their toll on the common people.

The proposed right to information act should be enacted immediately so that no information can be concealed and the people can access any information to make their observation, they observed.

Attempts are being made to keep international deals out of the purview of the proposed right to information act with the excuse that people's access to information on such deals would affect foreign direct investment in the country, they said adding that right to access any information has to be ensured disregarding the prospect of foreign investments.

Prof Anu Mohammad of Jahangirnagar University said the state is failing to perform its duty in making all information public. On the contrary, it is even trying to hide information.

"If the people had known about the deal between the government and Kafco, it wouldn't be possible to close the deal," he said.

He questioned how Asia Energy could run advertisements in different newspapers claiming to be approved by the government for implementing the Phulbari Coal Mine Project when there has been an agreement barring Asia Energy from continuing with the project.

Prof Anu also urged the caretaker government to launch anti-corruption drives against international deals signed by previous governments.

Former state minister for power Maj Gen (retd) Anwarul Kabir Talukder said all kinds of information will have to be shared with the people.

Productivity has to be increased in every sector, more employment opportunity has to be created and dependency on import has to be reduced gradually, Talukder said adding, "All these things are related to energy, and therefore, we also have to ensure our energy security."

GM Kader, former lawmaker of Jatiya Party, said lack of transparency creates the opportunity of corruption and free flow of information can bring in transparency.

Former Awami League lawmaker Col (retd) Faruk Khan said a world energy congress was held last week in Rome where representatives from 112 countries except Bangladesh participated. The goal of the energy conference was to monitor the status of energy sector and find solutions that could promote economic development in any country, he added.Col (retd) Faruk said since the caretaker government is not an elected government, it has no right to formulate any energy or coal policy. "It can make a draft policy on energy or coal and make it public for people's observation. And the next elected government should approve it."He also stressed the need for improving the government's negotiation skills while discussing with prospective investors.Writer-columnist Syed Abul Maksud said it is necessary to be ensured that the adopted policies are not against the interest of the people. "Any policy should be taken on the basis of national consensus," he said.Prof M Shamsul Alam of Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology presented a keynote paper on 'Energy Security and Right to Information' at the roundtable.Prof Hossain Mansur of Dhaka University, Prof Golam Rahman of Dhaka University, politician Haider Akber Khan Rono, former Rural Electrification Board chairman Maj Gen (retd) Golam Mawla, Barrister Tanjb-Ul Alam, Shahidur Rahman of Action Aid Bangladesh, and Radio Today Executive Director Shakil Manjur also spoke at the discussion.

Govt's prime role recommended in coal mining

NewAge, November 18, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

A reviewed coal policy provisionally prescribes government’s investment in the country’s upcoming sector as it states that private local or foreign firms engaged in mining have to go for partnering with the government.

The coal policy review committee Saturday adopted a proposal to this effect. Sidelining apex trade-body FBCCI proposal for encouraging private sector’s prime role in coal-sector development, the committee viewed that the government always has to be the lead agency and get the highest priority in this regard.

The committee, however, said for the sake of ensuring energy security, local private companies or foreign government or private companies could be invited through international bidding to invest and develop the coal sector.

‘But, in that case, the local private or foreign companies have to be a partner of the government agency and their share have to be offloaded through stock market for public participation,’ says the committee recommendation.

Former vice-chancellor of BUET Professor Abdul Matin Patwari presided over the committee meeting at Petrobangla office.

Professor Nurul Islam of the engineering university said, ‘Private sector, in no way, should be the leading agency in coal-development scheme.’

CPD executive director Professor Mustafizur, however, said the private sector should be given a significant role to play in the coal sector’s development as the government ‘has not got enough funds to invest’.

He also advocated for not imposing any bar on merger or acquisition of any company by another company as such practice is prevalent worldwide.

The committee suggested strengthening the existing mineral Bureau of Mineral Development as licensing authority so that it could efficiently deal with foreign and local companies in leasing out coal mines.

After a thorough reappraisal of the policy—against the backdrop of persisting outcry over coal-mining deals and methodologies—the committee also suggested canceling the existing provision about issuing licence to any individual. ‘The license should be issued to a company rather than a person,’ says the expert panel in its suggestion.

They also suggested adopting a provision for leasing out coal fields through competitive bidding process and selecting the bidder who will give the highest and best proposal in terms of royalty and technicality.

In the existing rule there is a provision for fixing 5-6 per cent royalty for government while the last draft coal policy cited about 16-17 per cent royalty.

The committee emphasised setting up of coal-based power plants in the rural areas for the development of rural economy and poverty alleviation, now substantial reserves of the mineral resource have been found in the country’s northern districts.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Coal policy draft includes provision to return land to affected people

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, November 10, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The advisory committee on the finalisation of the coal policy draft on Friday decided to include a provision that affected inhabitants of any coal field would get back their land after the completion of mining when the lessee would restore the land condition as it was before mining.

