Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Let not Barapukuria turn into another Phulbari

Editorial: NewAge, February 4, 2009

THE government looks set to develop an open-pit coalmine at Barapukuria in Dinajpur after underground mining triggered land subsidence, so says a report published in New Age on Tuesday. The government, according to the report, has already asked members of parliament and local government representatives in Dinajpur to motivate people in favour of an open-pit operation at the Barapukuria coalfield. The report also says the local people have been advised to propose resettlement, rehabilitation and compensation packages.

Open-pit coalmine has been a sensitive issue ever since Asia Energy, a UK-based mining company, proposed to develop an open-pit coalmine at Phulbari in Dinajpur. Three persons were killed and several others wounded in August 2006 when law enforcers opened fire on a procession, brought out as part of a sustained campaigned by a citizens' platform called the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port. There are a number of other organisations, including the Bangladesh Economic Association, and sections of citizens who are opposed to development of an open-pit mine.

Critics say open-pit mining causes long-term and severe environmental damage. The effect can be felt not just in the area around the mine but also from miles away as toxic waste drain into the natural water system. Groundwater for miles around the mine sees a drastic fall. Considering that this northern part of Bangladesh is very fertile and produces a substantial amount of cereal every year, which is crucial for the country's food security. Environmental damage, besides resulting in potential crop losses, would also affect public health. Even after the mine has been filled and land returned, it is unlikely that the soil would instantly regain its fertility.

It should also be noted that typical sites of open-pit coalmines around the world are located in areas where population density is far below than that of Dinajpur and thus risks affecting the livelihoods of many more than practical experiences—instances from China, Germany or Australia—might indicate. Although the draft coal policy—which is yet to be adopted—allows the provision of one open-pit mine on a limited scale to gauge its effect on environment, other thorny issues like coal export and resettlement plans still unresolved. Also, there is yet to be a comprehensive mining or energy policy governing the extraction of fossil fuel or other minerals. While all this time there have been raging debates about the merits and demerits of a coalmine, neither the government nor any of the organisations opposing open-pit method has conducted a thorough cost-benefit analysis of open-pit mine.

We urge the government to commission a thorough analysis of the potential costs involved, including environmental damage, foregone production of crop, loss of livelihood for at least the duration of mining, loss of forests, timber and biodiversity, costs for rehabilitation, resettlement and compensation of the local people, infrastructure expenditure and establishment of rail link from the mine site. These costs should then be compared against the potentially realistic benefits to find out if open-pit mining has an economic rationale in the first place. Only then could we have a sound basis for substantive argument for or against coalmining methods.