Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh Protest to Stop Open Pit Coal Mine 2006-2014

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Time Period:  
26 August
6 February
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Stop open pit coal mine

Phulbari is a region in the northwest region of Bangladesh. It is an important agricultural region that is also home to low quality coal deposit. Several companies have proposed to use the open pit technique for mining the coal, which would displace thousands of people, many of them indigenous people. The proposed mining projects would destroy farmland, homes, and divert water sources to be used in the mining process.

The Australia-based mining company BHP Billiton discovered coal at Phulbari during surveying and drilling between 1994 and 1997. In 2005, BHP Billiton assessed Phulbari’s coal mining potential and decided to sell its rights to mine to London-based Asia Energy Corporation after concluding that the depth of the coal deposits would making mining activity so destructive that it would not be feasible to comply with Australia’s environmental standards or those of any nation worldwide.

Asia Energy Corporation bought the rights to mine and proposed an open pit mine project in 2005. Asia Energy Corporation estimated that the mining project would take 36 years to mine the deposit, extracting up to 8 million tons of coal per year.

The Bangladesh Department of Environment granted the project “Environmental Clearance for Mining” on 11 September 2005. In order for the project to move ahead, the Government of Bangladesh had to officially approve the project proposal.

On 26 August 2006, 50,000 people marched in protest against the proposed mining project. The Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary organization, fired on the protesters and killed 3 people. Between one and two hundred other protesters were injured.

In response to the violence, one protester said, “We will give our lives, but we will not leave this place. We will not allow the mine to happen. The government can take as many dead bodies as they want, we won’t leave the village. And no one from Asia Energy will come here again. They won’t even be able to enter this area. We will fight.”

On 28 August 2006, in response to the paramilitary violence, protesters organized a national strike that shut the country down for four days. The protesters and their strike closed shops, offices, educational institutions, and roadways in the Dinajpur district.

The people ended their strike on 31 August 2006 when the Bangladesh government signed a six-point agreement to: ban open pit mining in Phulbari, institute peoples’ ownership over their own resources, ensure energy security, cancel bad deals, ban the export of mineral resources and strengthen national capability ban open-pit mining in Phulbari and exclude Asia Energy Corporation from the country.

Asia Energy Corporation suspended its operations due to the strike and its personnel fled the country under police escort.

Despite the August agreement that ended the strike, the leadership of the national movement opposed to the mine – the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, and Ports – believed that the renewal of mining at Phulbari remained a possibility.

A local leader of the national movement opposing the mine, Mr. Nuruzuman, was publically tortured by the Bangladesh military early the next year, February 2007. Asia Energy Corporation also changed its name to Global Coal Management Plc or GCM Plc, with its Bangladesh subsidiary taking the name Asia Energy Corporation (Bangladesh) Plc Ltd, hereafter referred to as AEC (Bangladesh) or Asia Energy.

On 26 August 2008 protesters held a vigil to honor the protesters that died as a result of repressive violence in 2006.

In August 2008, 110 organizations worldwide signed a letter to companies invested in the open pit mine project calling on the companies to end their investments. On 8 October 2008 Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays Bank and the Asian Development Bank sold their shares in GCM Plc, distancing themselves from the project. AEC (Bangladesh) apparently re-opened its offices in Bangladesh, although the timing is unclear.

On 10 March 2009 the Bangladesh government’s energy division reported that they had lost the report of a government-formed expert committee that had found that GCM’s agreement with the government was illegal and that an open pit mine at the field would not be viable.

On 26 August 2009 several socio-political organizations observed Phulbari Day to commemorate the violence against protesters in 2006. During the commemoration in 2009, protesters placed flowers at public locations to remember the protesters who died in an attack on the protests.

An allied organization, the Jatiya Gana Front held a rally and procession through Muktangon and published a statement to the government saying that any move towards open pit mining in Bangladesh would be stopped. The Samajtantrik Chhatra Front led a similar protest honoring the activists who were killed in 2006 on the Dhaka University campus. The activists demanded the expulsion once again of Asia Energy from Bangladesh.

In October 2010, tens of thousands of protesters joined a 7-day, 250-mile march to protest the Phulbari Coal Project.

On 28 February 2011, 2,000 protesters blockaded a highway in the Phulbari region and demanded that the government honor the six-point agreement they signed in August 2006. The Bangladesh government deployed Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion to intimidate protesters and guard the office of Global Coal Management. This Rapid Action Battalion has been denounced by international human rights organizations as a government death squad because of its routine use of torture and extra-judicial killings.

In February 2011 Cultural Survival, an organization that partners with indigenous peoples to defend their cultures, launched a letter-writing campaign asking the Bangladesh Prime Minister to stop the Phulbari coal project.

The next month the government announced the formation of an Expert Committee to finalize a draft coal policy, postponing decisions on whether to ban open pit mining in the country or to approve the Phulbari coal project.

On 5 May 2011 the National Committee reported that local protesters, including women and children, were attacked by "some hooligans backed by the minister" while they were demonstrating their opposition to the Phulbari mine. Local people were also attacked in the nearby Barapukaria coal mine region where the Bangaladesh government had proposed a national “pilot project” for open pit mining in the region. These government-backed attackers publically broke the hands of a National Committee leaders.

Nevertheless, groups of protesters remained in place and blocked key roads and railway lines until 10 am on 6 May 2011 with the support of participants from the Phulbari region.

On 20 October 2011, 80 international organizations sent a letter to remaining Phulbari investors, asking them to withdraw their investments from the proposed project, outlining the human rights violations and environmental risks associated with the open pit mining project.

On 17 December 2011, London Mining Network, an organization that targets the funders of mining projects to stop their funding, protested outside the annual shareholders meeting of GCM. In the meeting, an activist named Samina Luthfa presented the Chairman of GCM, with an “eviction notice” requesting that the company leave Bangladesh immediately.