The committee, headed by former BUET vice-chancellor Abdul Matin Patwari, has also decided that the holder of the mining licence will rehabilitate the whole mining area and the land would be handed over to the owners.

Before mining, the people of the area will need to be resettled in a way so that their living condition improves, the committee has decided. The lessee will bear the cost of resettlement before and after mining. The committee has decided that the lessee will rehabilitate the entire mining area with dirt filling and by flattening out the mounds after mining.

Miners usually leave a lake or pond in the last phase of open-pit mining and a lake or pond develops because of land subsidence during the open-pit mining. The committee has decided that the lessee, if required, will arrange dirt by dredging nearby rivers to fill up the canal-like area at the mine.

The government will make necessary laws for the resettlement and land rehabilitation and compensation for the affected, it has decided.

The lessee will submit an environment management programme before the start of mining and will bear related cost.

The committee has also reviewed the clauses including mine water management, research relating to environmental impact and land use.

Others on the committee — University Grants Commission chairman Nazrul Islam, BUET professor Nurul Islam, journalist Ataus Samad, Dhaka University professors Badrul Imam and Mustafizur Rahman, Bangladesh army chief engineer Major General Ismail Faruque Chowdhury and Petrobangla director Maqbul-E-Elahi — attended the meeting.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Open-pit mining option should be explored in context

NewAge, November 9, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The advisory committee formed to prepare the draft coal policy, as reported in New Age on Thursday, has included the provision for allowing one open-pit mining operation as a test case to judge the viability of open-pit mining in our country. Before going into the details of open-pit mining, we want to state that we are pleased that the much-talked-about draft coal policy appears to be in its final stages of completion. We have repeated on several occasions in the past that a proper coal policy, prepared by relevant experts in consultation with the different stakeholders, is necessary for us to be able to best serve our national interests regarding energy. Especially at a time such as now, characterised as it is by the shortage of supply and the high price of energy, we eagerly await the adoption of a well-thought-out policy that would ensure that our national and energy interests are protected while allowing us to reap maximum economic and social benefits out of however much coal reserves our country has.

As we have suggested before, however, any definitive policy decision on open-pit coal mining necessitates the undertaking of an extensive cost-benefit analysis that takes into account every aspect of and every consequence of such a venture. While we are aware that open-pit mining has been done successfully in other countries, we have to point out that the phenomenally high population density of ours and the huge dependence on agriculture for income and livelihoods sets us apart from those countries. So, instead of basing decisions on how well this method of extraction may have worked out in other countries, we have to be satisfied that it is the right method of extraction for our context and our unique characteristics. It is extremely unfortunate, in our view, that those who support open-pit mining as well as those who reject it outright do so without any real empirical basis on which to take such fundamental positions.

Therefore, we strongly urge the authorities in our country to commission an independent study, preferably much before open-pit mining is done even as a test case, that would not only compare the financial benefits of extracting coal from open-pit mining with the costs associated with such a project, but take into account all economic, social and environmental costs of open-pit mining. These would include, for example, the costs of relocating and rehabilitating large populations, the loss of agricultural output for many years from large areas of fertile land, proper compensation for the loss of the livelihoods of those dependent on agriculture on those lands, the increased health risks as a result of any damage that may be done to the environment, compensation for the loss of heritage of the indigenous communities of those regions, etc. If the results of such a study makes a strong enough case for open-pit mining, or even if it makes the idea of a pilot project to further examine the effects of this method an attractive proposition, we will, of course, support the implementation of the provision in the draft coal policy for an open-pit mine as a test case. However, we reiterate once again that before we take a certain position on the matter, and more importantly before our government takes policy decisions on methods of coal extraction, it is extremely important that an extensive study is completed which serves as the basis for such decisions.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Draft Coal Policy to allow one open-pit mine as test case

NewAge, November 8, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The advisory committee, formed to finalise the draft coal policy, on Wednesday included in the draft a provision for developing one open-pit mine in the country as a test case.

‘No one in the country has any real experience in open-pit mining. So at first one mine should be developed by using the open-pit system to gather hands-on experience, and to assess the effect on the environment,’ said the provision included in the clause on Mining Method in the draft.

The first open-pit mining project will be experimental, and Bangladesh will gather data on the impact of water extraction on the environment, the impact on the underground through simulation, protection of the environment, resettlement of the evicted people and the socio-economic impact, and assess the success of re-injection of water into the underground and land reclamation and fertility.

‘If the result of the open-pit mining method is satisfactory, the method can be used in other coal-fields for commercial extraction of the coal,’ said the provision.

