Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Asia Energy behind coal mine advocates

Tanim Ahmed, NewAge, August 26, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

UK-based Asia Energy has been behind the organised campaign of a group of civil society fronts in favour of swift coal extraction in northern Bangladesh, reveals a New Age investigation.


These fronts, platforms and associations, were initiated and supported by the subsidiary of Global Coal Management Resources to demonstrate public support for its proposal for an open pit coal mine stretching 65 square kilometres at Phulbari of Dinajpur, countering strong national and local opposition.


Two years ago on August 26, several thousand people took to the streets protesting against the proposed open pit mining, which was feared to displace over one lakh people and affect the life and livelihood of another two lakh people.


Three people were killed and dozens others injured as law enforcers opened fire on the protesters on the day in 2006.
 According to Asia Energy, Phulbari coal mine would produce some 520 million tonnes of coal over 35 years and displace 50,000 people.

The associations or platforms, particularly active in the northern districts in advocating swift coal extraction include the Greater Rangpur-Dinajpur Business Development Forum, comprising different business bodies and businessmen, the Greater Dinajpur District NGO Alliance for Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, evidently an association of 30 local non-governmental organisations and North Bengal Mineral Resources Reporters’ Forum, an association of journalists.


Office bearers of these forums deny their links with Asia Energy and claim to be promoting mineral extraction for the benefit of the northern region that has remained neglected for long, and reduction of disparity compared to the rest of the country.
 The business development forum was founded by Nazrul Islam, a former executive chairman of Bangladesh’s Board of Investment, and a retired additional secretary of the government. Nazrul continues to serve as the forum’s chairman. But he is also the executive director for Asia Energy Bangladesh.


Nazrul insisted that there was no conflict of interest in the two offices he holds. ‘I have been involved in such forums and associations for a long time,’ he said mentioning a number of high offices he held in the past on district committees in northern Bangladesh.


Rafiqul Islam, president of Dinajpur Chamber of Commerce, also a member of the business development forum said it was entirely driven by Nazrul, who previously served Asia Energy in the capacity of a consultant.


Rafiqul had refused to read out a pre-drafted speech handed to him at a public meeting of the forum on May 2 this year in Dinajpur. ‘I found it was contrary to our national interests.’ He told the meeting that an open pit coal mine was not acceptable considering the situation of Bangladesh. ‘We must not compromise fertile, arable land for coal extraction.’


The alliance of non-governmental organisations apparently comprising of 36 organisations, maintains a Dhaka office with the same address as that of Asia Energy.


The web pages—www.gddna.com and www.rangpur-dinajpur-forum.com—have identical IP addresses and other web hosting details, suggesting that the two are run and operated from a single source.


Hamidul Haque, chairman of the alliance, also chief executive of the Palli Gano Sanghati Parishad, said the association’s contact person in Dhaka is one Ahsan Habib, who happens to be Asia Energy’s manager for equipment, mobilisation and support. Hamid said Ahsan provided the alliance with all the necessary support for maintaining and uploading their NGO alliance website.


He said the platform, similar to the other platforms, was not in any way suggesting that Asia Energy be given the contract for Phulbari. ‘If they do get involved however, we will become involved in handling the environmental projects to mitigate the adverse impacts on environment and agriculture.’ But he denied that the association had any links with Asia Energy.


Hamid claimed the association ‘intends to accelerate the utilisation of natural resources including minerals as available in the Dinajpur region for the holistic and sustainable development involving the community’.


But an email sent by alliance to the Asian Development Bank gives a proof of its bias towards Asia Energy. It requested the lending agency to ‘reconsider its decision regarding financing the Phulbari Coal Project’ after it was reported in the media that the lending agency’s private sector division had decided to pull out of the project, thus withdrawing a $100 million political risk guarantee.


The email, dated April 10 this year, to relevant high officials of the lending agency including the ADB president and the country head, reads, ‘We are very much disappointed with this news. To us, this decision will not help the people of the country rather lead the energy security of the country in a vulnerable position. Because Phulbari Coal Project would be a major development [work] in the north-west Bangladesh.’


Denying all allegations of driving the platforms, Nazrul said, ‘Asia Energy is absolutely transparent. We have no involvement with these groups.’ Regarding an Asia Energy staff providing technical support, he said, ‘I am not aware of such a thing. I do not think it is indeed the case.’

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Open letter to financial institutions investing in GCM Resources Plc regarding the Phulbari Coal Project, Bangladesh

August 2008

110 organizations from 31 countries have endorsed an open letter to the private investors of GCM Resources Plc declaring solidarity with community representatives in Bangladesh regarding investment in the Phulbari Coal Project. The letter was sent to UBS, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley and Fidelity Investments.

Dear Investor:

We are writing to you in solidarity with community representatives in Bangladesh regarding your institutionís involvement in the Phulbari coal mine, otherwise known as the Phulbari Coal Project. Community representatives opposing the project cannot be identified due to fear of recrimination under the current military backed government in Bangladesh.

We understand that your institution has obtained or is managing over a 3 percent shareholding in Global Coal Management Resources plc. (GCM) which, through a wholly-owned subsidiary, is primarily focused and committed to the development of the Phulbari Coal Project in Bangladesh (GCM 2007 annual report).

With this letter, we formally bring to your attention the fact that the project, and therefore your financial institution through its shareholding in GCM, is associated with numerous human rights violations and risks future abuses if project development continues.

Such abuses violate or risk violation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), and in many cases do not meet standards under the Equator Principles, which are widely considered best practice for mitigating social and environmental impacts in project finance.

