Coal Deposits in Bangladesh – boon or
Q: Where are the coal deposits, where is Phulbari and what
is the fuss all about?
A: Phulbari is commonly used to refer to the region in the
north west of Bangladesh where significant coal deposits have been found. The area covers
more than a hundred villages of seven unions in four Upazilas -- Phulbari,
Birampur, Nawabganj and Parbatipur. Thousands of acres of cropland fall within
Asia Energy, a UK-based company, is in
contract with the Bangladesh government to mine coal in Phulbari in a scheme
called the Phulbari Coal Project. Asia Energy plc is a new company, incorporated in London
in September 2003. Asia Energy now
trades under the name Global Coal Management., the name change subsequent to
the campaign against the project which culiminated in a clash with Bangladesh
police and other state agencies in August 2006.
Sunset over Phulbari in the proposed mining area - January 2007. The
area that would be damaged by the open-pit mines is a densely populated
agricultural land that yields three crops a year.
Q: Wouldn’t this be a good thing, to have foreign investment
project is expected to generate about 1,100 permanent jobs and another 2,200
temporary jobs. The company claims that each employment in its project will
create 10 more projects indirectly and thus will lead to the generation of
20,000 additional jobs. The coal is to
be extracted for export by the mining company and the government of Bangladesh
is to receive 6% royalty. According to
the proposal, coal exports will be double of domestic consumption for the first
10 years of the project. In subsequent
years, the company has proposed to export an amount of coal that will be equal
to domestic consumption. Critics point out that this will lead to the quick
depletion of a non-renewable energy source.
These expected benefits do not measure against the environmental and
are the costs?
to Asia Energy’s deliberately conservative estimates, the project would
displace more than 40,000 people, although independent estimates range between
50,000 and 1,500,000. Among the
displaced would be over 2,000 Santals, who are an indigenous people and the
second largest ethnic minority in Bangladesh.
The Phulbari area has a high
agricultural productivity, yielding three rice crops a year. Experts apprehend that underground aquifers
will dry up in 324 square kilometers surrounding the mine because coal
extraction will require de-watering the underground aquifers, and beyond this
area, there will be a consequent lowering of water-table. Thus agricultural production in
that large area would be seriously affected.
This should be of concern since the northern region of Bangladesh is quite
fertile and contributes a substantial portion of the country’s annual
production of cereals and other crops. According to Kristan Deconinck, a
business reporter of the BBC, ‘Studies in open-pit mining in other countries,
and particularly one from Pennsylvania in the United States, found that one
river 160 kilometers from the pit was still poisoned three decades later.’ (July
is open pit coal mining?
The definition of a open pit mine is
"an excavation or cut made at the surface of the ground for the purpose of
extracting ore and which is open to the surface for the duration of the mine’s
life." To expose and mine the ore, it is generally necessary to excavate
and relocate large quantities of waste rock. The main objective in any
commercial mining operation is the exploitation of the mineral deposit at the
lowest possible cost with a view of maximizing profits.
the pit filled up after use?
coal surfaces are exposed, pyrite (iron sulfide), also known as "fool's
gold", comes in contact with water and air and forms sulfuric acid. As
water drains from the mine, the acid moves into the waterways, and as long as
rain falls on the mine tailings the sulfuric acid production continues, whether
the mine is still operating or not. If the coal is strip mined, the entire
exposed seam leaches sulfuric acid, leaving the infertile subsoil on the
surface and begins to pollute streams by acidifying and killing fish, plants,
and aquatic animals that are sensitive to drastic pH shifts.
By the late 1930s, it was estimated that
American coal mines produced about 2.3 million tones of sulfuric acid annually.
In the Ohio River Basin, where twelve hundred operating coal mines drained an
estimated annual 1.4 million tones of sulfuric acid into the waters in the
1960s and thousands of abandoned coal mines leached acid as well. In
Pennsylvania alone, mine drainage had blighted 2,000 stream miles by 1967.
are other methods for the extraction of coal?
A: Burrow or underground mining of the coal is
possible. Boropokaria in Phulbari is one
such project that has been producing coal for several years with minmal
disruption to the countryside. However
mining companies prefer having an open pit to extract the coal because that
allows maximum profit.
Q: What do the people of the Phulbari region have to say
about the project?
A: The Phulbari township has
witnessed rallies by the Phulbari Protection Committee every Saturday for more
than a year. A rally on August 26, 2006 was organized by the ‘National
Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port’, a citizens’
group that has been steadfastly vocal against extractive, predatory industries
in Bangladesh for almost a decade. At the
end of this rally, as a considerable bulk of the 50,000-strong congregation had
dispersed, the police and BDR opened fire and five people were killed, with at
least two being shot in their chest, and hundreds were wounded.
Minorities such as these Santals in Bangladesh are at often at the mercy of
powerful forces amongst the majority Bangalees. This village in the Dinajpur
area was burnt by looters in a land-grab effort in January 2007. Because
of their weaker social standing these communities will lose land and lives in
any forced evacuation.
Q: What are the issues with AEC?
As detailed in the company
prospectus, the company was organized in late 2003 for the express purpose of
the exploration and development of the Phulbari coal mining project. with less
than 2 million pounds in assets. It is to be noted that the company had virtually
no capital when they were looking to get the rights for the Phulbari project. (http://www.asia-energy.com/presentations/Asia_Energy_Prospectus.pdf#search='asia%20energy%20and%20prospectus%20and%20AIM)
Q: But these deposits are our national wealth – can we just leave it all underneath the ground?
A: Asia Energy claims that
Bangladesh will receive half of the total profit accrued from the mining
operation. The profit includes 6 percent royalty, 45 percent corporate tax and
2.5 percent import duty.
The question needs to be who in Bangladesh will be the
beneficiaries, and who will be asked to make the sacrifices. While some people and groups no doubt will
benefit from the coal exploitation, it is not the people who are asked to give
up their lands and livelihood. In
addition, the consumers do not necessarily benefit, because is Bangladesh will have to buy its own coal from the
company at an international price.
is the Alliance's position regarding coal and energy in general?
A: The Alliance is aware that there is growing need for more energy
sources in Bangladesh, but considers the campaign to promote open-pit coal
mining in the context of the lack of any clear energy strategy, despite
several policy initiatives, reports and drafts. A comprehensive strategy should
focus on alleviating the chronic shortage in electricity supply, long-term
planning and management of the gas and coal sectors, development of other
appropriate energy resources, especially renewable energy sources, greater
emphasis on energy efficiency, greater attention to the rural energy sector, and
protection of the environment from adverse or unintended impacts of energy