The National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Port and Power in the last two days demanded that the coal policy should not include any provision for open-pit mining, not even an experimental one.

The advisory committee, headed by former vice-chancellor of BUET Abdul Matin Patwari, felt that it would not be appropriate to exclude open-pit mining because of the looming energy crisis.

The committee decided not to recommend the coal-field which will be developed by using the open-pit method as it should be decided after conducting a feasibility study.

After a heated debate on who will develop the mine by using the open-pit method, the committee decided that either the proposed state-owned Coal Bangla or a public-private joint venture under the management of the government would develop the coal-field.

The partner of the joint venture will be selected through competitive bidding, the committee decided.

Regarding underground mining, the policy said that necessary measures would have to be based on the experience of underground mining (in Barapukuria).

If any company wants to develop a coal-field, it has to carry out socio-economic and technical feasibility studies and submit reports on both open-pit and underground mining, and a government committee will choose the mining method, said the policy.

The committee also decided to fix a security deposit for environmental damages, which will be 2 per cent of the estimated project cost. The deposit will be in addition to the existing deposit of 3 per cent of the project’s cost as stated in the mining rules.

The draft policy said that a representative group, comprising elected local representatives and local civil society members, would be formed, which would be involved with a coal project for observing environmental and social impacts and hear the complaints of local people.

The committee’s convener, Professor Patwari, told reporters that they were trying hard to finalise the policy by December.

‘The committee is holding meetings every week, with each meeting lasting about five hours. We cannot finalise the policy in a hurry nor can we afford to make any delay. We are trying our best to finalise the draft as soon as possible,’ he said.

Other committee members — University Grants Commission chairman Nazrul Islam, BUET’s Professor Nurul Islam, senior journalist Ataus Samad, Dhaka University Professors Badrul Imam and Mustafizur Rahman, chief engineer of the Bangladesh Army major General Ismail Faruque Chowdhury, Petrobangla director Maqbul-E-Elahi and chief executive officer of IIFC Nazrul Islam — were present at the meeting.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ban on open-pit coal mining demanded

NewAge, November 6, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Conservationists repeated their call for a complete ban on open-pit coal mining to protect the country’s geophysical structures. They also demanded that the coal policy must not provide for open-pit mining even as a pilot scheme.

‘If anyone wants to know what devastation an open pit mining can bring, he or she can visit such coalmines in other countries,’ said professor Anu Mohammad, member secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port on Monday.

An advisory committee formed by the government with former BUET vice chancellor Abdul Matin Patwari as its head decided in principle to recommend in the draft policy for a pilot project on open pit mining covering eight square kilometres area at Barapukuria coal field.

But economist Anu Mohammad at a discussion meeting on ‘coal resources and national interest’ felt that such a pilot project was not necessary.

National Committee convenor SM Shahidullah said that the pilot project would be wastage of money as the open-pit mining would not be successful in the country considering the geological condition of Bangladesh.

Dhaka University geology professor Hossain Monsur, who is a former Petrobangla chairman, said India operates open pit mines that have a maximum depth of 180 metres, whereas Bangladesh’s coal seams are at the depth of 300 metres.

‘It is not a good idea to venture on a pilot open-pit mine project covering eight square kilometres area. It would bring an environmental disaster,’ he warned.

The National Committee leaders demanded immediate expulsion of the Asia Energy from Bangladesh.

Professor Shamsul Alam of Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology presented the keynote paper at the discussion.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The coal debate

By M Inamul Haque*, NewAge, October 25, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

BANGLADESH has tremendous renewable energy sources in the form of wood (65 per cent of the total energy consumed), generated annually on its surface through the growth of vegetation. This is because of our fertile soil, regular rainfall and the energy of sunshine consumed by the plants together. The sunshine also consumed by the animals, directly and indirectly in many ways is difficult to quantify. The energy of wind and water currents in the rivers and seas consumed by the ecosystem supports our economy in many ways but is never quantified.

The non-renewable energy we have in the form of gas, oil and coal lies underground. These, if not extracted, remain stored for the next generation. However, the rate that we are consuming gas now, it will finish by the year 2014 unless new reserves are discovered. Discovery of oil has not been significant. The coal reserve is 2.7 billion tonnes, of which just about 1.4 billion tonnes is recoverable. However, the policy as regards how to extract and use it remains debatable.

Bangladesh has peat coal in the northeast haor and southwest beel areas, a few metres under the surface. There the poor people spend their days digging soil in the hope of extracting a chunk of coal and selling it for their living. This coal is not commercially feasible for extraction by companies who seek to make a pound spending a penny. These companies want shares, investments, contracts, markets and monopoly. They were in a similar action in Phulbari to dig a few hundred metres to extract our black gold.