Although the Equator Principles do not technically apply to equity financing for parent companies, several Equator banks apply the Principles to non-project finance transactions where use of proceeds is known. In the case of GCM, it is very likely that new capital (through share issues, for example) will be deployed towards the mine; for example, from June-December 2007, GCM spent £940,000 exploring and developing the Phulbari project (Interim Report for the six months ended 31 December 2007). Especially given GCMís difficulties in obtaining project loans for the mine, equity financiers such as your institution take on a greater role and responsibility in financing this project, and the environmental and human rights abuses that are occurring.

Following is a list of some of the human rights abuses associated with the Phulbari coal project, including reference to selected applicable international standards that have been or have the potential of being violated:

1) On 26 August 2006, the Bangladesh Rifles, paramilitary force, indiscriminately discharged firearms into a crowd of over 50,000 residents who were demonstrating in opposition to the mine project. This shooting resulted in the deaths of three people, including a fourteen year old boy, and left over 100 people injured.

Right to life, liberty and security of person, Article 3, UDHR
Right to freedom of opinion and expression, Article 19, UDHR
Right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Article 20, UDHR

2) In February 2007, Mr. S.M. Nuruzzaman, one of the leaders of the social movement in opposition to the project, was falsely arrested and subsequently tortured. The Bangladeshi ëjoint forcesí were reportedly directed by officials of Asia Energy, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Global Coal Management, to arrest Mr. Nuruzzaman.

Right to the freedom from torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Article 5, UDHR
Right to equality before the law, Article 7, UDHR

3) Since January 2007, Bangladesh has been under a state of ìEmergency Rule.î Through its project dealings with the Bangladeshi military regime, GCM is providing implicit support to a military- backed interim government which has suspended civil rights, including public gatherings. Though the government is currently under a process of relaxing some of these rules that violate civil liberties, it continues to be difficult for communities in the Phulbari region to express themselves freely regarding the project.

Right to participate in government, and requirement of democratic elections, Article 21, UDHR
Right to freedom of opinion and expression, Article 19, UDHR
Right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Article 20, UDHR

4) As demonstrated by the magnitude of community opposition to the project, GCM has not met the principle of free, prior and informed consultation and has not incorporated concerns of the community into project planning. GCM has not disseminated a draft Environmental Impact Assessment, Resettlement Plan, and Indigenous Peoples Development Plan to community members in an accessible form, for non-literate community memebes, or in the Bangla language.

Consultation and Disclosure, Principle 5, Equator Principles

5) With regards to the economic and physical displacement of an estimated 2,200 indigenous persons, GCM has not made any significant efforts towards obtaining their free, prior and informed consent to the project activities or to displacement, in direct violation of the right of all peoples to self-determination by virtue of which they can freely determine political status, and pursue economic, social and cultural development. Failure to consult adequately and to seek and obtain consent from indigenous peoples is in contravention of the spirit and letter of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Self-determination, Shared Article 1, ICCPR and ICESCR and Article 3, UNDRIP
Free, prior and informed consent for any relocation, Article 10, UNDRIP
Collective rights to lands and territories, Article 26, UNDRIP
Control over development priorities, Article 32, UNDRIP

6) Expected environmental damage due to the open-caste mine will result in a massive reduction of ground water, threatening the availability of potable water and irrigation for agriculture much beyond the mine life of 30 plus years. Furthermore, without proper study, field tests, and appropriate mitigation, acid-mine-drainage is likely to contaminate both soil and water in the project area. Experts contend that adequate precautions against acid-mine drainage in Northwest Bangladesh for a mine the size of Phulbari will detrimentally affect the economic viability of the project. These issues have not been adequately addressed in project documents, despite concern raised by the community in this regard.

Right to an adequate standard of living, right to health and well-being, Article 25, UDHR

7) The Phulbari Coal Project is expected to relocate at least 50,000 people, although some studies indicate that the physical displacement impacts will include well over 100,000 people. Additional displacement impacts will be felt by those who are economically displaced by the project and by host communities which will be expected to absorb the tens of thousands of displaced peoples. There is currently no plan to replace agricultural land and there is no available information on how livelihoods of the displaced will be restored. Loss of livelihood will inevitably result in impoverishment of displaced people, which could lead to the risk of death and poor health, in addition to the lost economic base. Concerns expressed by community members regarding the inadequacy of information about and deficiencies of plans for resettlement, compensation, rehabilitation and employment opportunities have not been satisfied.

Action Plan and Management System, Principle 4, Equator Principles
Right to an adequate standard of living, right to health and well-being, Article 25, UDHR
Right to adequate housing, Article 11(1), CESCR

Over 80 percent of the land expected to be taken for this project is currently used for farming and Phulbari is considered the agricultural breadbasket for the country. Moreover, the Phulbari region remains one of the few areas in Bangladesh that does not face annual flooding. There is no information or study on whether or how food supplies will be replaced and the subsequent impacts on food security within Bangladesh.

Right to an adequate standard of living, right to health and well-being, Article 25, UDHR
Right to be free from hunger, Article 11(2), CESCR

GCM and the government of Bangladesh have made numerous public statements that, despite the human rights abuses associated with this project, show they are committed to moving forward with the mine.

Through its investments in GCM, either on its own account or on behalf of clients, and since the company has established a special purpose entity to develop the Phulbari Coal Mine project, your institution is giving consent and support for the continued development of this flawed project. To take no action, is an indication in support of GCM and the Phulbari Coal Mine project.

