When thousands of Bangladeshi take to the streets again on March 28th as part of a decade-long battle to halt a devastating British-owned open-pit coal mine, the world will not only be watching whether Bangladesh's government will honor a coal ban agreement from 2006 or resort to violence.
In light of disturbing WikiLeaks cables, American and worldwide human rights and environmental organizations will also be questioning why the Obama administration is covertly pushing for Bangladesh to reverse course and acquiesce to an internationally condemned open-pit mine that will displace an estimated 100,000-200,000 villagers and ravage desperately needed farmland and water resources.
The short answer, from US Ambassador James Moriarty's leaked memos: "Asia Energy, the company behind the Phulbari project, has sixty percent US investment. Asia Energy officials told the Ambassador they were cautiously optimistic that the project would win government approval in the coming months."
Two years ago, an independent review of the coal mine by a British research firm warned:
"Phulbari Coal Project threatens numerous dangers and potential damages, ranging from the degradation of a major agricultural region in Bangladesh to pollution of the world's largest wetlands. The project's Summary Environmental Impact Assessment, and its full Environmental and Social Impact Assessment are replete with vague assurances, issuing many promises of future mitigation measures."
For US-based Cultural Survival and International Accountability Project, the Phulbari coal mine is nothing less than a "humanitarian and ecological disaster."
Last month, Cultural Survival and International Accountability Project joined with Jatiya Adivasi Parishad, Bangladesh's National Indigenous Union, to launch an international campaign to stop the open-pit mine and raise awareness of on-going Big Coal human rights and environmental violations in Bangladesh.
I did this interview with Paula Palmer, Director of the Global Response Program for Cultural Survival, to get the backstory on this growing international crisis and CS/IAP's letter-writing campaign.
JB: Can you briefly described the controversial history over the British company and the Phulbari open pit mine?
PP: This Earth Touch article has an excellent time-line of events starting with the Bangladesh government issuing prospecting and exploration contracts in 1994. It also tells the story of the massive August 26, 2006 protest that resulted in the death of three people, including a 13-year-old child. Huge public protests against the Phulbari coal project involving thousands of citizens started in 2005 and continue through today. In fact, this week there are daily protest events in various locations, building up to March 28, when organizers say they will blockade major highways unless the government responds to their demands. They are asking the government to honor the agreement signed after the August 26, 2006 protests, which committed the government to banning open pit coal mining and booting Asia Energy out of the country. Just about the only thing that actually changed after the 2006 protest is the name of the company, which became Global Coal Management.
What's fueling these protests? The project would forcibly displace over 100,000 people from their homes and their farms without offering them equivalent land in exchange, and reduce access to water for another 100,000 people (possibly forcing them to eventually leave their homes and farms). Among the potentially displaced are Indigenous peoples of more than 20 ethnicities who trace their ancestry in the region back 5,000 years. Clearly this forced displacement is the cause of the greatest public outcry against the project, but there are other reasons. The project will also contaminate the air and the water, destroy productive farmland in a country where nearly half the population is undernourished, and threaten the biologically and economically valuable marine and terrestrial life in the Sundarbans mangrove forest.
JB: The government must make a final decision by June. Do you foresee any compromise or canceling of the proposal?
PP: India and Bangladesh just signed an agreement for India to purchase electricity from the Phulbari coal-fired power plant, which seems to indicate a thumbs up for the project. But in the next week we are going to be seeing huge protests again, intensifying the pressure on the government. And international support for the protesters is growing too. Environmental and human rights organizations from the US, Canada, the UK, and India are now urging the government to abandon the project. The government also knows that we are monitoring its handling of the protests and its treatment of protesters for human rights abuses. How can it impose such a project against the will of tens of thousands of citizens?
JB: Why is Cultural Survival involved in the Phulbari dispute?
PP: Cultural Survival's Global Response program organizes international letter-writing campaigns at the request of Indigenous communities that are struggling to protect their lands and defend their rights. In January, we received a letter from the Jatiya Adivasi Parishad in Bangladesh (the National Indigenous Union), asking us to support their opposition to the Phulbari coal project. The project sponsors say that 2,300 Indigenous people will be forcibly removed from their homes and farms, but Jatiya Adivasi Parishad cites independent researchers who estimate the number as high as 50,000.
The impact of eviction on Indigenous Peoples is even greater than on other families. They fear that if their small communities are broken apart and dispersed, they will not be able to maintain the cultural traditions, religious practices, and languages that have sustained them for thousands of years. To them - the Karmakar, Shil, Kabra, Patni, Busab, Ghatoal, Bormon Paoch, Rajhongshi, Hari, Paal, Santal and others -- the mine may mean ethnocide. Most indigenous families own an acre of land - or less--and they augment their income by sharecropping, selling their labor, or making baskets and other crafts. Their cultural lives revolve around a calendar of religious ceremonies that are closely tied to the land, the harvest, the sacred groves and springs, and ancient burial grounds of their peoples. The mine would sever all those deep cultural ties and threaten their survival as unique peoples.
JB: Can you describe the impact of the Phulbari mine on local populations?
PP: Thousands of families would be immediately removed from the mine site, losing their homes and agricultural lands. The company cannot offer them equivalent land simply because there is none. This is concerning because studies of "development refugees" have shown that cash payments to families displaced by development projects frequently results in impoverishment. Independent researchers estimate that as many as 220,000 people around the mine site would eventually be affected by reduced access to water, forcing them to abandon their lands. There is no plan for compensating these people for their suffering and loss.
JB: What can Americans and other foreigners do to show their support of the villagers?
PP: Write letters to the prime minister of Bangladesh! This crisis offers the prime minister an opportunity to make a name for herself and for Bangladesh by turning away from the old model of foreign exploitation and fossil fuels, and leading the way toward a sustainable energy future. It makes sense for Bangladesh - a country that will suffer greatly from climate change - to reject coal, a primary driver of climate change. Letters from international citizens will help convince the prime minister to take a historic, principled stand. Go to the Take Action section of the Cultural Survival website, www.cs.org, to join the letter-writing campaign.