Bangladesh is mostly a plain land of alluvial soil, deposited by the rivers since at least six million years past (the Late Miocene Age). From the groundwater model of Bangladesh shown in Figure 1, the layers over the Gondwana Hardrock basement are the Lower Dupi Tila, Upper Dupi Tila, Dhamrai Clay and the Barind Madhupur clay formations. These alluvial formations from the Permian to Holocene age of present time are about 300 metres deep in northwest Bangladesh, whereas in the coastal areas it is about 20 kilometres deep.

From the geological and hydrological sequence given in Chart 1, the Pre-Cambrian formation is the oldest igneous and metamorphic rock basement (570 million years past), upon which all the sediment formations of later ages lie. The Pre-Cambrian basement comprises of granite, granodiorite, gneiss and schist. This formation is accessible at Madhyyapara of Dinajpur at about 150 metres below the surface. The Permian Age (245 million years past) is next, when the Gondwana mudstone, coal and sandstone deposited. This formation is accessible near Barapukuria and Phulbari of Dinajpur at about 300 metres below the surface.

The secondary Permian Age Gondwana coal was discovered first in 1959 in Bogra at a depth of 2,381 metres. In 1961, the Jamalganj-Paharpur deposit of 1,050 million tonnes was found, but it is too deep to mine. In 1962, the Tertiary Age ligno-bituminous coal was found in Takerghat-Baglibazar area at a depth of 45m to 97m. The beds are 0.90m to 1.70m thick and reserves were estimated at 3 million tonnes. The Gondwana coal was found at Barapukuria in Dinajpur in 1985, Khalaspir in Rangpur in 1989 and Dighipara in Dinajpur in 1995. According to a feasibility study, the Barapukuria mine had a reserve of 390 million tonnes, 70 million tonnes of which is recoverable at depths ranging from 118m to 506m. Coals in Khalaspir and Dighipara (406m below surface) are at similar depths. In 1997, the Phulbari coal was found at about 150m below the surface (Banglapedia).

The mining at Barapukuria started with two 6m shafts of 280m depth to extract one million tonnes of coal a year, of which 80 per cent was to be consumed for a 300-megawatt power plant. By the time the Petrobangla/Power Development Board started the power plant, the Barapukuria mine was redesigned to a production capacity of 500,000 tonnes (50 per cent less than before) and the cost of coal production doubled (from $35 per tonne). It was found that the project had actual IRR 13 per cent. However, to make it viable, it was shown 39 per cent in the feasibility study by fictitious projections and investment that never took place. The project cost rose from Tk 887 crore to Tk 1,600 crore. According to the Daily Star report of September 15, 2006, the Barapukuria coalmine was made the nation’s liability.

The Barapukuria coalmine has become a quagmire where hundreds of crores of taka from the government exchequer is draining down (Tk 600 crore by August 2007), with little possibility of good return. According to its first project proposal, 60 per cent of the coal was extractable, but now it has come down to 20 per cent only (The Daily Star, September 7, 2007). It is the depth of the coal reserve (too deep underground) that makes it hard to be a profitable mine. However, the promoters of the coalmine project at Phulbari wanted ‘open pit’ excavation there, blaming the ‘shaft method’. The Phulbari coal lies at a lesser depth but not less than 300m on average.

Figure 2 shows the variable depths of Phulbari coal lying under the Dhupi Tila formations. Open pit mining shall have to remove tertiary age alluvial deposits of 150-300 metres depth, and then secondary age sandstone deposits of 100 meters depth to reach the coal seams. It shall be an unprecedented operation, removing soil of about 30 square-kilometre area to the depth of 300 metres on average. Open pit mining is only feasible where the coal lies near the surface. The coal there then extracted removing the topsoil in strips. The extracted pit filled back by the removed soil of previous pit. Being too deep at Phulbari, ‘open pit’ excavation and removal of the coal by strips (as in Germany) is not feasible here, technically. Moreover, the Phulbari ‘open pit’ operation shall need to dry up the entire 200-metre deep Dhupi Tila aquifer, which shall have depletion effect to subsoil water of about 500sqkm surrounding area. People in the locality were reasonably just in their opposition and agitation, as any sort of rehabilitation programme would be a mess, people would have to migrate. The remaining people after the mining would have to survive in inhuman condition around a poisonous lake with their cultivable lands devoured and distorted forever.

In my understanding, investment has now become a corporate gamble than an investor’s liability. As most of the investors in the corporate capital do not have direct knowledge of the daily proceedings, a mastermind in the game can extract profit even from a loosing company at any time. The corporate company behind Phulbari coal has already raised capital from the market, whose share value has halved after increasing tenfold. The company showed improper documents to the government to keep authority on the project. However, after strong resistance from the locals the project prospect is now bleak.

