August 26 is Phulbari Day. On this day in 2006, thousands of people in Phulbari, Dinajpur took to the streets protesting at the decision of an open pit coal mine. Law enforcers fired into the procession killing three young people. Nahid Riyasad writes marking the day
AMAZON rain forests, spanning over 55,00,000 square kilometres and nine countries, dubbed as the lungs of the planet earth, produce more than 20 per cent oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. Currently, a fire is devouring acres of rain forests in Brazil at a record rate, according to National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
INPE records show that among some seventy-two thousand fire incidents in Brazil, more than half is happening in the Amazon regions, a steep 80 per cent rise from the previous year.
Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has openly been verbal about reclaiming the rain forests from environmental groups ‘interference’ and offered compensation to tribes living there for ‘better life’.
The fresh set of fire comes weeks after the far-right leader sacked INPE’s boss after their reposts which revealed the record number of fires in Amazon this year.
Social media is swarmed with posts how ultra-riches of Europe amassed over one billion Euros in a week for the reconstruction of the Notre-Dame De Paris after it caught fire on April 15, 2019 while international media is suspiciously silent over the Amazon fire.
In May this year, the Waorani people of Pastaza have won a huge lawsuit against Big Oil effectively saving half a million acres of their Amazon rainforest territory from being drilled for oil.
Their historic win against the Ecuadorian government’s intention of drilling for oil in south central Ecuadorian Amazon have managed to disrupt the auctioning of 16 oil blocks covering more than seven million acres of rainforests.
The tendency to protect ancestral lands from big corporations’ greed is nothing uncommon in Bangladesh too as August 26 will mark the thirteenth year of Phulbari Protests.
On this day of 2006, thousands of locals from Phulbari, Dinajpur resisted at a proposed open pit coal mine. Law enforcers opened fire on the procession killing Salekin, Al-Amin and Tariqul, three young students, and injuring over 200 people.
Since then, the day is observed as Phulbari Day.
What happened in Phulbari on August 26, 2006?
THE project by Asia Energy initially faced huge resistance from the local community and later national alliance for safeguarding national interest and environment. When locals had had enough of Asia Energy officials’ continual effort to make its support base by bribing, threatening and cheating, a siege of the Asia Energy’s field office at Phulbari was declared on August 26, 2006.
From the wee hours of that morning, thousands of locals started pouring in the Phulbari Dhaka intersection and in front of GM Pilot High School. According to eye witnesses, more than 80 thousands men, women and youths started their march towards the field office around 3:00pm.
Police and paramilitary forces the then BDR obstructed the procession near Nimtala Corner.
Officials from the district administration assured the local leaders that the field office of Asia Energy would be withdrawn. The leaders declared the end of the procession and were discussing further initiatives. Suddenly, law enforces attacked and opened fire killing the three youths on the spot. With more than 50 people hit by bullet, hundreds more sustained injuries from baton charges.
Section 144 was declared in that area which was not sufficient to stop people from protecting their lands. National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Power and Ports declared an indefinite period of strike. Roads and rail routes to and from Phulbari were blocked.
Local women took the lead of the protest on August 27 through a historic uprising. Asia Energy officials fled the area leaving their office behind, BDR were withdrawn on August 28, 2006. Protests took control of all six police stations of the locality. In the meantime, the whole nation expressed solidarity with the causes of people of Phulbari.
National Committee called for a nationwide strike on August 30. Amidst the strike, the then Bangladesh Nationalist Party led government was compelled to sign an agreement between the government and people, which was represented by the National Committee. The agreement was known as Phulbari Agreement.
Some of the major points of that agreement were Phulbari coal project will be scrapped and Asia Energy will be ousted from the country, no open pit mining will be allowed anywhere in the country and mining methods and other steps for coal development and utilisation will be taken after proper consultation with local people keeping national interest intact.
The then opposition leader and current premier of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina visited Phulbari on September 4, 2006 and expressed her full support for the agreement. She also promised to implement the agreement if she got elected to form a government.
Despite that, in her third consecutive term as the prime minister, the points of that agreement are yet to be implemented. Moreover, her government has sanctioned environmentally dangerous projects like Rampal Power Station and Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.
Following the bloodshed of August 26, Asia Energy changed its name to Global Coal Management and incorporated in London Stock Exchange Alternative Investment Market. This is a less regulated market and experts termed this as a ‘sub-market for London Stock Exchange with more flexible regulatory system to float shares’.
