A textbook case of environmental justice movement in global south

Samina Luthfa | Published: 16:51, Dec 17,2017


PHULBARI is a small town in northern Bangladesh, so remote that most Bangladeshis were not aware of its existence, until it became the talk of the country in 2006. In 2005, news started to surface frequently in print media pages about a multinational extraction company (Asia Energy Corporation) that proposed to develop an open-cast mine in Phulbari, in Dinajpur. The proposed Phulbari Coal Project, as several sources suggest, threatened to displace forty thousand to one hundred thousand people.  From 2004, local inhabitants of Phulbari and nearby districts started protesting against the development of the mine to resist threats of displacement, environmental loss and damage to national energy security. In 2006, state forces repressed a mass rally of about seventy thousand people demonstrating against the mine. Three people died and more than one hundred were injured. After the repression, protesters fought back, took full control of the town and the vicinity, and forced the government to postpone development of the mine. The London-based mining company’s share price plummeted and transnational human rights organisations were alerted. Later, the local protesters managed to initiate alliances at the transnational level. The development of the mine has so far been halted. Through national and transnational media, the protests had become widely known as the ‘Phulbari Resistance’ within activists’ circles.

Phulbari resistance is a unique social movement — a textbook case to study ‘bottom-up’ organisation of a transnational environmental justice movement. A social movement researcher would be interested to know how these apparently ‘powerless’ protesters from a remote community of Bangladesh, have so far succeeded against powerful forces namely, the government of Bangladesh, the company, its investors, global commercial banks and the international financial institutions like Asian Development Bank and so on.

Now, social movement scholars have identified a major shift of investment in the extractive industry from the north to the south over the last two decades. The repercussions of this shift have been evident in the rise of local resistance to mining ventures from communities who do not want mines on their land. Nonetheless, it is to be noted that people facing the threat of dispossession by mining do not always resist. The Phulbari mine is one of those exceptional mines that faced resistance.

Since 2004, the resistance has achieved a great majority of support from local inhabitants of Phulbari, Parbatipur, Nawabganj and Birampur (four sub-districts in mine footprint). In that region, protestors include people from across social and political divisions: men-women, indigenous communities and majority Bangalis, town-based landless labourers and farmers with large land holding, members of all political parties such as the Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jatio Party and most of the left parties. At national level, allies of the resistance include the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Power, Port and Mineral Resources of Bangladesh (National Committee), which is an alliance of far-left political parties and independent intellectuals of the country. Also included are Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan (Bangladesh Environmental Movement), Society for Human and Environmental Development, Ain o Salish Kendra, and Nijera Kori. At the transnational level, individuals and advocacy organisations such as the Bank Information Centre, Mines and Communities, World Development Movement, International Accountability Project and London Mining Network support the resistance through articulation of their grievances in the global arena. The National Committee and its volunteers also mediate between the local and the transnational protestors.

Phulbari resistance is unique and a successful resistance because since 2004, with the help of aforementioned organisations, the protesters — besides halting the mine — have achieved the following: they had elected local leaders of the protests for the local government offices. They had compelled three consecutive governments to continue the suspension of the mine. Furthermore, they have also forced the Asian Development Bank and Barclays Capital to withdraw support from the mining venture. Both industry professionals and UN experts have labeled the mining project as a ‘risky’ investment. Lastly, the resistance has damaged the company’s reputation to such an extent that it had to change its name twice (from Asia Energy Corporation to Global Coal Management and from that to GCM Resources).

Accordingly, studying this resistance is pertinent for following reasons: firstly, a scholarly debate exists about the impact of transnational coalitions on the local protesters’ resistance against mining. Some scholars have identified risks and burdens associated in coalescing with transnational activists while others have found that working as a transnational coalition has a positive impact on the outcome of anti-mining resistance. In Phulbari resistance, local protesters were able to overcome the potential shortcomings of transnational coalitions and used the coalitions with a reciprocal tenacity where transnational partners and local protesters both benefited from the movement. Secondly, studies about transnational protests rarely recognise or identify the important role of emigrant mediators in mobilising local and transnational resistance. In Phulbari resistance, national protesters and emigrants mediate between the local and the transnational with such vigour that we see their active presence in lobbying their host country politicians to raise issues with the mine at the parliament, and during every annual general meeting of the company in London, the biggest hub of Bangladeshis outside Bangladesh.

Thirdly, the mining company and its protesters through their actions against each other create the discursive space for dialogic framing and counter framing. Such a space encourages the spread of environmental justice values among the audience of such framing contest in the public sphere. Moreover, depending on how the protesters frame the threat posed by the mine, their perception of ‘us’ and ‘them’ forms. Collective identity or this ‘we-ness’ involves making emotional investments that enable individuals to recognise themselves, to recognise others, and to be recognised as belonging to the same social unit. If we attach solidarity and obligation to this equation, as in Phulbari resistance, we find ‘us’ to be composed of the local and national protestors who had been aware of the disastrous impact of the mine on the community, its environment and the national energy security. ‘We’ were obligated to resist ‘their’ mine for the sake of our national interest.

Fourthly, exploring people’s perceptions of violence is necessary to understand why

protesters despite repression, sometimes continue ‘costly’ high-risk protest behaviours. Emotion and obligation to protest partly explain what happened in Phulbari after the violence in the rally on 26th August 2006 and how it affected the way later mobilisation took place. One way emotions inspire activity is through moral shocks, which occur when an unexpected event or piece of information raises such a sense of outrage in a person that he or she become inclined toward political action, whether or not the person has acquaintances in the movement. In Phulbari, along with moral shock, media presence and continuous coverage during and in the aftermath of the violent repression initiated outrage and obligation to protest to pay respect to those who gave their lives. Anger led to backlash, creating widespread sympathy for the movement and resulting in substantial later mobilisation charged up by widespread media coverage of the ‘unjust’ repression of protest.

Finally, the increase of capital investment in mining in the global South has been mirrored by an increase in transnational linkages between the protests in response to these investments. In Phulbari case, when local (national) governments refuse to heed calls for change, transnational activist network create pressure that curves around the local state indifference and repression to put foreign pressure on local policy elites, and immigrant Bangladeshis put pressure on respective advanced host nations to push national government and multinationals to dislodge the project. Thus, international contacts amplify voices to which the domestic government was deaf.

I argue that activists in global South will often succeed in achieving their goal defeating the nation state and the transnational corporations in implementing environmentally hazardous project if local-national-transnational protesters continue a prolonged and incessant resistance. Stopping the juggernaut of extractive industry may not be a reality for very near future, but with continuous and concerted resistance it is possible to confront it and slow the juggernaut down.  Phulbari resistance is unique since it proves this possibility very clearly.


Samina Lutfa is an associate professor at the department of sociology in the University of Dhaka.

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