Due to the gravity, range and proportions of human rights abuses associated with the project and dealings in Bangladesh under the current political structure, and taking into account the interests of those human rights which are at risk, we respectfully request your financial institution and any other group members which may be involved in this venture, to commence an exit strategy to cease provision of all financial services to the company and divest all GCM shares over which you have control.

We are pleased to provide you with more information upon request. For comments or questions, please contact the International Accountability Project at iap@accountabilityproject.org.

This letter is endorsed by the following organizations:

1. Association “For Sustainable Human Development”, NGO in Special Consultative Status with UN ECOSOC, Armenia

2. AID/WATCH, Australia

3. Blue Mountains Conservation Society Inc, NSW, Australia

4. Courthouse Climate Action Group, Australia

5. Friends of the Earth, Australia

6. Jubilee, Australia

7. Locals Into Victoriaís Environment, Australia

8. Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Australia

9. Oxfam Australia Queensland Committee and the University of Queensland Environment

Collective, Australia

10. Resistance, Australia

11. Rising Tide Newcastle, Australia

12. Sutherland Climate Action Network, Australia

13. FIAN, Austria

14. Oil Workers Rights Protection Organization Public Union, Azerbaijan

15. ActionAid, Bangladesh

16. BanglaPraxis, Bangladesh

17. Coastal Development Partnership (CDP), Bangladesh

18. Solidarity Workshop, Bangladesh

19. VOICE, Bangladesh

20. N ̇cleo Amigos da Terra, Brasil

21. Green Policy Institute, Bulgaria

22. FOCARFE, Cameroon

23. Friends of the Earth, Cyprus

24. Friends of the Earth, Finland

25. Les Amis de la Terre, France

26. Asienhaus, Germany

27. FIAN International, Germany

28. Urgewald, Germany

29. Forum for Indigenous Perspectives and Action, India

30. Indian Social Action Forum -INSAF, India

31. Nadi Ghati Morcha, India

32. National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, India

33. North East Peoples Alliance on Trade Finance and Development, India

34. Public Interest Research Centre, India

35. Urban Research Centre, India

36. Debtwatch, Indonesia

37. Institute for Essential Services Reform (IESR), Indonesia

38. Campagna per la Riforma della Banca Mondiale, Italy

39. Japan Center for a Sustainable Environment and Society, Japan

40. NGO Globus, Kazakhstan

41. Community Environmental Promotion and Cultural Association (CEPCA), Lao PDR

42. Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Nepal

43. National Concerned Society, Nepal

44. Nepal Policy Institute, Nepal

45. Water and Energy Federation Nepal (WAFED), Nepal

46. BankTrack, Netherlands

47. Both ENDS, Netherlands

48. Milieudefensie / Friends of the Earth, Netherlands

49. Participatory Development Initiatives, Pakistan

50. Umeedenao Citizen Community Board, Pakistan

51. 11.11.11, Philippines

52. Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC), Philippines

53. EmPOWER Consumers, Philippines

54. Freedom from Debt Coalition, Secretary General, Philippines

55. NGO Forum on the ADB, Philippines

56. ODA Watch, Philippines

57. Philippines Rural Reconstruction Movement, Philippines

58. Public Services International Research Unit, Philippines

59. NGO Environmental Law Center “Armon”, Republic of Uzbekistan

60. Friends of the Earth, Scotland

61. Wave, Scotland

62. Centre for Environmental Justice, Sri Lanka

63. Aktion Finanzplatz Schweiz, Switzerland

64. arbeitskreis tourismus & entwicklung, Switzerland

65. Basler Appell gegen Gentechnologie, Switzerland

66. Berne Declaration, Switzerland

67. berwegerconsulting, Switzerland

68. BeTrieb, Switzerland

69. fair-fish association, Switzerland

70. Greenpeace, Switzerland

71. Gr ̧ne Partei der Schweiz, Parti Ècologiste suisse, Switzerland

72. HEKS, Swiss Interchurch Aid, Switzerland

73. medico international schweiz, Switzerland

74. Responsible for Projects of medico international schweiz, Switzerland

75. Schweizerisches Rotes Kreuz Kanton Zurich, Switzerland

76. SOLIFONDS, Switzerland

77. Swiss Red Cross Canton Zurich, Switzerland

78. World Without Mines, Switzerland

79. Youth Ecological Centre, Tajikistan

80. Forest Peoples Programme, U.K.

81. Platform, U.K.

82. The Corner House, U.K.

83. War on Want, U.K.

84. World Development Movement, U.K.

85. Adrian Dominican Sisters, U.S.A.

86. Congregation of St. Joseph, U.S.A.

87. Congregation of the Sisters of St. Agnes, U.S.A.

88. Crude Accountability, U.S.A.

89. Environmental Defense Fund, U.S.A.

90. Friends of the Earth, U.S.A.

91. Forest Ethics, U.S.A.

92. Gender Action, U.S.A.

93. Global Response, U.S.A.

94. International Accountability Project, U.S.A.

95. International Rivers, U.S.A.

96. Maryknoll Sisters, U.S.A.

97. Midwest Coalition for Responsible Investments, U.S.A.

98. Mission Hospital, U.S.A.

99. National Association of Muslim American Women (NAMAW), U.S.A.

100. Oil Change International, U.S.A.

101. Pacific Environment, U.S.A.

102. Rainforest Action Network, U.S.A.

103. Region VI Coalition for Responsible Investment, U.S.A.

104. School Sisters of Notre Dame Cooperative Investment Fund, U.S.A.

105. Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, U.S.A.