On 28 February 2012 United Nations independent human rights experts requested that the Bangladesh government not start open pit mining operations because of the human rights violations involved in the Phuldari mining project.

On 7 May 2012 police attacked and beat demonstrators calling for a ban on open pit mining and demanding renewable energy projects. 15 of the protesters were injured.

On 26 August 2012 thousands of protesters took part in a Phulbari Day rally commemorating the protesters that were killed in 2006.

About two months later, on 9 November 2012 the National Committee called on the government to expel the mining company from Bangladesh.

Later that same month, 23 November, Bangladesh government authorities imposed Section 144, banning gatherings of more than four people indefinitely in an effort to stop the movement.

Thousands protested in the streets of Phulbari, breaking through police barricades to take to the streets. The campaigners declared a two-day general strike, halting trains, blocking roads, and closing businesses and schools. During the strike, on 24 November 2012, protesters burned an effigy of Dan Mozena, the United States Ambassador to Bangladesh. Mozena was chosen because in 2012 it became clear that the United States had been lobbying the Bangladesh government to push the open pit mine project through. Wikileaks initially revealed this information in 2009 with their leak of United States State Department diplomatic cables.

On 10 December 2012 Bangladesh government officials called the approval of the open pit mine “unlikely” during their government’s tenure, which would last through late 2013.

On 1 January 2013 protesters in Phulbari asked Asia Energy to vacate their local offices in Bangladesh by 30 March 2013. Protesters said that if the company did not meet their demand, the protesters would destroy the offices. Two organizations, the local unit of the National Committee and Phulbari Peshajibi Sangathan delivered the ultimatum to the company in two different rallies on 1 January 2013.

In January 2013, Polo Resources, the largest investor in the Phulbari coal project, announced that they were looking to sell their 30% stake in the project a month after protesters interrupted their December 2012 shareholders’ meeting to deliver coal to the company’s investors.

In late January 2013, Gary Lye, the CEO of AEC (Bangladesh) cancelled his planned trip to visit the mine’s proposed location to distribute blankets when protesters in the area held rallies showing that they would not allow Lye into the area. The District Commissioner of Dianjpur had been planning to meet with Lye on his visit to the area, but advised Lye not to come because of the protests.

On 27 January 2013 a Bangladesh parliamentary committee accused the British-based coal company GCM of failing to have a valid deal with the Bangladesh government for any exploration or mining in Phulbari since 2006.

Before two weeks had gone by, GCM's Finance Director, Graham Taggart, resigned amid a flurry of protests in London and Bangladesh. He retains a consulting position with GCM, now renamed GCM Resources Plc.

On 26 August 2013 activists commemorated Phulbari Day with rallies and speeches by activists in several different organizations opposed to open pit mining in Bangladesh.

On 4 December 2013 activists in London held a protest outside to the annual general meeting of Global Coal Management to demand that the company stop pursuing open pit mining in Bangladesh.

On 6 February 2014, in a meeting with the Power and Energy Ministry’s top officials, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said: “Right now, we want to leave the issue of coal extraction to the future technology as food security and protecting the land of the farmers is the first priority.”

Research Notes
Blagojevic, Kate. “Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) sells its shares in Phulbari mine scheme.” BanglaPraxis. 8 October 2008.

Manik, Raaj. “Protests at GCM Resources AGM over Phulbari coal mining.” Phulbari Solidarity Group. 5 December 2013.

Manik, Raaj. “Protesters ask Asia Energy to remove local offices by Mar 30.” Phulbari Solidarity Group. 3 January 2013.

Rezwan. “Bangladesh Protests Against Open Pit Coal Mining in Phulbari.” Global Voices. 25 November 2012.

Solly, Richard. “Ban Open pit, Oust Asia Energy (GCM), Stop illegal share business on Phulbari coal mine by GCM.” London Mining Network. 18 September 2013.

Solly, Richard. “GCM challenged to pull out of Phulbari coal project.” London Mining Network. 17 December 2011.

“Asia Energy’s future with Phulbari coal mine bleak.” Business News 24. 7 February 2014.

“Deal with Asia Energy on Phulbari coalmine invalid.” Phulbari Solidarity Group. 27 January 2013.

“Energy Kills: Phulbari coal mine project of Bangladesh.” Asian Centre for Human Rights. 6 September 2006.

“Good News-Bangladesh: Mining Executive Behind Phulbari Project Resigns.” Cultural Survival. 14 February 2013.

“Good News-Bangladesh: Open-Pit Mining in Phulbari ‘Unlikely.’” Cultural Survial. 10 December 2012.

“Govt report which terms Phulbari deal illegal goes missing.” BanglaPraxis. 10 March 2009.

“Phulbari Coal Project,” Source Watch. 12 May 2012.

“Phulbari Day 2013 observed: Ban Open pit, Oust Asia Energy (GCM), Stop illegal share business on Phulbari coal mine by GCM.” National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resource, Power, and Ports. 30 August 2013.

“Phulbari Day in Photos: Remembering the August 2006 Martyrs.” BanglaPraxis. 26 August 2008.

“Phulbari Day Today.” BanglaPraxis. 26 August 2009.

“The Phulbari Coal Project: A Threat To People, Land, And Human Rights In Bangladesh.” International Accountability Project.

Additional Notes: (Not viewed)

The name Asia Energy Corporation appears to have been taken by a seemingly unrelated company in 2009. The subsidiary of GCM in Bangladesh is specifically Asia Energy Corporation (Bangladesh) Plc Ltd. (Not viewed) (Not viewed)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Andrés Cordero and Ryan Leitner 02/04/2014