|Magazine 32: Garden of Coal Script
In: Signature Tune Begin
Hello. You’re listening to Panoscope, a fortnightly radio magazine produced by Panos Radio South Asia. In this edition of Panoscope we go to Phulbari, a small hamlet in north Bangladesh where, for the past several years, local residents have been resisting a coal-mining project that threatens to displace thousands of people. Matters came to an ugly and sad pass in August last year when the Bangladesh Rifles cracked down on a crowd of angry protestors. Three young boys died in the firing.
August 26, 2007… The military-backed caretaker government banned people from observing the first anniversary of the Phulbari tragedy; but this did not deter the determined villagers. Shops downed shutters, schools and colleges remained closed and the usually-busy streets were empty. The media called it an ‘undeclared curfew’.
In: SFX Sloganeering. mp3
The controversy revolves around a clandestine deal between the erstwhile Bangladesh government and a British coal company called Asia Energy. The company claims, the project will not only earn the country much-needed foreign exchange but also meet its rising energy needs. But people of Phulbari remain unconvinced as the project threatens to displace thousands of people, besides laying waste prime agricultural land.
The story is more than a decade old. In 1994, the Bangladesh Government had signed a contract with the Australian firm B-H-P Minerals International Exploration Incorporated. This agreement was transferred to Asia Energy in 1998. As per the deal, the company is slated to commence extraction by 2008… but details of the deal itself remain confidential. People don’t even know how they would be compensated for the loss of their lands and livelihoods.
The brutal violence of last year forced the government to sign an agreement with the people in which they promised to scrap the deal. Asia Energy went on the back foot as a result. As a P-R exercise, it even rechristened itself as Global Coal Management. A deceptive peace and calm prevailed since the incident…
But people are getting restless, yet again, as the company resumes its propaganda for the project. It recently took a group of journalists, policy makers and opinion builders to Germany, to demonstrate the soundness of open-pit mining.
Meanwhile, in a bid to be counter growing criticism of the project, the interim government has made changes to the coal policy, some of which seem to be in the public and national interest... However, the people of Phulbari are in no mood to relent; they seem to be steadfast in their ‘say-no-to-mining’ policy. Panoscope Correspondent Supriti Dhar brings you this report.
In: Garden of Coal Final Mixdown.mp3
In: Hanif-problem everywhere.mp3 (M - Bangla, overlay with English V/O)
I am Mohammed Abu Hanif… We live here; our ancestors also lived here. We will not allow our land to be mined. If they do mine, we will have to face several problems. We will fall sick… where will we go then?
This is our land… and we will live and die here. If the government can dig the coal under the land, we do not have any problem; but we will protest if they displace us. We cultivate more than 3 crops a year on this land… what will become of us?
In: Young man-against Govt.mp3 (M - Bangla, overlay with English V/O)
We hear that the government is trying to begin mining… what is wrong with them? How much money have they taken from Asia Energy? We cannot understand why the government wants to evict us from our lands to mine coal? That too… by demolishing our mosques and temples… all for a paltry six percent royalty? Is this fair? We will not allow it; not for any price… they can kill a hundred of us, but this is our final decision.
People of Phulbari are firmly opposed to mining in the area. Local leader Abdul Majid Chowdhury traces the evolution of the problem to the Boropukuria coal project for which land was acquired in 2003.
In: Imp-Majid.mp3 (M - Bangla, overlay with English V/O)
We have had bad experiences earlier, with people yet to get compensation for lands acquired for the Boropukuria (BORO-PUKU-RIA) Project. So, people of Phulbari do not believe Asia Energy’s promises. They say, we can mine the coal ourselves using indigenous technology. Some foreign company will take the profits and our people will be the losers. We don’t want this to happen. Now, we get two-to-three crops a year; what will happen if we lose our lands?
Economist Anu Muhammad, Member secretary, National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port in Bangladesh throws light on the debate.
In: Anu-Phulbari debate.mp3 (M - Bangla, overlay with English V/O)
It was in 2005 when the company went to Phulbari to promote the project that people got a first-hand understanding of what the deal was all about. They were initially told that the project would help the area prosper; and bring them a school, college and hospital. At that stage, people trusted them. But soon after they got the gist of the project, since the details of the deal have still not been made public, they realised that open-pit mining would harm not just Phulbari, but also four adjacent areas, thus creating a crisis for the northern districts as a whole. Water would be polluted; they would also lose their homes, lands and livelihoods. And they did not believe in the rehabilitation process, either… It would end up rendering people homeless, the country’s economy would suffer…
The August 2006 violence forced the government to sign an agreement with the people. Anu Muhammed describes the gist of the agreement…
In: Phulbari deal with people. mp3 (M - Bangla, overlay with English V/O)
The agreement says that the government will make sure that Asia Energy will not only back off from the Phulbari Project, but also withdraw totally from Bangladesh.
Secondly, the method of open-pit mining is not acceptable. The method of mining would be agreed upon after discussions with locals. And lastly, the national institutions will be strengthened. Only then will the issue of rehabilitation and compensation be discussed.