106. Sisters of Charity of New York, U.S.A.

107. Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, U.S.A.

108. Sustainable Energy and Environment Network, U.S.A.

109. Instituto del Tercer Mundo (ITEM), Uruguay

110. Rural Development Services Centre, Vietnam

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cloak and dagger over coal policy

Tanim Ahmed, NewAge, August 21, 2008

It appears that the draft coal policy began with a text heavily biased towards private investment and facilitating large margins of profit for the mining companies. Ideally, there should not be a problem with the private investor making large margins but not at the cost of national interests or doing away with all kinds of binding safeguards to protect the environment and livelihoods of thousands of people who would be displaced.

TWO years ago on August 26, a citizens’ platform led the locals to take to the streets protesting against a proposed open pit coalmine by a British mining company. The National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, led a procession of some 70,000 people from around the Phulbari township protesting against Asia Energy’s project that would see most of them become landless. Law enforcement agencies opened fire on the reasonably peaceful assembly just as it was about to break at the end of the day’s programme. Three people were killed, dozens were injured either by gunshot or when the law enforcers charged batons. What followed has become one of the celebrated instances of popular resistance leading to an agreement between the people of Phulbari and the government of the day. Like most other popular movements, the events of Phulbari Day was actually a culmination of almost a year’s campaign and mass awareness programmes undertaken by the citizens’ platform, popularly known as the Oil Gas Committee.


The local inhabitants found that this mining company gave out contradictory and sometimes erroneous information. They had little idea that the coalmine would gobble up their lands and that they would have to be relocated and begin life afresh. Although Asia Energy claimed to have conducted consultations with a few thousand households, only a few people admitted to having spoken to their representatives and refused to acknowledge those meetings as ‘consultations’ in which they had apparently agreed to the establishment of a coalmine in the area.


Misgivings still remain and a report published in the New Nation on August 20 does not do much allay them. Neither does a column by Mohammad Nurul Islam, a member of the coal policy drafting committee, published in Prothom Alo on August 4. Both the pieces relate to the finalised coal policy that has now been submitted for approval by the council of advisers. The report, citing sources in the Energy Division and those present at the meeting of the council in Chittagong last week, states that there were strong differences among the advisers over the amount of royalty and land acquisition issue. Apparently, it was the contention of some of the advisers that the recommended 13 per cent royalty was high and private quarters would not be interested to invest with such a high rate. Recommendations regarding the method of mining, rehabilitation of the dislocated inhabitants of the mine area and land acquisition also featured in the discussion. The policy was eventually sent back to the Energy Division with a recommendation from the council to shorten it and remove ambiguities, following which it might again be placed for approval in December.


In his column, Nurul Islam, a professor of the Institute of Appropriate Technology of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, states plainly that if the coal policy is approved by the council of advisers as it is, it would undermine national interests and favour the mining companies. He goes on to make several recommendations.


The initial proposal by Asia Energy, now Global Coal Management, in 2005, according to which Bangladesh would receive only six per cent royalty from extracted coal, was controversial and strongly criticised by different quarters. The misgivings would not appear unfounded given the context and process through which the Asia Energy project has come about.


Although the stipulated royalty for open pit coalmine was fixed at 20 per cent by the law prevailing till December 1995, the Bureau of Mineral Development entered into an agreement with BHP Billiton in August 1994 settling on a royalty rate of just six per cent for an open pit mine in Phulbari. Just one month before, the bureau had entered into another agreement with Petrobangla for Barapukuria at a royalty of 20 per cent. This was the first instance of irregularity betraying machinations in favour of a foreign investor.


The relevant law was modified in December 1995 stipulating six per cent royalty for open pit and five per cent for shaft mining of coal. When the BHP handed over their contract to Asia Energy, the government was not notified in due time.


The royalty rate remains an issue even today as both the report and Nurul Islam’s column points out. He recommends that this rate should be fixed at 15 per cent. But the council of advisers, according to the report, deemed 13 per cent to be too high. M Tamim, the special assistant to the chief adviser in charge of the energy ministry, however, pointed out that in other countries taxes are much higher than in Bangladesh and argued that the proposed rate was justified.


In its feasibility study, Asia Energy proposed that the open pit mine would to take up some 65 square kilometres although the prevailing law stipulated that it should not be more than eight square kilometres.


Once Asia Energy’s initial proposal came under fire from even the bureaucrats, particularly those heading the energy and mineral resources divisions of the energy ministry in 2005, there was a largely unanimous recommendation that it would be assessed under a coal policy that would be formulated. Since then, there has been little talk of a comprehensive energy policy or a mining policy encompassing all the different aspects.


The first draft was prepared and finalised on December 1, 2005 and a second draft by January 23 the following year. The two were made public and discussed. Both the drafts appeared as if they had been formulated in such a manner so as to accommodate the proposals of Asia Energy and the Indian Tata group, which was at that time vying for an open pit mine in Barapukuria as part of its $3 billion investment proposal in Bangladesh. The drafts allowed for substantial coal exports and projected such a level of extraction for which there would not be sufficient demand in the local market. The high rate of coal extraction was advocated in order to ‘ensure energy security’ for the country but would have eventually meant export of large amounts of coal.


The drafts were duly criticised but subsequent drafts still retained provisions facilitating exports and coal extraction in an open pit method of mining without concrete safeguards for adverse environmental impacts or rehabilitation of the local inhabitants that include a few thousand people of ethnic minority communities. The coal policy went through six drafts till June 2007 when a high-powered committee was formed with former BUET vice-chancellor Abdul Matin Patwary as chairman. The Patwary Committee, comprising eight members, was charged with analysing the sixth draft and finalising the coal policy.


