Sunday, January 18th, 2015

In defence of national and environmental interest

Phulbari is not a controversy. It is the name and symbol of a successful resistance by community people threatened with displacement by a proposed open-pit coal mine by GCM Resources in 5,600 hectares of land (including arable land with high cropping intensity) in four thanas of Dinajpur. Open mining requires stripping off the soil over the deposit that lies at least 150 meter or deeper (upto270 meters) under the earth. The mining company has changed its names twice after a community protest rally against the Phulbari project was attacked and protestors shot at, killing three young protestors in 2006.

Although the company’s revised documents say that the stripping will be done in phases, two highly placed government-led expert committees were not convinced in favour of the mine that will directly affect the lives and livelihoods of at least 1,00,000 people (2006). Foreign environmental experts extensively criticised the company’s Environmental Impact Assessment for being incomplete and vague. The human displacement and environmental costs are so high that United Nations’ rapporteurs also made statements expressing opposition to the proposed mine.

‘Self-proclaimed’ or not, local communities and environmental justice platforms like the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Port must have had logical objections against the proposed project; why else would international financiers like the Asian Development Bank and Barclays Capital feel compelled to withdraw their financial support from the project since 2008? Long before the incident of November 24, 2014, the project based in London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market had been termed ‘risky’ by industry experts like Rosie Carr in 2006 (Identify the Risks, The Investors’ Chronicle, the Financial Times).

My own doctoral research from the University of Oxford quantitatively compared incidences of community-based protests against 398 open-pit mines in South Asia. Factors like density of population, proportion of area under forest cover, and ownership by a multinational company predicted the highest probability of protest in the proposed Phulbari deposit. This research result was formally conveyed to the shareholders of GCM in their Annual General Meeting of 2011. This means that the investors are well aware of the financial risks they are taking by investing in the Phulbari project.

When such a volatile project with a high degree of environmental, political and social risks and very strong local-national-transnational opposition is supported by a quarter, what I see is unfettered greed of profiteering by some people with no environmental, social and cultural conscience at all. No matter how strongly the locals protest it, or how persuasively the experts explain that the mine would be devastating for the water aquifers, for example, they will not stop. Because they do not care about Bangladesh or its FDI rates; they are only worried about their profit, with every pence increasing their share value in the AIM. The ranting of these ‘investors’ about our country and our politicians in their discussion forums clearly show that all they care about is profiteering through stock manipulation in London that is independent of what the marginalised protestors at Phulbari do or do not do.

The company, as erroneously suggested by some, does NOT have a ‘permission for mining’ yet from the government. A letter from the government that is often used as an evidence of contract clearly states that the permission to mine is dependent on the following: “on receipt of the Feasibility Study Report, the technical aspects of the project will be examined and evaluated by experts and on the basis of this government will take final decision regarding real mining operation…Within this time, the lessee will not conduct any commercial activities of the mine.” On one hand, the expert committee formed after this letter expressed opposition to the project, and on the other, the Phulbari Chukti that said ‘no open mine anywhere in the country’ was signed by the BNP-led government representatives in 2006 and was supported by the then opposition leader Sheikh Hasina. It is an obligation for any incumbent politician to uphold these.

The local resistance started in 2005, gathered momentum and peaked in 2006. National committee joined the locals later to support their resistance. The locals successfully showed how the mine was not only threatening for them but also for our national interest. It wouldonly benefit the company as it would have owned all the coal, giving a small amount of royalty to Bangladesh (much lower than the convention) and some supply of coal for our power generation. 80% of the coal produced was earmarked for export to India through a very vulnerable eco-system in Southern Bangladesh — the Sundarbans. The far-reaching probable effect of this on the mangrove forest is probably clearer now after the oil tanker spill in Shela river in December 2014.

There exist several doctoral and post-graduate dissertation-based research from well-reputed western universities like Chicago, Sussex, Amsterdam, and faculty and NGO level research in Bangladesh, UK and USA, that show how strong the opposition against the mining project is and why it is the case: too costly for communities due to huge displacement, high environmental risk in a riverine area like Bangladesh where any seepage or extraction of water table has a far reaching environmental impact and increase in food insecurity with the loss of highly active arable land to the mine. All these for whose benefit: to produce electricity to export to India! Farewell to national interest, eh?

Last but not the least, FDI inflow increased 98% over the last fiscal year according to the Board of Investments’ own records, which proves that although Phulbari is in stalemate for the last 8 years, the national investment scenario looks pretty good. I am no economist but my common sense suggests that first, foreign investment depends on global trends and is therefore dependent more on global crises than one single project. Second, GCM’s investment is not that big given the country’s whole investment scenario. Third, there are other more profitable sectors in the country where foreign investment is less risky and better-suited for investors who care for long-term returns rather than the short term return required by GCM’s short-sighted investors, whom I closely observed for one year in 2010-11. Finally, increase in FDI in power sector without a concern for sustainable growth often is responsible for creating a ‘resource curse.’ Experiences of countries like Nigeria, Sudan, Columbia and Afghanistan tell us how an increase in FDI in the energy sector negatively trapped the countries into poverty and dependence. Are we to welcome any investment that intends to export our resources at high financial, environmental and social cost and benefit only a few investors and some corrupt government officials? Or are we to bid farewell to the bad investments and welcome those that propose to extract responsibly keeping in mind the prospect of future generations to come?

The writer is Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Dhaka. She earned her doctorate from the University of Oxford, UK, in 2013 on the Phulbari Resistance. The research was funded by the Commonwealth Commission.

Published: 12:00 am Sunday, January 18, 2015

http://www.thedailystar.net/in-defence-of-national-and-environmental-interest-60395