|Photos courtesy of Taslima
Akhfter & Anha F. Khan|
By Kate Hoshour, IAP Senior Research Fellow
The aim of halting one of the world's largest open pit coalmines has united tens of thousands of people in Bangladesh and they are, once again, on the move this week.
The major highways and rural byways of Bangladesh have been transformed, as thousands of people have converged from numerous sub-districts to unite in a one-week march stretching more than 250 miles.
Starting out on October 24th from the nation's capital of Dhaka, marchers have now been on the move for six days, gaining in strength as they convene meetings and rallies at strategic points along their route. Their march will terminate tomorrow afternoon in a massive rally in the township of Phulbari – where plans to establish one of the world’s largest open pit coal mines are back on the table, yet again, despite a government agreement to the contrary and sustained opposition from Bangladeshis and an international coalition of human rights and environmental campaigners and organizations, including IAP.
If implemented, the Phulbari Coal Project would displace as many as 220,000 people, including some 2,200 indigenous households, while also reducing their water supplies. The vast mine would destroy one of the most important agricultural regions in Bangladesh, a country where nearly half of all people do not have enough food. The project also threatens a wetlands UNESCO-protected mangrove forest that serves as a vital barrier against cyclones and floods, poses the risk of acid rain contamination of soil and water, and would spew massive amounts of greenhouse gases into our troubled atmosphere.
The march was sparked by aggressive attempts to re-start the project, recently launched by the project's UK-based financier, Global Coal Management (GCM). Among the marcher’s key demands: the government must honor its agreement, signed in August of 2006, to halt plans for open pit coal mining in Phulbari; prohibit GCM from engaging in any further operations in Bangladesh; evict all GCM personnel from the country; and ensure that the nation's mineral resources, including coal, are used to maximize benefits to the people of Bangladesh and, in particular, those most directly threatened by destructive plans for their extraction.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of the circumstances in which the agreement to halt the Phulbari coal project was negotiated and signed. On August 26, 2006, as many as 70,000 people marched toward GCM’s office in Phulbari to protest the proposed coal mine. Tragically, paramilitary forces opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators, killing three people, including a 14-year old boy. Over 100 people were wounded, with some suffering severe and permanent injuries. Nation-wide protests and a four-day strike ensued, and were brought to an end only when the government agreed to halt the proposed project and evict GCM.
Despite this agreement - and the strong and sustained national and international opposition generated by this project - GCM recently submitted a new proposal for open-pit mining of coal in Phulbari.
In so doing, it is both disturbing and highly revealing that GCM also agreed in writing to change it’s name, at the request of government officials in Bangladesh - a tacit reference to the fact that any resumption of GCM’s operations in Bangladesh violate the terms of the 2006 agreement and be vehemently opposed by its supporters.
This tactical maneuver - tantamount to thumbing one's corporate nose at requirements for transparency and accountability - does not bode well for the tens of thousands of people whose homes, livelihoods, communities, and life-sustaining resources are threatened by GCM’s determination to push the Phulbari project forward regardless of the profound social, environmental, health, and political risks.
Read a powerful interview with one of the Long March organizers, Professor Anu Muhammad, here.
Please check back as we share more photos, updates and opportunities for action to support our friends in Phulbari at this critical moment in their campaign to protect their homes, livelihoods, and natural resources.