Interestingly, this committee did not include Nurul Islam on some vague ground, but the members co-opted him into it nonetheless. The sixth version of the policy, dated June 21, 2007, was made available on the internet and public opinion was sought on it. This version remains the only one available in the public domain. Although it was put in the public domain claiming more openness, the subsequent versions were never made available. The seventh version that the Patwary Committee finalised also went through a relatively transparent and apparently participatory process with members of the media present at the meetings and different interested quarters welcome to make their submissions and deliberations. The seventh draft was submitted to the secretary for energy and mineral resources in January 2008. Since then the energy division has been working on the draft and, according to Nurul Islam, has changed the draft for the worse.


It appears that the draft coal policy began with a text heavily biased towards private investment and facilitating large margins of profit for the mining companies. Ideally, there should not be a problem with the private investor making large margins but not at the cost of national interests or doing away with all kinds of binding safeguards to protect the environment and livelihoods of thousands of people who would be displaced. But the process was such that with every draft the interest of the private quarters were diluted a little and provisions tweaked around a little to allow marginal benefits to Bangladesh. The Patwary Committee, therefore, had a huge task on its hand to turn the entire draft around and produce one that favoured national interests over anything else.


Given the controversy and criticisms, the committee members went out of their way to specify a number of provisions and even stipulated the constitution of the coal development committee. This appears to be the main complaint against them now, that they went beyond their mandate and produced something that is more like a policy and act put together. It should have been appreciated that the committee did extra work just to ensure all the bones of contention were covered. Now it seems, however, that the final draft will go through another round of modifications.
 It increasingly seems that just because the coal is there, it must be extracted and used. But there is yet to be a thorough cost-benefit analysis. There is yet to be any concrete plan that would duly quell the apprehensions of the local populace by proving that they would end up being better off if the coal mine is established and they are relocated. There is yet to be any analysis about the extent of water table draw down due to continuous flushing out of groundwater, which could have telling impact on an otherwise food surplus region.


There is also the consideration that this particular project happens to be related to mineral extraction and that too of fossil fuel. It is a matter of historical and anecdotal experience, as well as being the finding of an academic research by an internal evaluation of the World Bank titled ‘Striking a Better Balance’, that investment in fossil fuel extraction, be it oil, gas or coal, are typically predatory and add little to the overall development of the host economy. In fact, these investments create indirect hindrances to wholesome development and contribute to slower sustainable growth of the recipient or host economies.


Investments in the gas sector should suffice as learning experiences. None of the two companies have till today compensated for the blowouts that they were responsible for. There is no guarantee that Asia Energy will not follow in their footsteps. That Bangladesh immediately needs to develop its natural resources to meet future and current energy demands cannot be denied. But it cannot be at the cost of food security and livelihoods of thousands of people or irreversible environmental destruction that open pit mines have been proven to cause across the world. There is also the matter of population density that experts often point out. They say there has never been an open pit mine in such densely populated areas like Bangladesh where there are almost 1,100 people per sq km as opposed to three in Canada and Australia, 32 in United States or even 368 in India.


As far as Phulbari is concerned and as far as Asia Energy is concerned, the local populace will renew their pledge on August 26. Their message is a simple one. No to open pit. No to exports. No to foreign companies.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

‘You cannot eat coal’: resistance in Phulbari

NewAge, August 19, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh


Those who campaign against the ruthless exploitative practices of trans-national mining companies say, increased investment results in human rights abuses, especially against rural communities which the companies want to dislocate and uproot. They also say that the role of the state in extractive sector governance and citizens’ protection diminishes, while its role in protecting and promoting the interests of trans-national corporations increases. One sees that happening in Phulbari, over Asia Energy’s proposed Phulbari coal project, writes Rahnuma Ahmed

‘Only when the last tree has withered, and the last fish caught, and the last river been poisoned, will we realise we cannot eat money.’


Cree proverb


‘[the] uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the break-down of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.’


Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1975
 


‘You cannot eat coal’


‘No, we do not want the coalmine. What will we eat?’ said an elderly woman. I was watching raw, uncut video footage from Phulbari, shot by media activists Zaeed Aziz and Farzana Boby, a couple of days after the killings occurred on August 26, 2006.


Another woman steps into the frame. She vents bitterly, we work daily for our subsistence, we eat from what we earn. That is all we have. If this land is turned into a coalmine, those who eat in exchange of daily wages, where will they go? Where will we live? How will we survive?


Zaeed and Farzana’s film, ‘The Blood-Soaked Banner of Phulbari’, was released soon after the killings in 2006. I watch the beginning sequence. A crowd of men stand at the long-distance bus stand in Phulbari town, they talk to each other and to the film crew. ‘We are poor people,’ says a man, probably in his late-thirties. ‘If I lose my home, how will I earn a living? What use will be the coalmine?’ Who will it benefit?


I return to clips from their uncut footage. A younger woman is sitting in her courtyard, ‘No, I don’t have a husband, I live with my mother, I work with her. In the same place. If the coalmine comes, we, that is, us mothers-and-daughters, where will we go? We will be scattered from our relatives, we will lose our ties.’


‘Where will we go?’ This question is repeatedly raised by villagers, by both men and women, old and young, by farmers, day-labourers, petty businessmen, schoolchildren, college-going youths, both Bengalis and adivasis, who belong to Santal, Oraon, Pahan, Mahali and Munda communities. By Hindus and Muslims.


