UN Calls for Immediate Halt of Phulbari Coal Project in Bangladesh

041012coal The Barapukuria mine, the only existing coal mine in Bangladesh. (Photo: Shahnoor Habib) Despite glossy PR materials touting its ability to deliver on sustainable development and energy access goals, the coal industry routinely threatens human rights around the world, particularly in South Asia. Land grabs, forced evictions, violence, and environmental destruction are all disturbingly prevalent in coal industry projects.

Taking coordinated action to avert yet another massive violation of human rights, seven United Nations special rapporteurs have issued a press release calling for an immediate halt to plans to excavate a vast open-pit coal mine in northwest Bangladesh.

The UN human rights experts are concerned for good reason. The Phulbari Coal Project would displace hundreds of thousands of people, including entire villages of vulnerable indigenous people, posing “an immediate threat to safety and standards of living.” The project would also threaten access to safe drinking water for 220,000 people, destroy a fertile agricultural region that supports the entire country”s food needs, and increase poverty and vulnerability to climate events for generations to come.”

All in a day’s work for an industry salivating at the thought of the profit it would reap from this destruction. In this case, that would be London-based Global Coal Management Resources (GCM), which claims Bangladesh’s coal reserves in Phulbari as its primary asset.

GCM’s efforts to force the coal mine forward have already resulted in bloodshed. Three people have been killed and as many as 200 wounded for the simple act of protesting against the mine. These are among the human rights violations associated with the project that the US government chose to disregard while supporting GCM in pushing the government of Bangladesh to approve the project.

Despite pressure exerted behind the scenes, the project has been stalled by controversy over whether Bangladesh’s new national coal policy will institute a historic ban on open-pit mining – a measure deemed essential due to extremely high population densities and the enormous levels of displacement open-pit mining would cause.

So, GCM share prices plummeted following the UN action. Right? Well actually, no.

In fact, GCM share prices popped 14 percent the day the news of the UN action was posted on interactive investor bulletin boards. Worse, the volume of trading on their shares increased to almost three times the daily average.

Some GCM investors were themselves initially baffled. Why the sudden, unexpected upticks in their share price? Investors were ecstatic over a single sentence in the UN press release:

“A national coal policy is pending in a parliamentary committee, with early indications suggesting that open-pit coal mining will be permitted and, thus, would allow development of the Phulbari coal mine in northwestern Bangladesh.”

That single sentence in the UN press release unleashed a gleeful round of back-slapping on investor bulletin boards, as longtime investors watched their share price climb and congratulated one another on the, “emergence of more positive news” in an otherwise disappointing year: “Hats off to the steadfast believers … She is flying now … LMFAO … We live in hope and it brightened up the afternoon … ” and on and on.

While one could dwell on the cynical and heartless joy expressed by these investors, there is another, far more important story to tell. The push for coal use is generating increasingly fierce resistance by those asked to bear the most toxic and destructive burdens of coal expansion: the people living next to coal mines and coal-fired power plants. Their story is one of a vibrant grassroots movement that in Bangladesh has supported massive protests against the Phulbari Coal Project involving tens of thousands of people fighting to protect their homes, land, livelihoods and communities from complete wanton destruction.

Their fight in northwest Bangladesh, sustained for over six years, is part of a thriving global anti-coal movement that has celebrated numerous successes in the past two years alone. From the retirement of 100 coal plants in the United States, to victory in Borneo. to a vibrant struggle in Kosovo, grassroots activists are standing up and fighting back.

Their struggle bears witness to a new reality, one of communities united across political boundaries in defense of livelihoods, health and a clean energy future. This is in diametrical opposition to the accepted wisdom that across Asia, and much of the world, the drive for more coal-fired power is “unstoppable.”

Coal is not, in fact, unstoppable. The fact is that some of the world’s largest coal plants are going bankrupt due to skyrocketing coal prices. More importantly, communities are increasingly aware of the devastating economic costs of coal, which are regularly externalized at every stage of its life cycle. These costs include lives cut short and lingering illness for people living with coal – costs that are borne by people and governments rather than the corporations and banks that finance coal projects. A recent Harvard study found that these public health impacts effectively triple the cost of electricity generated by coal.

Today frontline communities threatened by coal projects are refusing to bear these costs. They are increasingly supported by international coalitions demanding social, environmental and developmental justice that prioritizes access to clean energy services for all, environmental sustainability and human health. Financial analysts and conventional wisdom may deem coal inevitable, but in the wise words of Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Further information is available on the International Accountability Project (IAP’s) Phulbari Project page.