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At least 2,000 demonstrators blockaded a major highway in northwest Bangladesh this week to protest government plans for open pit coal mining in Phulbari and nearby Barapukuria and demand compensation for lost crops and the destruction of their lands.
Demonstrators called on the government to honor a six-point agreement signed on August 31, 2006. The agreement bans open pit coal mining throughout Bangladesh, and calls for the permanent expulsion of the Phulbari Mine Project's financier, Global Coal Management (formerly Asia Energy), from the country.
Demonstrators also demanded long-term compensation and rehabilitation for crops and lands damaged by land subsidence around the Barapukuria Coal Mine.
The protest rally and blockade on February 28, 2011 began at 11:00 am and stranded some 500 passenger buses and vehicles on both sides of the highway for an hour. It was organized by Bangladesh's National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Seaports.
If protestor's demands are not met by March 27, they intend to organize a six-hour road and rail blockade on the highway linking Barapukuria and Phulbari on March 28.
Lessons Learned from the Barapukuria Coal Mine
Barapukuria is an underground coal mine located approximately 10 miles from Phulbari.
The severe environmental, social, and political problems caused by the Barapukuria mine should serve as a powerful warning to backers of the proposed Phulbari Coal Mine Project.
The 2,500-acre underground mine includes 650 acres of agricultural land on the surface. Mining operations at Barapukuria have destroyed roughly 300 acres of land, with devastating impacts on at least 2,500 people in seven villages thus far. Land subsidence of over one meter in depth has destroyed crops and lands and damaged homes so severely that many are no longer inhabitable.
There are recent reports of hunger among affected households. People in 15 villages have lost their access to water, as huge quantities of water pumped out for the Barapukuria mine caused a rapid drop in water levels. The water level is now too low to be accessed by normal tube wells that these households depended on for water prior to the mine.
Government officials acknowledge that the number of people affected by land subsidence in Barapukuria will continue to grow, with mine operations expected to cause over four square kilometers of land to sink by two meters over time.
Victims of land subsidence are seeking compensation and repair of their homes. However, the Daily Star, a leading Bangladeshi newspaper, reports that the mine's operator, Barapukuria Coal Mine Company Ltd (BCMCL), has proposed building and resettling them in eight to ten "tin sheds".
Faced with resistance by people in Barapukuria, Towfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, the energy adviser to the prime minister, announced that the government was considering plans to establish a "Coal City" near Barapukuria, which would provide housing and new sources of livelihood for victims of land subsidence.
According to Towfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, the resettlement of people whose homes have been destroyed is to be carried out in phases. The Coal City would initially be designed to provide homes and livelihoods for 10,000 families, but may ultimately expand to 100,000 families.
It is unclear what the new sources of livelihood will be for thousands of farming households whose lands have been destroyed once they are resettled in Coal City. However, in light of government assurances that they will minimize the acquisition of agricultural lands when acquiring lands to build the Coal City, we can expect that few if any of these households will be able to resume farming.
It is also unclear where or how lands sufficient to ultimately house as many as 100,000 people will be found in Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. This raises a critical question: will the lands for the resettlement of people displaced by the Barapukuria mine be acquired through more forced eviction?
The devastating environmental impacts and human toll caused by mining in Barapukuria strongly support concerns that have been raised by Global Coal Management's aggressive efforts to establish an open pit coal mine in the neighboring township of Phulbari - despite the strong and sustained opposition to the proposed project and the company.
Similarly, recurring accidents resulting from technical failings at the Barapukuria mine raise serious concerns about worker safety -- as well as Bangladesh's current capacity for exercising the regulatory oversight and enforcement needed to safely establish and operate what experts agree would be a technically challenging mine at Phulbari.
Accidents at Barapukuria began with a major disaster during the development phase, when underground water flooded the original shaft in the late 1990s and stalled the mine's progress for months. Since coal production began in 2005, there have been a series of fatal and near-fatal accidents, including the death of a British mining expert caused by inhaling poisonous gases, a gas leakage accident in 2005 that required the closing and sealing off a portion of the mine with equipment valued at one million dollars trapped inside, and most recently, a roof cave-in on May 11, 2010 that killed one worker and wounded 19 people.
Engineers report that government policy makers have failed to heed their warnings about inadequate health, safety and environmental provisions in the Barapukuria mine, with some stating that standard safety procedures are virtually non-existent at the mine.
Recurring accidents and the devastating impacts of land subsidence at the Barapukuria mine confirm that it is time to listen to the experts' warnings regarding the proposed open pit mine at Phulbari: catastrophic environmental consequences are likely if the government approves plans for a technically challenging project aimed at extracting coal that is buried at depths of up to 300 meters.
The political and social risks are equally severe. Three people have already lost their lives and hundreds have been wounded in Phulbari in the fight to protect their homes and lands from the devastation suffered by their neighbors in Barapukuria. Despite the use of violence against them, people threatened by the Phulbari mine have vowed to continue their fight.
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"Six-Point Demand: Villagers of Phulbari, Barapukuria block highway," Staff Correspondent, Dinajpur, The Daily Star, Tuesday, March 1, 2011.
"Compensation for Barapukuria Subsidence: Miners, villagers strike deal," Sharier Khan, The Daily Star, May 23, 2009
"Major decisions on coal likely within this year: Govt working on approval of coal policy, open-pit mining at Barapukuria, resettlement of affected people," Sharier Khan, The Daily Star, May 21, 2009.
"Army deployed at Barapukuria coal mine," Staff Correspondent, Dinajpur, The Daily Star, May13, 2009.
"Barapukuria Coal Mine: Committee for acquiring 3.5 sq km area," Staff Correspondent, NewAge, March 13, 2009.
"Barapukuria coal mine in trouble: 800 miners lose job, production stopped since Feb 18, villagers press for compensation," Kongkon Karmakar & Sharier Khan, The Daily Star, March 6, 2009