‘Two coalmines have been built in neighbouring areas,’ one of the men standing at the bus-stand in the Blood-Soaked Banner documentary had said. ‘What development has it brought, tell me?’


I turn to Ronald Halder and Philip Gain’s film, ‘Phulbari’, an activist film released by SEHD earlier this year. Abdul Jalil of village Chouhati turns his face away in pent-up anger when asked how he has benefited from the coalmine in Barapukuria. ‘Benefit? How have I benefited? It has crippled me. I cannot describe the damage it has done. Those who have benefited from it have. We have been devastated.’


Azizunessa of the same village does not mince her words. She too has suffered from the Barapukuria coalmine. ‘We are poor people, we raise a cow, a goat or two. But the security guards, they do not let us enter, they do not allow us to cut even a blade of grass. So how does the coalmine that they have built, help us? How do I get my bowl of rice? They do not give me work in the coalmines. My sons have no food. How will they live? Only Allah knows what our situation is like. How our days pass. Or don’t. I did agricultural work, I winnowed paddy, I worked, I ate, I brought in one and a half seers of rice from the house I worked in, I fed the children. Work is not something that appears out of nowhere, that daughters-in-law can bring, that poor people can give each other. Why is it that the coalmine has stopped me from working, from feeding myself? The coalmine is protected by barbed wire fences, it is surrounded by high walls. Why?’ Who benefits from the coalmine?


The Phulbari coal project plans to extract coal using open-pit mining method in seven unions and one municipality in four upazilas of Phulbari, Birampur, Nawabganj and Parbatipur in Dinajpur district. The company behind the $1.4-billion project is Asia Energy Corporation (Bangladesh), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the British-registered Global Coal Management Resources Pls. According to Asia Energy, 40,000 people would be involuntarily resettled, 10,000 hectares, primarily of fertile agricultural land, would be required for mine and associated infrastructure. Activists say the number of people evicted is likely to be ten times more. The proposed coal project would divert a river, suck an aquifer dry for thirty years, the life span of the project. Dynamite explosion, environmentalists say, would cause noise and dust pollution, this would be increased by the trucks and trains that will haul away the coal to the port in Sundarban. To prevent flooding, huge pumps will pump out 800 million litres of water daily, from the mine. This will lower the groundwater in an area covering 500 square kilometres. Air and water pollution is likely to spread to surrounding water bodies. Asia Energy plans to create a huge lake after the project is over, but activists predict that the water is likely to be toxic.


GCM has a sustainable development manager who guides their approach. But the global record of mining operations rejects the sustainable development myth. Roger Moody, international researcher and campaigner against exploitation caused by multinational mining, writes in ‘Rocks and Hard Places: The Globalization of Mining’, lesser-developed countries, those with a high degree of dependence on mining, show slower rates of economic growth than their peers. Some countries, he writes, have been worse off. Potosi, a region that has been mined for silver for five centuries, is one of the poorest in Bolivia. Closer home is Orissa, Bihar and Jharkand which provide most of India’s minerals. Bihar has been for many years India’s ‘least developed’ state, while Orissa, in 2005, was ranked as the ‘poorest’ in the country. Mined regions even in advanced and middle-income countries have been the last to share in aggregated wealth. In 1870, Cornwall had 2,000 tin and copper mines. When the last pit was closed in 1998, Cornwall had the highest proportion of low-paid workers. Mineral-dependent economies, largely in Africa, are more likely to experience zero or even negative growth, since labour and capital move away from sustainable sectors to the extractive sector, and domestic products lose their competitive edge on international markets.


And of course, ‘understanding’ risks, albeit from a safe distance, is not the same as being willing to undergo it oneself. Recently, activists from the Alberta Environmental Network showed up at the Oil and Gas Investment Symposium in Calgary, Canada, held by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The event brought together 85 companies and 375 investors from Canada, the US, and around the world. Those present at the meeting were offered drinking water that Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation peoples claim is toxic. They experience high rates of rare cancers and auto-immune diseases, which they believe are linked to the development of the tar sands.


None of the producers/owners, investors, CEOs drank the water.
 


26th August 2006


On August 26, 2006, more than 50,000 people took part in protests against the proposed mine, in Phulbari town. People from adjoining towns and villages poured in. The Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force, opened fire on the protesters. Three young men, Tariqul, son of the municipal commissioner and panel chairman, Ameen, a young carpenter, and Salehin of the adjoining upazila Nawabganj died instantly. One to two hundred people are reported to have been injured in the violence unleashed by the BDR and police.


I turn to Zaeed and Boby’s uncut video footage. A woman describes angrily, ‘It was around maghreb, just before the call for prayers, the photographers had left, TV reporters too, that’s when they attacked us.’ To leave no photographic evidence? Another woman butts in, ‘We had chased out the police, I was so furious, I have never had the courage before, since that day I have learnt how to fight. Now, I have limitless courage. I am not afraid to die.’ The woman speaking earlier returns to her story, ‘The military [read BDR] began beating up people, they entered into our homes, they tore down the tin roofs.’ She is indignant, ‘These are people who are meant to protect us, they are law-enforcers.’ Another woman speaks up, ‘Did any of them die? They never do. Did any of them suffer any injuries?’


A woman who was badly beaten says, ‘The BDR entered our villages, they went from house to house. How dare they enter our villages? So we chased them out. But then they regrouped, they came after us. I couldn’t escape, they caught me and beat me very badly.’ The shot shows other women in the courtyard, nodding their heads as they listen.