Figure 3 shows the location of the Barapukuria coalmine, Madhyapara hardrock mine and the proposed Phulbari coalmine area. The Phulbari mine would cover a large part of the Parbatipur, Nawabganj, Birampur and Phulbari upazilas. Having the worse experience of shaft mining at Barapukuria, people could not accept the open mining option at Phulbari fearing loss of no bound. Shaft mining does not displace people but it causes pollution to the streams by acid mine drainage. In absence of proper treatment facility for the acid mine waste, the rivers and wetlands around Barapukuria are severely polluted and toxic.

The proposed coal policy of the government is now open to the public for debate. For Phulbari coal, the government had reduced its royalty share from 20 per cent to 6 per cent only, with the rest allowed to export. This raised strong objection from energy activists in the country. Now the pertinent questions of why should the ownership for the people should not be 100 per cent and why export should not be an option until and unless there is enough to meet the domestic demand for the next 50 years remain unresolved. The search continues for technically, socially, economically and environmentally suitable methods to make the coal mining beneficial to the people of Bangladesh.

*M Inamul Haque is director general of the Water Resources Planning Organisation

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Draft coal policy eyes ban on export

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, October 21, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The advisory committee formed to finalise the draft coal policy inserted in the draft at a meeting on Saturday some major issues, including ban on coal export and bar on assigning any foreign company with operation of any coal field without participation of any state-run organisation.

The committee, headed by former BUET vice-chancellor Abdul Matin Patwari, also decided in principle to keep a provision in the policy for taking a pilot project on open-pit mining at Petrobangla’s Barapukuria coal field.

The committee, which started to review on Saturday every line of the draft submitted by the Energy Division, inserted a provision in the ‘perspective chapter’ that it would not be possible to export coal from Bangladesh keeping in view the country’s energy security for the next 50 years.

It also noted that the people and the nation were the owners of the country’s coal and other mineral resources. The committee also included in the draft a clause that the government sector would get preference in developing coal fields. ‘But, in case of emergency, the government will be able to take a decision on developing coal field through joint initiatives with private and public entities of local and foreign countries,’ its observed.

The meeting was told that no foreign company could be given any coal field alone and any foreign company could only develop coal field jointly with any state-run entities like Petrobangla or the proposed Coal Bangla. The modalities of such joint initiatives will be discussed by the committee in future.

The committee decided in principle to insert a provision in the policy for launching a pilot project on open-pit mining at Barapukuria coal mine covering eight square kilometre area to examine the viability of the mining method that drew much controversy in the country.

Two committee members, Professor Nurul Islam and Professor Badrul Imam, who submitted a paper on their recent experience on India’s coal sector, concluded that it would be unrealistic from environment considerations to go for open-pit mining in Phulbari coal field.

The professors from BUET and Dhaka University attended SAARC Technical Seminar on Strategies on Promotion of Coal Development and Clean Coal Technologies in SAARC Region on October 16 in Kolkata and visited an open-pit mine at Sonepur.

According to the paper of professors Nurul Islam and Badrul Imam, most of the open-pit mines in India are implemented at coal fields that have coal seams at a depth ranging between 100 and 200 metres, whereas in Phulbari, where Asia Energy has proposed to extract coal through open-pit mining, the coal seams are at a depth of 300 metres.

The meeting was told that the north part of Barapukuria coal field, where the country’s lone underground coal field is situated, has a coal reserve at a depth of 110 metres. The meeting observed that by implementing a pilot open-pit mining at Barapukuria coal field, its impact on the environment could be assessed and experience on resettlement issue gathered.

It was suggested that a state-run entity would launch the pilot project for 10–12 years. But many of the committee members felt that funding would be the major obstacle to implementing such pilot projects.

University Grants Commission chairman Nazrul Islam, Bangladesh Army engineer-in-chief Major General Ismail Faruque Chowdhury, Professor Mustafizur Rahman of Dhaka University, Infrastructure Investment Facilitation Centre executive director Nazrul Islam, Petrobangla director Maqbul-E-Elahi, and former managing director of Barapukuria coal mining company Golam Mostafa attended the meeting, among others.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Conservationists’ group terms ADB ‘corporate lobbyist’

NewAge, October 7, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port on Saturday protested against the Asian Development Bank’s role as ‘corporate lobbyist’ for Asia Energy and Tata Group. It also blasted energy and finance advisers to the government for their reported willingness to start stalled negotiations with Asia Energy on Phulbari coal field.

‘We are concerned and annoyed at media reports that a visiting ADB mission is lobbying and pressurising the government in favour of Asia Energy and Tata projects,’ professor Anu Muhammad, member secretary of the committee, said at a press conference at Dhaka Reporters Unity.

