The Phulbari Coal Project was an open-pit coal mine project in Bangladesh proposed by Asia Energy Corporation, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of London-based GCM Resources.See more...
The project initially began when the Australian mining company BHP Minerals discovered coal at Phulbari when conducting surveying and drilling between 1994 and 1997. In 2005, the company decided to sell its rights to mine to the UK-based Asia Energy Corporation, which then proposed an open-pit mining project in the same year. The corporation was granted environmental clearance for the project by the Bangladesh Department of Environment on 11 September 2005, although it was still missing the government's final approval.
The project would have threatened local populations through its impact in different ways. It was estimated that around 50,000 people would have been displaced and resettled by the company while as many as 220,000 could have been displaced over time as the mining operations would drain water from their wells and irrigation canals. The International Accountability Project (IAP) carried out an analysis of the company's draft resettlement plan and concluded that the plan grossly understated the number of people that the project would actually need to displace. Also, the coal project would lead to the eviction or impoverishment of 50,000 indigenous people who are part of 23 different tribal groups. Indigenous people have played a crucial role during the protests since 2006, when also the Bangladesh National Indigenous Union called for support to halt the project. Moreover, the coal project would also harm crops and farming, as it would destroy up to almost 4,900 hectares of the country's most fertile and productive agricultural land in the Dinajpur district, which serves as Bangladesh's rice bowl. Finally, environmental impacts affecting public health as well as threats to the right to water have been cited in relation to the project.
According to Bank Information Centre, "Asian Development Bank’s Private Sector Operations Department (PSOD) is promoting this project for an investment loan and a political risk guarantee in spite of major setbacks to the project. PSOD staff believe that the project will economically benefit Bangladesh and provide it much needed energy. ADB has approved the SEIA and is awaiting final resettlement action plans and indigenous people’s plans. Under ADB rules, the private client interested in ADB funds can also conduct the mandatory studies required for high environmental and social impact projects such as Phulbari. ADB “safeguard specialists” on involuntary resettlement, environmental impacts and indigenous people are expected to approve these studies before the project is sent for Board Approval. PSOD cleared the concept for this project on 14 October 2005. Civil Society Organizations contend that the project violates ADB’s Energy Policy (1995), Indigenous Peoples Policy (1998), Involuntary Resettlement Policy (1995), Environment Policy (2002), and Public Communication Policy (2005)." .
Protests emerged in the wake of the project when 50,000 people took their anger to the streets on 26 August 2006 in a march against the Phulbari open-pit coal project. During the protest, three people were killed and at least hundred more were wounded by the paramilitary organization the “Bangladesh Rifles”. Two days later, in response to the violence, protesters organized a nation-wide strike and managed to shut down the country for four days. The strike was ended on 31 August 2006 when the Bangladesh government agreed to sign a six-point agreement, which included the following commitments: ban of open-pit mining in the district, institute local ownership over local resources, provide energy security, cancel bad deals, ban exports of mineral resources and strengthen national capacity to ban open-pit mining in all of Phulbari. Also, they pledged to exclude Asia Energy Corporation from the country.
Two years after the 2006 protest and the three deaths, protesters held a vigil on 26 August 2008. At the same time, 100 organizations from all over the world signed a letter to companies involved in the open-pit mine project calling upon them to end their investment. As a result, the Asian Development Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays Bank sold their shares and distanced themselves from the project. Another commemoration was held one year later in August 2009 and a 7-day march was organized against the Phulbari coal project in October 2010.
On 28 February 2011, a highway in the region was blocked by around 2,000 protesters who demanded that the government honour the six-point agreement made in 2006. Bangladesh's “Rapid Action Battalion”, a group that had been denounced by human rights organizations as being a government death squad, was deployed to intimidate protesters and secure buildings and offices. Despite reports of other attacks, groups of protesters continued their campaign and blocked roads and railway lines until May 2011. They were backed in their demands by 80 international organizations sending a letter to the Phulbari investors in 2011 as well as by the London Mining Network and the United Nations independent human rights experts, requesting the government not to start open-pit mining operations in 2012.
In 2012, another commemoration was held in August, in other to remember the protesters killed in 2006. When the government banned gatherings of more than four people on 23 November in order to stop people from protesting the project, thousands of protesters took the streets of Phulbari again, breaking through police barricades and declaring a two-day general strike. In the wake of 2013, on 1 January, protesters gave Asia Energy a deadline to vacate their offices by the end of March. After different investors backed out, GCM's Finance Director Graham Taggart resigned. Protests and commemorations were held again on 26 August 2013 in Bangladesh, named as “Phulbari Day” and on 4 December 2013 in London.
Finally, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced on 6 February 2014 that the issue of coal extraction was to be left to “future technology as food security and protecting the land of the farmers is the first priority”. After almost eight years of protest, the people of Phulbari finally achieved their goal to stop the Phulbari open-pit coal mining project.