Off-screen I hear a female voice, ‘Can the government ever defeat the janata?’ A woman wearing a printed sari on-screen says, ‘It is the government which breeds terrorists, they tear down the shops of poor people, they snatch away cigarettes and other items, they break these little cigarette stalls that are run by young boys for a living.’ Another off-screen voice, also a woman’s, speaks up, ‘Ordinary people are never terrorists.’


Most of the women, in no uncertain words, condemned Khaleda Zia, the then prime minister, for having sold out the interests of the country. What kind of a woman is she? Sending soldiers after us, dragging our husbands out of our homes. Does she want to make us widows? Their language was laced with four-letter words, often directed at her, at times at the then energy ministry adviser, Mahmudur Rahman, sometimes at the whole cabinet. I brought up the issue with Nurul Kabir, the editor of this paper. He said with a wry smile, ‘I am most respectful of subaltern languages, but wouldn’t it offend bhodrolok sensibilities?’ We laugh and talk about the gentrification of language, a class-ed mechanism of ruling. Who was it who had said there can be feelings without language, but no language without feelings? Was it not the historian Collingwood? I muse over issues of language, of home and belonging as I search the web and read through newspaper reports of the 26th, and after. I come across news reports stating the energy ministry adviser, Mahmudur Rahman, blamed a ‘small group of leftist parties without any influence whatsoever’ for orchestrating the deaths and injury to people at Phulbari. Asia Energy Bangladesh’s CEO Gary Lye’s words mirror Mahmudur Rahman’s, ‘It’s up to the government, but it would appear to us that the unforgivable events and the needless loss of life and suffering that took place in Phulbari are entirely the fault of the organisers.’


Those who campaign against the ruthless exploitative practices of trans-national mining companies say, increased investment results in human rights abuses, especially against rural communities which the companies want to dislocate and uproot. They also say that the role of the state in extractive sector governance and citizens’ protection diminishes, while its role in protecting and promoting the interests of trans-national corporations increases. One sees that happening in Phulbari, over Asia Energy’s proposed Phulbari coal project.


Mozammel member, a pourasabha member, says in defence of the project, ‘If the government wishes it, how can we prevent it from happening?’ People around him ask, ‘But why do you want the coalmine? Can you not see that it is not in the interests of the people?’ His answer is cruel and simple, ‘We are not for the people. We are for the government.’
 


The compensation story


In the Blood-Soaked Banner, a man who describes himself as a petty businessman says, ‘Yes, the coal project will bring benefits to some, to those who have built three-storey buildings in the town, those who have made plans of where to relocate, where to build new homes, the businesses that they will start, even, what kind of houses they will build for themselves.’ It will benefit those already-privileged, those who are townspeople. But not those who live off the land, those who make a living from agriculture, from day-labour, and the innumerable number of ways through which poor people make a living. In other words, the majority.


Abdul Jalil of Chouhati, Barapukuria was asked about the compensation that he had received from the government. ‘They gave it in little, little instalments, it took ages, the money dried up as I walked back and forth to collect it.’ Compensation is also tied up with land deeds and titles, a method of possession and ownership that is antagonistic to the adivasi tradition, and their claims to ancestral land. That is probably why Lawrence Tudu of Buski, Birampur says, ‘We will not leave this village, we will not leave our homestead, we will not leave the soil, if necessary, my remains will get buried under this soil.’


Poor people’s claims to compensation are entangled in bureaucracy, and in corporate controlled channels of profiteering. Corporations themselves evade responsibility and accountability as one sees in Magurcchara and Tengratila, where international oil companies have shown great reluctance to pay compensation for the miserable accidents that have occurred.


And compensation for killings? Ameen’s mother when asked said yes, I have received two lakh taka from the government, as compensation. And another twenty thousand from Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, the then opposition party (interestingly enough, it was the Awami League government that awarded the licensing agreement to Asia Energy, in 1998). But, she says, I hurt, I grieve for my son. I raised him, does compensation lessen my loss? Will money ever call out ‘ma’, or ‘baba’?
 


Democracy, a world of power


Democracy, writes historian and subaltern theorist Partha Chatterjee in his recent work, ‘The Politics of the Governed’, is no longer government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Twentieth-century techniques of governing population groups, widespread acceptance of the idea of popular sovereignty, the creation of governmental bodies that administer populations but do not provide its citizens with arenas of democratic deliberation, these conditions, says Chatterjee, give rise to democracy becoming a world of power. A world which has startling dimensions, and unwritten rules of engagement.


I see the people of Phulbari voice a collective identity, framed, at first, within the politics of electoral democracy. We have brought this government to power. How can they not do what we want? It is my vote that decides who will be the member of parliament. I elect the chairman. He must work for me, in my interests. A woman adds, what kind of a government is it that pushes us into waging movements? That destroys our peaceful lives, that takes away our sons? We want to return to our normal lives. Increasingly, people’s voices become more assertive. If the government does not value us, we will not value them either. If the government will not provide for us, we do not need this government. We do not need any government.


Amidst the strident assertiveness, a peasant’s words ring out clearly, ‘I am a khetmojur, I till the land. It is the crops I grow that feed the leaders. Am I more valuable, or they?’


Whether elected or un-elected, all governments, both leaders and state functionaries, need to be fed. They would be well-advised to listen to the voices of those who produce. After all, one cannot eat coal. Or money, either.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cabinet sends back coal policy draft for scrutiny

NewAge, August 14, 2008

The council of advisers on Wednesday sent back the draft coal policy for further scrutiny of the issues related to royalty rate, mined land reclamation and environmental issues.

