Celebrating people’s resistance in Bangladesh

Yesterday was Phulbari Day, commemorating mass protests which took place exactly nine years ago in opposition to plans by a UK-based mining company, GCM, to build a huge open-cast coal mine in Phulbari in north-west Bangladesh. The 2006 demonstration ended in tragedy when paramilitary forces opened fire on the crowds, killing three people and injuring hundreds.

Both in Phulbari and London yesterday, people gathered to pay homage to those who died that day and to celebrate the people-powered resistance that has prevented the mine being built for almost a decade.

In London I joined members of the UK branch of the Bangladesh National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, as well as people from UNISON and the Socialist Party where we heard a message of support from Tamil Solidarity and discussed recent developments in the campaign against the mine.

People welcomed news of a recent statement by Bangladesh’s state minister for power, energy and mineral resources, Nasrul Hamid that the government does not want to use open pit mining in the region due to the high population density and the fact that much of the local economy is based on agriculture and other land-based livelihoods.

One of the people present last night was at the protests on the day of the deadly shootings, and described how local women had made brushes to take with them to symbolically remove the company from the area. They recognised that the mine, if built, would cause mass evictions and destroy thousands of acres of farmland in an area that forms part of the country’s breadbasket.

Since 2008, Global Justice Now has supported the campaign against the mine by putting pressure on investors (which saw Barclays and RBS withdraw their support), exposing the UK government’s support for GCM and joining protests at the company’s AGM each year.

We also supported US-based International Accountability Project to submit a complaint to the UK National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, in the hope of using this mechanism to hold GCM to account. Unfortunately, while our complaint was accepted for investigation, it failed to consider the impacts of the project should it go ahead, focusing only on the company’s actions in the planning stage to date. While GCM was still found to have failed to “foster confidence and trust” in the local community, it was otherwise let off the hook with a recommendation that it update its plans and carry out a human rights impact assessment – something that colleagues in Bangladesh say is likely to lead further unrest. Already, within days of the publication of the final statement on the complaint, a visit by GCM’s CEO Gary Lye to the area triggered two days of protests and strikes, including an occupation of GCM’s offices in Phulbari.

But the failure of high level international mechanisms like this made yesterday’s gatherings in recognition of the mass resistance to the project all the more important. It means that what has stopped this devastating project from happening for almost a decade is solid people power. And that’s definitely worth celebrating.

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