A banner in front of London Stock Exchange, to mark the Phulbari Day on August 23, 2019, shows the names of three protesters who died on August 26, 2006 during Phulbari protests in Dinajpur
Loopholes of the Phulbari coal project
THE exploration license for Phulbari was originally granted to the Australian company BHP Minerals in 1994 and they found the Phulbari coalmine. In 1998, instead of continuing with the multi-million dollar project, BHP transferred their licence to Asia Energy, a company formed a year ago with no prior experience in mining.
A former consultant of BHP, Nazrul Islam, later wrote about his experiences on Phulbari. ‘BHP could not locate a shallow coal deposit around 100m depth and Phulbari deposit is much deeper between 150m to 260m. BHP knew that an open pit mine at such depth needs multi-dimensional-long-term environmental studies. Considering the flood-prone deltaic region of Dinajpur with a number of mighty rivers, the undertaking would be huge considering the environmental regulations of Bangladesh and home of the company, Australia.
Asia Energy initially planned to extract 15 million tons of coal per year where nearly 80 per cent of the coal to be exported through The Sundarbans further threatening the flora and fauna of the largest mangrove forest on earth. Moreover, Bangladesh was allocated only six per cent royalty of the exported coal.
The then government formed an expert committee to examine the development plan submitted by Asia Energy. The committee, headed by Nurul Islam, a professor of Bangladesh University of Science and Engineering, submitted their report in September 2006.
The report rejected the project and termed it as flawed, environmentally disastrous and economically harming national interests.
Jennifer Kalafut, a rehabilitation expert published her research on Phulbari under the title ‘Phulbari Coal Project: A Displacement Disaster in the Name of Development’. In 2008, Mining expert Roger Moody examined company’s environment impact assessment in his study ‘Phulbari coal: a perilous project’.
Both the reports asserted the Asian Energy’s plan was full of ambiguity, misinformation, contradictions and gaps. These findings forced Asian Development Bank to pull out from the project in 2008.
Youth initiatives to mark the day
BANGLADESH Students Federation, a students’ organisation’s Rangpur unit arranged set of activities to mark the day. On August 27, a human chain will be formed at Carmichael College to pay respect to the deceased of Phulbari protests.
A chorus will be following this session with exclusively written and composed song to mark the Phulbari tragedy. An experience exchange session will follow involving protesters who were present at Phulbari on August 26, 2006.
A documentary made by Zahid Aziz titled Phulbarir Shat Din (Seven Days of Phulbari) on the protests of Phulbari will be showed to wrap up the day.
National Committee also announced their activities to mark the Phulbari Day. A rally will pay tribute to the martyrs at a monument raised near the spot in the morning of August 26. Their programmes will conclude with songs and drama in the afternoon.
Their London section also performed activities to mark the day. On Friday, August 23, a rally in front of the London Stock Exchange demanded Global Coal Management’s withdrawal from the stock market.
Phulbari Solidarity Group, a London based human rights group marked the Phulbari Day on August 23 in London. Their programmes, under the title of ‘Black Vigil for Phulbari in London’ included wearing black clothes in commemoration of the three lost lives. Their programme also comprised of songs of loss and struggle.
A study circle named Mongolbarer Gopposhoppo designated their August 20 session to mark the Phulbari Day. The title of their programme was ‘Phulbari Dibosh: Pran, Prokriti o Jatiyo Shompod Rokkhar Lorai (Phulbari Day: Struggles to protect lives, nature and National Resources). The session also showed the documentary by Zahid Aziz.
The second session included a discussion by Amal Akash, president of Shamageet and an organiser of Phulbari protests and Zahid Aziz.
New Age Youth contacted Maha Mirza, a writer and researcher. She worked on the Phulbari protests and was involved in anti-Rampal protests. She offered an insight on how Rampal and Phulbari have separate identities with similar causes regarding the nature of their protests.
‘During the early 1990s’, huge amount of lands were grabbed in southern coastal belts of Bangladesh to trigger the shrimp farms displacing thousands of local inhabitants. This effectively changed the demographics of Rampal and its adjacent areas. On the contrary, people of Phulbari are living there for generations looking after farmlands that their ancestors once cultivated. This created a strong bonding between land and people in Phulbari which ultimately made them resist against oppressive corporation; whereas, Rampal protests are yet to come of its Dhaka-centricity.’
From the fires of Amazon to the Phulbari open pit coal mine, similar traits are observed — a big power sector corporation comes with promises of ‘development’ without context with backings from the government.
Discourse of resistance is connecting the Waorani people of Ecuador and protesters of Phulbari. Even if saving the nature and ancestral lands from greed of corporations comes at the expenses of young lives like Salekin, Al-Amin and Tariqul, this is the only path — RESIST.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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