Open-pit coal mine project in Bangladesh threatens human rights – UN Experts, February 28, 2012

“If opened, the proposed mine would immediately displace an estimated 50,000 to 130,000 people, with up to 220,000 potentially being affected over time as irrigation channels and wells dry up.
The project would reportedly extract 572 million tons of coal over the next 36 years from a site covering nearly 6,000 hectares and destroy some 12,000 hectares of productive agricultural land.
“The Phulbari development would displace vulnerable farming communities, and threaten the livelihoods of thousands more by doing irreversible damage to water sources and ecosystems in the region,” the experts said.

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Coal Deposits in Bangladesh – boon or curse?

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 northwest 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 its boundaries

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 culminated 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 in Bangladesh?

A: The 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 the environmental and social costs.

Q: What are the costs?

A: According 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 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 12, 2006)

Q: What is open pit coal mining?

The definition of an 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.

Q: Isn’t the pit filled up after use?

A: When 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.

Q: What 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 minimal 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 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.

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.

Q: What is the Alliance’s position regarding coal and energy in general?

A: The Alliance is aware that there is a 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-related activities.