ADB officials are lobbying for the Asia Energy venture even before the Manila-based lender’s board is yet to approve the project, which was being framed in violation of ADB’s own guidelines for public consultation, dissemination of information, protection of environment and respect for peoples’ verdict, he said.

The economics professor questioned why two advisers of the government were searching for opportunity to renegotiate with the UK-based mining company. He alleged that ABD was planning to invest the member-states’ money to benefit some companies, not the people. Professor Anu demanded that the interim government must scrap the ‘shady agreement’ the previous government signed with Asia Energy and that the national coal policy, which is in the making, exclude open-pit mining method.

Committee convenor Sheikh Muhammad Shaheedullah said the people would not accept if the government agrees to Tata’s proposals for supplying huge quantity of gas at a time when the country’s gas reserve was depleting and power and fertiliser plants were facing gas shortage. Committee leaders Golam Rabbani, Akmal Hossain, Shamsul Alam, Tipu Biswas, Ruhin Hossain Prince and Zonayed Saki were present at the press conference.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Govt to consider renegotiation with Asia Energy after coal policy finalised

NewAge, October 5, 2007

Energy adviser Tapan Chowdhury on Thursday said that the government would decide whether to renegotiate the controversial Phulbari coal-field agreement with Asia Energy after the coal policy is finalised. ‘Asia Energy has requested renegotiation on the Phulbari agreement and has softened its position. It has proposed some nice things. It wants to set up a power plant, and supply the water that will extracted from the coal-mine to the adjacent villages,’ Tapan told reporters after a meeting with an Asian Development Bank delegation.

The visiting director-general of ADB’s South Asia Department, Kurio Senga, offered to extend all kinds of financial assistance in developing Bangladesh’s coal sector, including the Phulbari coal-mine. He asked the government to take a quick decision on Asia Energy’s plan to develop the Phulbari coal-mine and the Tata Group’s investment proposal.

Tapan told reporters that he had assured the ADB delegation that the government would take a decision on Asia Energy’s development plan after finalisation of the coal policy. When Senga was asked whether he was aware of the government’s agreement with the people of Phulbari to scrap the coal-field deal, he replied in the negative.

The government signed an agreement with protesters to scrap the deal with Asia Energy after the killing of three persons by law enforcers while they were protesting against the open-pit mining method proposed by Asia Energy last year.

Tapan said that they would take a decision on the issue after getting the law ministry’s opinion on the agreement.

Proposals of Tata, Asia Energy have to wait

NewAge, October 4, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Decisions on investment proposals of Tata Group and Asia Energy are set to take some more time due to confusion over gas reserves and absence of coal policy, finance adviser Mirza Azizul Islam said on Wednesday. ‘We are giving wrong signal to foreign investors as we cannot decide on investment proposals of Tata and Asia Energy,’ he said to reporters at his planning ministry office after a meeting with a visiting Asian Development Bank executive.

The long-pending investment proposals came up for discussion at the meeting with Kunio Senga, ADB director general for South Asia, who is now in Dhaka. The Manila-based development bank offers Bangladesh assistance in developing coal sector amid differences of opinion among Bangladesh’s mining experts and conservationists over the mining method— whether it will be open-pit or underground. The debate led to a bloody outrage in Phulbari coalmine area last year. The finance adviser said the government will settle the Asia Energy issue once the coal policy is formulated.

Meanwhile, the UK-based mining company has expressed its willingness to start renegotiations with the government on Phulbari coalmine development. ‘We’ve told them that we will seriously look into the terms and conditions for the negotiations after finalisation of national coal policy,’ he said.

About the long-drawn-out $3 billion investment proposals of Indian conglomerate Tata, the adviser said it is a complicated matter and the gas reserve issue is closely linked to it. ‘As the terms and conditions have a provision for ensuring uninterrupted gas supply for several years, we’ll have to assess our actual gas reserve as there are several findings in this regard, and we’re not sure which one is correct,’ Aziz said.

He also discussed with the ADB executive matters relating to recent floods and post-flood rehabilitation. Aziz said the government formed a committee headed by the planning secretary to assess the flood damages and rehabilitation needs. ‘Rough estimates suggest the flood damages will be within $200 to $250 million,’ he told a questioner. ‘After the finance adviser’s visit to Manila, we realised that the flood in Bangladesh was severe and we formed a team for needs assessment,’ Kunio Senga said after the meeting. ‘Hopefully, we’ll be able to provide assistance for flood rehabilitation,’ he said without giving any figure.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Coal committee seeks 50 more days to finalise policy

NewAge, October 2, 2007

The advisory committee on the draft coal policy has sought another extension of 50 working days from the government to finalise the draft as it could not complete the task in the 30 days extended earlier. The committee members are still not sure which mining method they should recommend as both open-pit and underground mining have merits and demerits. The committee, headed by former BUET vice-chancellor Abdul Matin Patwari, held its seventh meeting on Monday, but was yet to go through the nitty-gritty of the draft coal policy submitted to the committee by the energy division.