The open-pit mining debate has left the people of Phulbari in a quandary. Asia Energy claims they require 5,900 hectares of land, which would displace not more than 40,000 people. But locals say that 150,000 people will be directly affected and nearly 200,000 to 250,000 people indirectly affected by the project. Geologist Badrul Imam, who teaches at Dhaka University, echoes popular scepticism…
In: Badrul Imam-open-pit. mp3 (M - In English)
It is a very difficult question. So you want to mind, take into account all these aspects underground, open-pit, and then decide. That cannot be a thumb rule for Bangladesh that you can go for underground or you can go for open-pit. It has to be case by case. If you find a coal deposit which is very shallow where the habitation or concentration of people living is relatively less may be you can think positively for an open-pit mine. If you are talking about a place thickly populated like Phulbari area, the ground is fertile… if you want to go for open-pit you will create this kind of political and social problem.
Besides, energy expert Ijaz Hossain, who teaches at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology believes that the open-pit method in Phulbari will not be cost-effective.
In: Ijaz-open-cast-imp.mp3 (M - In English)
In terms of open pit mining and underground mining, the technical issues are pretty straightforward. If you go for open-pit mining, you will recover a lot more coal than you would do, if you used under-ground mining. However, the issues for Bangladesh are very different than that in countries like Germany, Canada or even India. These countries have vast tracts of land where very few people live, sometimes these lands are of very little value and doing open cast mining is easy and also cost-effective. In a country like Bangladesh which is very densely populated, agricultural land is very limited, is also very valuable because they have more than two crops per seasons, sometimes three crops. So people are very dependent on this land. A full assessment of the damages, that will take place, make sure that going for open-cast mining will not be cost-effective.
Hussain even questions the very idea of mining coal in Bangladesh..
In: Coal-imp-Ijaz.mp3 (M - In English)
Coal is a low value product, Extracting coal is expensive. Therefore, if you extract coal and do not get enough benefit, the cost becomes much higher than the benefits that we get from getting our own coal. We must remember that we have to buy this coal from this foreign company if we want to use it in the country. And we have given up a lot of our good agricultural land, the livelihoods of lot of people. So if this is balanced against the benefits that we get from extracting a low value energy product, we may see that there is very little benefit for Bangladesh in going into coal mining.
People have also criticised the Bangladesh government’s coal policy. Anu Mohammed explains the ambiguities.
In: Anu-Coal Policy.mp3 (M - Bangla, overlay with English V/O)
The government stance is still unclear. We don’t get a clear picture of where the energy policy and the coal policy are headed. Their discussions have created some confusion. Asia Energy has begun activity under a different name. Besides this, the Tata, Mittals and a Dubai-based company are in the queue. So there are several reasons to be anxious.
Ijaz Hossain stresses that the government should take into account all these issues while finalising the policy.
In: Ijaz and coal-gas.mp3 (M - In English)
Bangladesh has a huge reserve of natural gas, which has not been exploited. Due to lot of controversy which stemmed from trying to export gas to India, we have virtually shelved developing our gas resources. This controversy has led to the situation where in the last five years there has been no exploration in Bangladesh and there is now talk about our gas reserves running out as early as 2012 to 2015, depending on how fast our growth is. This has led to a situation where the coal reserves are now being talked about. And huge controversy is now growing in the country about how to mine our coal.
To mine or not to mine… the din continues…
But it is work as usual for Asia Energy which has now been renamed as Global Coal Management. An excerpt from an interview with company Chief Executive Officer Gary Lye…
In: Asia Energy-final.mp3 (In English)
GL: A-E has been working in Bangladesh since 1998. And our position is the same as it was two years ago. We are very keen to work with the government, to move the project forward for the good of people of Bangladesh. We have a contract with the government. There are provisions in the contract for dealing with issues where the Government might have problems. From the feasibility study to this day, they have not said anything to us that there is a problem. But officers within the bureaucracy… they are supposed to progress matters to deal with the Phulbari Coal Project at this stage have not been doing their job.
SD: Why did you spend 20 million U-S Dollars on a feasibility study, when you are not even sure that you will be able to mine here?
GL: Well, we did not spend 20 million dollars on basis that we could do mining here. I mean, we spent 20 million dollars because we were required to do this under a contract with the government. We can't understand exactly what the issue is to why we are being stalled…
SD: How would you make up for the losses, if you have to leave Bangladesh?
G.L: We have no intention of leaving Bangladesh. We have discovered and we have done a feasibility study in a large block of coal, we have done a feasibility study that cost us 20 million dollars. We believe this is a great project for the country of Bangladesh and we it will move forward. It is a matter of getting people to sit at the table and understand what the project is all about.
The people of Phulbari are confused by the interim government’s dubious games A much publicised drive against corruption is on, but they are hesitant to scrap a corrupt deal. True, there is a lot at stake but if the government does not scrap the Asia Energy deal, it may have to resort to more violence to break the spirit of the people of Phulbari. Local leader Aminul Islam Babu has no doubt about this.
In: What is the situation.mp3 (M - Bangla, overlay with English V/O)
Here, the situation is… people are waiting… The present government has initiated a drive against corruption, crime and black money. People of Phulbari live in the hope that the corruption in the energy sector will also be rooted out. Then, the true situation of Phulbari will come to light. Besides, people are hopeful that the historical agreement that the government signed with them will be implemented soon. People here can tackle any situation... if anyone tries to hurt them, they will retaliate; they have immense strength to fight back.
That’s it for this edition of Panoscope. Thanks for listening.
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