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Ban Coal Mine, Save Forests and Farms

Phulbari open-pit mine would displace thousands of Indigenous people.

A British company is trying to sell a bill of goods to one of the world’s poorest countries, Bangladesh. Global Coal Management Resources (GCM) wants to bulldoze 12,000 acres of Bangladesh’s most productive agricultural land and replace it with one of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines. By their own account, they would forcibly displace 40,000 people in the Phulbari region, including at least 2,200 Indigenous people whose history in the area dates back 5,000 years. A government-sponsored study estimates that 130,000 people in more than 100 villages would be immediately displaced, and another 100,000 would gradually be forced to leave as their wells and irrigation canals run dry from the mining. Independent researchers and the Jatiya Adivasi Parishad (National Indigenous Union) estimate that 50,000 Indigenous people belonging to 23 different tribal groups would be displaced or impoverished by the mine.

Tens of thousands of Bangladeshi citizens have protested against the Phulbari mine project since 2005. After government forces opened fire during a nonviolent protest in 2006, killing three people and wounding hundreds, a national strike closed down the country for four days. It ended when the government agreed to ban open-pit coal mining in Phulbari and kick the British company (then known as Asia Energy) out of the country—a pledge they have not fulfilled. Instead, the government will announce a new coal policy by June 2011, and Global Coal expects to be in business soon thereafter. The National Indigenous Union and a broad coalition of human rights and environmental organizations are appealing for international support to prevent an ecological and humanitarian disaster in Phulbari. Please join our letter-writing campaign today!

Over a 30-year period, GCM proposes to extract 572 million tons of coal from a series of 1,000-foot-deep pits covering a total of 14,500 acres in Phulbari; build a power plant where some of the coal will be burned; build railroads and ports to export the rest; and divert and dredge rivers to accommodate the barges and ocean-going ships that will carry the coal downriver and out to sea through the Sundarbans protected mangrove forest reserve (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The company promises to provide jobs, electricity, royalties at 6 percent, tax income, and at the end of the project a lovely lake. At what cost? Phulbari’s agricultural land itself would be a loss to Bangladesh. High elevation protects Phulbari’s rice and other staple crops from the floods that frequently wipe out crops at lower elevations. Phulbari’s farmlands are important for food security in a country where nearly half the population lives below the “nutrition poverty line.”

For thousands of families who would lose their homes and agricultural lands, the company cannot offer equivalent land: there is none. Cash payments to families displaced by development projects results in impoverishment, according to many studies of “development refugees.”

Indigenous leaders fear that if their small communities are broken apart and dispersed, they will not be able to maintain the cultural traditions, religious practices, and languages that have sustained them for thousands of years. To them, the mine means ethnocide. Most Indigenous families own an acre of land—or less—and they augment their income by sharecropping, selling their labor, or making baskets and other crafts. Their cultural lives revolve around a calendar of religious ceremonies that are closely tied to the land, the harvests, the sacred groves and springs, and ancient burial grounds of their peoples. A Santal man in Boro Bukchi Village whose name is withheld for his protection summed up the feeling of his people: “If they make the mine, we will stay here. We won’t go. We will give our lives here. We’ve been here forever.”

The environmental impacts of GCM’s Phulbari mine extend far beyond the project site. For 30 years, day and night, huge pumps will drain water from the 1000-foot-deep pits, sucking the water from the surrounding villages’ wells and irrigation canals, too. Coal dust and emissions from the power plant will pollute the air, water, and soil with mercury, arsenic, lead, and other toxins. Acid mine drainage may continue to contaminate ground water for centuries.

River ecosystems will be disrupted by diversion and dredging to make way for the coal barges. These will ply through Bangladesh’s protected mangrove forests, the Sundarbans, where fuel spills and accidents could destroy the mangrove barrier that is Bangladesh’s only protection during cyclones. The Sundarbans World Heritage Site also provides critical habitat for many endangered species, including the Bengal tiger.

Finally, should a British company push Bangladesh—a country that is so vulnerable to rising sea levels—to produce more greenhouse gas emissions? James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Institute, says that ending emissions from coal is “80 percent of the solution to the global warming crisis.”

The Bangladesh government will make its fateful decision on GCM’s project by June. To prevent an environmental and humanitarian disaster, please send letters, faxes, or emails to the prime minister today.
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