The high-profile committee, which has so far taken a major decision that the coal policy will not allow coal export, decided at the meeting that it would start to go through every paragraph of the policy and make amendment, if needed, at its next meeting on October 20. It has so far taken opinions and recommendations of the cross-section of people including experts, economists, journalists, rights groups, and people of Phulbari during a visit to three coal fields in Dinajpur.

The advisory committee, formed on June 21, was initially given 30 working days, but it could not start work till July 31 as the committee convener was abroad. The committee was then given 30 more working days and it has so far passed 40 working days till Monday.

The committee members in Monday’s meeting discussed their recent visits to Barapukuria, Phulbari and Khalashpir coal fields and the recommendations of people of Phulbari. The meeting was told that about 19 associations of Phulbari, where the UK-based Asia Energy wanted to develop an open-pit mine, submitted recommendations and memoranda to the committee. It was told that most of the associations recommended against open-pit mining saying that it would destroy the environment while some of them recommended in favour of open-pit mining saying that it would be beneficial to the people of the locality.

The meeting discussed whether the coal policy would recommend that a pilot project of open-pit mining should be undertaken by a state-owned company to scrutinise the viability of the mining method and operate underground mining till getting the results of the pilot project.

Among other committee members, University Grants Commission chairman Nazrul Islam, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology professor Nurul Islam, Dhaka University professors Badrul Imam and Mustafizur Rahman, and journalist Ataus Samad were present at the meeting.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Phulbari Coal: Hydrogeological environment not favourable for open pit mining

Engr. A K M Shamsuddin*

The Daily Star, September 29, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Asia Energy proposed to extract about 10-15 million tons of coal from Phulbari coal field adopting open-pit mining from final depth of 250 to 300 meters by removing 4400 million tons of overburden (rock, sand, mud, soil) covering an area of about 5.2 sqkm throughout the life of the mine i.e. 36 to 38 years. Mining operations will mainly consist of dweatering of aquifer, cleaning and top soil stripping, overburden removal, rehabilitation of mined out areas and overburden dumps. Coal seams (upper and main) ranging in total thickness between 20 and 65 meters are planned to be extracted. Aquifer dewatering will be continuous throughout the operation life of the mine.

Asia Energy assessed that a large quantity of groundwater ranging from 400 to 800 MnL/day will need to be discharged throughout the life of the mine i.e. 36-38 years. It plans to make discharged groundwater available to the tune of 100 to 230 MnL/day for riparian use, river discharge purpose and water for coal fired power station. Of the removable 4400 million cubic meters of overburden, 30 percent will be dumped ex-pit and the remainder deposited back into the pit. According to Asia Energy, the mine would displace 40,000 people of some 100 villages and a portion of Phulbari town. To maintain dry working condition in open-pit mine, aquifers need to be depressurised. Due to mine dewatering activities water level drawdown will lead to water level decline in excess of 10 km from the mine. This would reduce groundwater availability of Phulbari township, surrounding villages and local farming communities within the given area of influence. This will also impact on bio-diversity, wetlands and rivers in the surrounding areas.

Impact on hydrogeological environment

Potential and major groundwater reservoir of Bangladesh lies in its north-western region covering greater Dinajpur and Rangpur districts. The groundwater resource of this region is the main aquifer of Bangladesh which is about 80-120 meters thick in the DupiTila formation and situated at about 10-12 meters below the surface. A study by School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata and Dhaka Community Hospital (DCH) on "Possible Arsenic Contamination Free Groundwater in Bangladesh" reveals that groundwater of north-western region of Bangladesh is almost arsenic-contamination free. It runs low in the region during dry season and makes it difficult for the tube wells to draw water. The government and non-government organisations have been trying with tree plantation for many years to prevent desertification in the region.

The underground water level in eight districts of the northern region including Dinajpur is falling gradually posing a threat to Irri-Boro farming. About 30 percent tube wells in the area have become inoperative for declining underground water level. The badly affected districts are Dinajpur, Thakurgaon, Kurigram, Rangpur, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari and Gaibandha.

According to an NGO consultancy firm the northern region has the possibility of turning into a desert if water is lifted from underground level in excess of 15,000 cusecs a year. But at present about one lakh cusecs of water is being lifted for irrigation which is alarmingly higher than the red mark. Most alarming is that the lifted water is not being proportionately compensated by regular seasonal rainfall. This maximum gaps may cause natural disaster at any time as cautioned by the experts.

