Kate Hoshour, International Accountability Project, Senior Research Fellow
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Phulbari, Bangladesh - May 5th, 2011 - On the afternoon of May 5th, a peaceful anti-coal demonstration by local villagers in Bangladesh suddenly turned bloody. The resort to violence is the latest in a series of events that have made the proposed Phulbari Coal Project, along with nearby mining in Barapukuria, one of the most fiercely contested coal projects in the world. The United States Ambassador has also been implicated in a recent WikiLeaks cable, which shows the Obama administration exerting covert political pressure to push the project forward despite a six-year fight to halt it and recurring violence against people protesting the mine.
"At about 3pm today, as people gathered in Barapukuria, some hooligans backed by the minister attacked the peaceful demonstration, including women and children," reported Professor Anu Muhammad of Jahangirnagar University, who serves as Secretary of the nation-wide people's organization that is leading the movement against the Phulbari Coal Project, the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas & Minerals (http://www.protectresourcesbd.org).
"Many were injured, including one National Committee leader, SMA Khaleque, who is now in the hospital in serious condition. Both his hands are broken by the criminals. But people continue to speak out and the protests are continuing," added Muhammad. Protestors have vowed to remain in place and continue a blockade of key road and railway lines in the region until 10 a.m. on May 6th.
The proposed Phulbari Coal Project in northwest Bangladesh would destroy 14,500 acres of the nation's most fertile farmland to make way for an immense open-pit coalmine. The project would extract 572 million tons of coal over a lifespan of at least 36 years, and construct at least one 500 MW coal-fired power plant that would emit greenhouse gases for decades to come. In addition, a 2008 Expert Committee Report commissioned by the Bangladeshi government found that nearly 130,000 (129,417) people would be forcibly evicted and displaced from their homes and lands, most of whom are indigenous and farming families with multi-generational ties to the land.
The project is currently stalled and awaiting government approval, which has been delayed while the government considers a national ban on open-bit coal mining. The government is expected to release a new national energy policy, including a decision on open-pit mining, by June of this year. The grassroots movement formed in opposition to the Phulbari Coal project has become increasingly linked to community-led campaigns in the nearby Barapukuria region, where a national "pilot project" to open-pit mining in Bangladesh is being proposed.
The May 5th protest follows a wave of recent mobilizations in Bangladesh, including a seven-day "Long March that began on October 24th, 2010, when tens of thousands of Bangladeshi citizens united to march 250 miles from the capital city of Dhaka to the Phulbari region in northwest Bangladesh.
This week's violence is not the first time that efforts to push forward the coal mine have resulted in bloodshed: In August of 2006, paramilitary forces opened fire on thousands of peaceful demonstrators opposing the mine, killing three people, including a 14-year-old boy, and injuring more then 200.
During the most recent protests, Bangladesh's notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) has been deployed to intimidate protesters and guard the office of the project's UK-based investor, Global Coal Management. Denounced by international human rights organizations as a government death squad, RAB is feared for it routine use of torture and the alarming number of extra-judicial killings that occur in RAB custody.
WikiLeaks cables released in December 2010 exposed that the US Ambassador to Bangladesh, James Moriarty, has been actively engaged in promoting the Phulbari Coal Project. In the cable, sent in July of 2009, Moriarty notes that the mine is "politically sensitive in the light of the impoverished, historically oppressed tribal community residing on the land." Nonetheless, Moriarty urged the Prime Minister's energy advisor to authorize the project, saying that "open-pit mining seemed the best way forward" and citing 60% US investment in the company behind the project, Global Goal Management (formerly known as Asia Energy).
Global Coal Management Resources plc (GCM), a UK-based company, and their wholly owned subsidiary Asia Energy Corporation (Bangladesh) Pty Limited, control the Phulbari Coal Project, their sole asset. Over 53% of all GCM shares are owned by four companies that make up the Luxor Capital Group, all of which are owned by Christian Leone, a US citizen who also operates a New-York-based hedge fund in his own name.
Commenting on Moriarty's interference, Professor Anu Muhammad said "We have seen for decades that the US Embassy works as lobby staff for corporations-and not for the people."
"How can the mining company, Global Coal Management-and the US government-continue to ignore this opposition?" questioned Joanna Levitt, Executive Director of the San Francisco-based human rights group International Accountability Project (IAP) which has been following the case since 2008. "The outcry in Phulbari has grown into possibly the largest anti-coal movement in the world, and yet the Obama administration continues to aggressively push forward this project, without any regard for democratic process in Bangladesh," Levitt added.
"If a mine like Phulbari goes ahead," said Professor Mohammad from his home in Phulbari, "it is not just our local people here who lose when our homes and lands are destroyed. All people lose, US people too, because environment is a global issue."
IAP Senior Research Fellow Kate Hoshour commented, "Let's not forget the global warming impacts. The Phulbari project would dramatically expand coal-based energy production, the worst offender in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and dirty energy, and it is being proposed for a country that is among the most vulnerable in the world to the impacts of climate change."
To learn more about the project, see IAP's webpage on Phulbari at: http://www.AccountabilityProject.org/phulbari