In Defense of their Homes and Lands

Demanding Human Rights in Phulbari Bangladesh

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By Kate Hoshour

“Let us respond to the cries of the exploited, and uphold the right to human dignity for all.”- UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon

Today we observe International Human Rights Day to celebrate the day on 10 December 1948 on which countries around the world proclaimed their commitment to promote and protect the human rights of all people thorough the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Important gains have been made in the more then six decades since, including a growing body of international human rights law and standards, and the recent work led by Professor Ruggie, as the Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises, which culminated in the UN’s ‘Protect, Respect, and Remedy,’ Framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Recognizing these gains, it is also critical to grapple with the enduring reality that development — or destructive projects justified and advanced in the name of “development” — has posed and continues to pose one of the greatest threats to the rights of people worldwide since the adoption of the UN Declaration.

Each year, some 15–20 million people around the globe are forcibly evicted, their homes and lands destroyed, in order to make way for destructive mega-projects advanced on the basis of dubious or false claims to serve “the greater good.” To halt this ongoing violation of human rights, it is vital to press for policy changes that will require genuine assessments of these “public interest” claims, particularly in projects involving massive forced evictions.

It is equally vital that we do our utmost to support the communities that courageously stand their ground to resist such projects. These grassroots community-led struggles have the power to reveal the policy changes that are most critically needed and to inspire us to intensify our efforts to ensure that human rights are upheld by states and multinational corporations alike. And so, on this International Human Rights Day, I am moved to write to highlight one of the most vibrant and sustained movements to challenge mass destruction in the name of development — the community-led fight to halt a proposed open-pit coalmine in northwest Bangladesh, known as the Phulbari Coal Project.

If allowed to go forward as planned, the Phulbari Coal Project would involve forced eviction on a massive and nearly inconceivable scale. An Expert Committee formed by the Government of Bangladesh to assess the project estimated that it would immediately affect some 130,000 people, and may ultimately displace some 220,000 people as mining operations lower groundwater levels and deplete their existing water sources. The National Indigenous Union states that the project would displace or impoverish 50,000 indigenous people in 23 villages.

The Phulbari Coal Project would also destroy over 14,600 hectares of land, most of which is verdant and fertile farmland that serves as the nation’s rice bowl. Although 80 percent of all households threatened by the project have land-based livelihoods, the Resettlement Plan prepared for the company baldly states that their farm lands will not be replaced and most affected households “will become landless.”

Memorial for those killed during protests against the Phulbari Coal Project

Massive protests against the mine began in 2006 and continue through today. On 26 August 2006, state-backed paramilitary forces opened fire on some 70,000 people marching against the project in Phulbari, killing three people and wounding many more.

Responding with outrage, people across Bangladesh enforced a nation-wide general strike that shuttered shops, markets, offices, and educational institutions. The UK-based company backing the project, GCM Resources, was forced to close its Phulbari office and its employees fled under police escort as strikers shut down roadways into the region.

The strike was halted after four days with the signing of a six-point document, known as the Phulbari Agreement, with terms that include cancellation of the Phulbari Coal Project, the permanent expulsion of GCM from Bangladesh, and a nation-wide ban on open-pit coal mining. Since that time, efforts to finalize a new national coal policy have been repeatedly snagged on whether it will incorporate the ban on open cast mining called for in this historic document.

Meanwhile, resistance on the ground has succeeded in stalling GCM’s proposed coal project for over eight years. This sustained community-led resistance is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the state has continued to resort to violence and intimidation in its ongoing efforts to quash it. Social movement leaders and project opponents have suffered public beatings by police, death threats, and arbitrary mass arrests and detention. The state has more than once imposed a colonial era ban to prohibit gatherings of five or more people in Phulbari in a futile attempt to prevent further demonstrations. As people have continued to protest in defiance of the ban and police barricades, the state has repeatedly deployed its notorious Rapid Action Battalion — denounced as a ‘death squad’ by Human Rights Watch — to demonstrations in Phulbari.

Rally against the Phulbari Coal Project in 2010. Image Credit: Anha F. Khan

Neither state repression nor the bloodshed and loss of life in August of 2006 have dampened GCM’s enthusiasm for open-pit mining of coal under Phulbari or its determination to push its project forward despite massive and sustained opposition from the communities it threatens — and despite expressions of grave concern and urgent appeals by international human rights bodies, organizations and experts regarding the high potential for further violence against people resisting the project.

In 2012, GCM informed its shareholders that it was intensifying its efforts to gain government approval for the project — the very year in which seven UN human rights experts took coordinated action to issue a joint UN press release calling for an immediate halt to its project on the grounds that it threatens to violate the human rights of tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. The Phulbari Coal Project, they warn, “poses an immediate threat to safety and standards of living” and “will exacerbate food insecurity, poverty and vulnerability to climate events for generations to come.”

Each renewed effort by the company to move the project forward has provoked further resistance from the communities it threatens, triggering the emergence and growth of what is now one of the most vibrant and sustained grassroots resistance movements worldwide. Just last month a visit to Phulbari by the company’s CEO Gary Lye sparked a full day of outraged protests on November 26th. In a statement from Lye published in an industry newsletter the following day, the CEO notes that police arrived at GCM’s office and “were trying to persuade me and our staff to leave the premises.” Despite Lye’s declaration that he had “no intention” of leaving, local news sources reported that he departed Phulbari under police escort.

In his statement, GCM’s CEO also characterizes angry demonstrators outside the company’s Phulbari office — which, he notes, were “prominently led by the mayor of Phulbari”– as a “mob”, and compares their actions to those of “terrorists.” Yesterday, he repeated these remarks in response to a question from a concerned shareholder at the company’s annual general meeting (AGM) in London, where the company is based.

Such statements are extremely concerning in any case, but all the more so when we consider that the company’s CEO made these remarks less that three weeks after a UK government investigation of the company’s conduct in Bangladesh concluded that that GCM was in breach of international guidelines for ethical corporate behavior. More specifically, the government’s investigation found that the company had breached the Human Rights Guidelines of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by failing to ‘foster confidence and mutual trust’ with the people who would be affected by their proposed mine.

Indigenous leaders protest at a rally against the Phulbari Coal Project in 2010

The UK government finding also advises that GCM must take into account the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which stipulates that no developments can take place on the lands of indigenous peoples’ without their ‘free, prior and informed consent’. As GCM is well aware, indigenous people have been protesting the project since 2006, and one indigenous leader interviewed during the government investigation stated that indigenous people are prepared to “go to war” to halt the project.

Just this week there are strong indications that GCM’s efforts to force the project forward may be doomed, as Energy Division Secretary Abu Bakar Siddique publicly stated that the company has no valid license or contract to develop its proposed project in Phulbari. The company, he reportedly added, “does not have any valid stake in Bangladesh.” Their visit to Phulbari, “causes unrest in the area, which is not acceptable.” GCM, the secretary reportedly concluded, “should not stay here.”

On this International Human Rights Day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urges “we speak out” and “intensify our efforts to fulfill our collective responsibility to promote and protect the rights and dignity of all people everywhere.” The courage of people in Phulbari and similar struggles around the globe by people demanding their rights to stay in their homes and on their lands — rather than be swept away by unjust projects justified in the name of “development” — both challenges and inspires us to respond to this call.

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International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.