Extraction of Phulbari coal adopting open-pit mining method can be disastrous for the north-western region in particular and Bangladesh in general due to dewatering of arsenic contamination free source of drinking and irrigation groundwater from DupiTila formation from a depth of 250 to 300 meters to the tune of 800 million liters per day over a period of 38-years. Dewatering in the Phulbari mining area may not only disturb but also damage the aquifer, making the area a desert like place.

Prof. Nazrul Islam of Department of Geography and Environment at Dhaka University says Dhaka WASA should avoid groundwater extraction and search for surface water sources in order to save groundwater environment. Groundwater extraction alone poses a grave threat to land subsidence with a potentially negative impact like that experienced in countries like Thailand and Mexico, he said. "Two decades ago land subsidence of few inches took place every year in those countries due unbridled groundwater extraction." While the benefits remain uncertain, the results to the environment could be seriously harmful, he explained. "The initiative to set up 1000-ft deep tube wells in Dhaka city is very destructive since existing 600-ft deep tube wells have already created a large vacuum within the underground level due to lack of water recharge, making the situation very vulnerable to earthquakes," he asserted. Extraction of huge quantity of groundwater at Phulbari coal basin can thus put the region to the threat of land subsidence, land sliding and earthquake. Re-injection of only 25 percent of extracted toxic and contaminated water, as per Asia Energy, will not change the situation.

Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and a basic human right. We need to safeguard the supply of pure water and ensure that everyone has excess to it. The right to water has been accepted as a natural, social fact, governments and corporations cannot alienate people from it. Water right comes from nature and creation, not from the rules of the market. We have no right to deny Phulbari People's right of access to water for coal. Water is no less important than oil, gas and coal.

According to Asia Energy, the top-soil will be removed and preserved once mining operation begins in a particular block. This top-soil will be brought back and spread on the top of the area after completion of mining at the particular block which may take 3-5 years. It will be very difficult to preserve top-soil for such a long time. Top-soil may be washed away during monsoon. At least 3-5 monsoons will be there before top-soil is used at the top of the filled out mining block. And the fertility of the top-soil will also be lost during these 3-5 rainy seasons.

During monsoon, already mined out area will be filled up by rain water, which is required to be pumped out again. During rainy season mining will be difficult and may have to be postponed to facilitate pumping of water out of the mine. Thus 2-3 months in a year may be lost due to this. Thus uninterrupted supply of coal to the power station and other coal consumers may not be possible.

Barapukuria coal mine

M/s Wardell Armstrong, a very reputed mining exploration and consulting company of UK, conducted techno-economic feasibility study of Barapukuria coal deposit during 1987-1991. They strongly rejected the idea of open-pit mining at Barapukuria. They estimated removal of 8,000-10,000 litres of groundwater per second for the whole operational life of the mine (30 years) to dewater DupiTila aquifer for open-pit mining at Barapukuria. They realised that the huge extraction of groundwater for such a long time from DupiTila aquifer may damage the most potential and major aquifer in the whole region. This is one of the reasons that M/s Wardell Armstrong opted for underground mining at Barapukuria. 35-40 percent coal can be recovered by adopting underground longwall mining method which is being practiced in most parts of the world.

Present 7 to 8 percent recovery from Barapukuria Coal Mine is not the fault of underground mining method. It is perhaps the fault of mine designer, mine builder, mine developer and mine operator. Therefore, present low recovery at Barapukuria cannot be cited as a supportive example for open-pit mining at Phulbari.


The government may undertake a detail hydrogeological study on major and potential aquifer in the north-western region of Bangladesh in the light of Asia Energy's proposal for open-pit coal mining at Phulbari. At the same time Asia Energy may give a second thought to their proposal and examine underground mining prospects at Phulbari. Adopting underground longwall mining method 35 to 40 percent coal recovery is very much possible also at Phulbari which can easily meet AEC's requirement to run 1000MW power station there ulbari.

Mr Forrest Cookson, in his article "Dealing with existing coal projects" published in The Daily Star on September 05, 2007 has cautioned the government about the consequences if the Phulbari contact is cancelled. But if Asia Energy's proposal of open-pit mining puts the region in the danger of desertification, earthquake, land subsidence and sliding and other natural disasters, then the government in the interest of the country very rightly ask Asia Energy to revise their proposal i.e. switching over to underground mining.

*Engr. A K M Shamsuddin, a petroleum and mining consultant, is former Managing Director, Pashchimanchal Gas Co. Ltd. (PGCL), Petrobangla.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Killings in Phulbari Ignite Unstoppable Protest: Local Communities Stand Strong against Open Cut Mining

From the Archive. SEHD Report. Photo: Philip Gain/SEHD

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.

The project

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.

Looking ahead

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.