UN experts think open-pit coal mine a threat to human rights

The construction of an open-pit coal mine in Bangladesh could displace hundreds of thousands of people, mostly indigenous and marginalised and jeopardise their access to basic needs, a group of United Nations independent human rights experts has warned.

“The Government of Bangladesh must ensure that any policy concerning open-pit coal mining includes robust safeguards to protect human rights. In the interim, the Phulbari coal mine should not be allowed to proceed because of the massive disruptions it is expected to cause,” the experts said Wednesday in a statement, according to the official UN website.

The group noted that if opened, the proposed mine would immediately displace an estimated 50,000 to 130,000 people, with up to 220,000 potentially being affected over time as irrigation channels and wells dry up. In addition, the project would reportedly extract 572 million tons of coal over the next 36 years from a site covering nearly 6,000 hectares, and destroy some 12,000 hectares of productive agricultural land.

“The Phulbari development would displace vulnerable farming communities, and threaten the livelihoods of thousands more by doing irreversible damage to water sources and ecosystems in the region,” the experts said.

A national coal policy is currently pending in a parliamentary committee, and according to the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), early indications suggest that the practice of open-pit coal mining will be permitted, giving a green light to the development of the Phulbari mine in the north-western part of Bangladesh.

The project would not only displace thousands of people but would also have serious environmental consequences, the experts stressed, as the mine is located in Bangladesh’s most fertile agricultural region where production of staple crops such as rice and wheat support the entire country’s food needs.

“Nearly half the Bangladeshi population is food insecure, and nearly one quarter severely food insecure. Local food production should be strengthened, not sacrificed for industrial projects,” said the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. Experts also warned that the mine could potentially destroy waterways supporting 1,000 fisheries and nearly 50,000 fruit trees.

“Access to safe drinking water for some 220,000 people is at stake,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. The experts also emphasised that the consequences of the open-coal mine would primarily affect indigenous populations which are already living in vulnerable conditions.

“Displacement on this scale, particularly of indigenous peoples, is unacceptable without the indigenous peoples’ free, prior and informed consent, and poses an immediate threat to safety and standards of living,” said Raquel Rolnik and James Anaya, Special Rapporteurs on adequate housing and indigenous peoples, respectively.

Furthermore, the experts questioned the transparency and legitimacy with which the project has been conducted, as there are concerns over repression of human rights defenders peacefully protesting the mine.

“People must be informed throughout, and must not be intimidated out of exercising their rights to express their opinions and peacefully assemble,” said Maina Kiai, the Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

“The Phulbari coal mine may entice developers. But for many Bangladeshis the wholesale environmental degradation of the Phulbari region will exacerbate food insecurity, poverty and vulnerability to climate events for generations to come,” the experts warned.

The group of seven independent experts consists of Mr. De Schutter, Ms. Albuquerque, Ms. Rolnik, Mr. Anaya and Mr. Kiai, as well as Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression; and Magdalena Sepúlveda, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

US BEHIND

In a latest WikiLeaks release of December 2010, US diplomats frequently put pressure on the Bangladesh government to reopen the controversial Phulbari coal mine, which had been closed following a violent protest.

A diplomatic US cable shows that US ambassador to Bangladesh James Moriarty held talks with the energy adviser of prime minister Sheikh Hasina in 2009. During the discussion, Moriarty urged adviser Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury to approve the plans by British company Global Coal Management (GCM) to begin open-cast coal mining at Phulbari, The Guardian newspaper reported.

On 26 Aug 2006, three boys, ‘Salekin’, 20, ‘Tariqul’, 21, and ‘Amin’, 13, were killed and more than 200 people injured at Phulbari when paramilitary forces opened fire on a peaceful demonstration protesting the open-pit mining proposed by the UK-based Asia Energy.

GCM, then working with the name of Asia Energy, were forced to shut down operations in the country in 2006 after the grassroots demonstrations turned violent. Hasina, then the opposition leader in parliament addressed the agitators on September 13 and vowed to meet their demands including banning of open-cast mining and forcing Asia Energy out of the country.

But the company continued to maintain a strong presence in the country and has continued to lobby for rights to operate the coal mine ever since, the report says. Since coming to power in January 2009, several key players of the ruling Awami League government have been trying to popularise the open-pit method, arguing it would yield higher economic benefits.

Earlier in December 2010, Steve Bywater, GCM’s chairman, said a Bangladesh’s parliamentary standing committee had recommended that the country needs to move towards extracting coal reserves using open-cut mining methods.