The council, headed by the chief adviser, Fakhruddin Ahmed, at a meeting at the Chittagong circuit house, discussed the policy draft and the changes the Energy Division made to the earlier draft of the advisory committee of former BUET vice-chancellor Abdul Matin Patwari.

Although a number of advisers questioned whether the interim government which has only five months in hand should adopt such a sensitive policy, the council unanimously felt that a coal policy was needed to immediately address the growing energy crisis, said sources present at the meeting.

The Energy Division prepared the eighth draft dropping two provisions recommended by the Patwari committee related to the return of the mined land to owners and some criteria on setting the royalty rate. It also withdrew the sections on environmental management during mining from the main text of the policy and included them in the policy appendix.

Some advisers observed the mined land should be returned to owners while others felt returning the land to the owners would be a complex and huge task.

The advisers also debated whether the criteria for setting the royalty should be included in the policy as many felt the proposed 28-member coal sector development committee was enough to set the criteria while others said a set of guidelines should be there in the policy for the committee.

The council in principle agreed that with the current reserve, coal should not be exported and the state-run companies or joint ventures, led by any state-run companies, would get the exploration and mining licences.

The advisers also debated whether the environmental issues should be included in the appendix or in the main text of the policy.

‘The Energy Division was asked to review all the matters and submit the draft again to the council,’ said a source present at the meeting.

Another source said that the division would get a clear picture of what the council’s decision was after getting the minutes of the meeting. ‘Advisers gave their opinions and after getting the minutes, the division will get the idea of what decisions it will need to make on the policy,’ he said.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Draft coal policy for Mine Bangla: Proposal goes to cabinet today

Sharier Khan, The Daily Star, August 13, 2008

The eighth draft coal policy that emphasises immediate government-led action in coal sector to meet the country's surging energy demand is likely to be placed before the caretaker government's cabinet today.

The draft proposes to set up a "mine Bangla" in line with Petrobangla by 2010 to spearhead different mining schemes. This government body will take strategic partners from private sector through open tenders for quick development of the schemes.

Other proposals include compulsory release of 20 percent shares of a mining venture to the local market as per the laws of the Securities Exchange Commission. When selling back, shareowners will be only able to sell those to the government at market price.

"Because of excessive revisions and inputs from a wide number of people, the draft policy now sounds more like a law than a policy," says a source. "And this was exactly the observation of the law ministry about the policy when the energy ministry sent the draft to the law ministry a few months back."

The draft policy tries to touch almost all aspects of coal development. "That is why the law ministry observed that instead of such a policy, the government should work on several laws instead of just one," the source adds.

The coal policy was first drafted in December 2005. The seventh draft was prepared by a committee to review the draft policy. Headed by former VC of Buet Prof Abdul Matin Patwari, the 10-member committee submitted its report to the energy ministry in December last year.

The ministry itself has also modified some of the contents. Only recently, the ministry has forwarded the draft to the Cabinet Division for approval by the cabinet.

Under this policy, private companies will not have sole ownership over any coal mining deal and must come as partners with a national coalmining company.

The draft restricts export of coal to be used as fuel, allowing exports of higher grade coking coal.

It lays out a detailed plan on how the government should handle rehabilitation and resettlement of communities that will be displaced by a mining project. The Patwari committee had suggested that the land acquired by a project be returned to the original owner upon completion of the project.

The land and the law ministries however deleted this part as it conflicts with the laws of the land. "Once the government acquires a piece of land, it can't be returned to the original owner. The government can however restore the land and allow its agricultural use," says a source.

The policy does not restrict open pit mining, as was initially demanded by some pressure groups. Instead, it identifies mining method as a technical issue, which should be decided on the basis of individual cases and technical viability.

The policy prioritises private partnership that puts highest emphasis on coal-fired power projects.

A 29-member committee led by the energy ministry will review coal sector master plan, royalty, the sector's development issues from time to time and give decisions.

By 2010, the government must frame a coal sector master plan, identify coal zones, review coal industry infrastructures and initiate restructuring measures.

It will also restructure the Bureau of Minerals Development and Geological Survey of Bangladesh and chalk measures to protect the environment and develop the legal frameworks for it.

The government will also have to chalk out a security measure for mines and a plan to reclaim land.

The draft recommends that the government decide on implementing an open pit mine as a "test case" in the northern part of the Barapukuria underground mine. If such a venture is "commercially successful", the government will review all technical aspects and take follow-up measures.

"There has been no study by any group about such an open pit mine in Barapukuria. How can this committee suggest this? Besides, who would invest for a test case if there is no guarantee of any profit?" asks another source.

"Again, technically you also need bigger land for an open pit mine. The Barapukuria mine area has a power plant and other structures. Then is this a feasible idea or just an undue idea?" the source quips.

The draft policy says till 2025 if Bangladesh's GDP remains as low as 5.5 percent, the country will need to add 19,000 megawatt additional power. On the other hand, if the GDP is as high as 8 percent, additional 41,000 MW power will be needed.

But at the same time, Petrobangla says production of gas, which has been the key source for power generation, will start to decline from 2011. This is where the country's coal should play a role.

It adds that to meet its power demands in a GDP growth rate scenario of 5.5 percent, Bangladesh will need 136 million tonnes of coal till 2025. If the GDP rate is 8 percent, then Bangladesh will need 450 million tonnes coal.

The draft says the country's existing four discovered coal fields of Barapukuria, Phulbari, Khalashpir and Dighipara can cater this need till 2030 or so.