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Big Coal WikiLeaks Emergency in Bangladesh: Does Obama Support Removal of 100,000 Villagers?

Why is the Obama administration pushing for an internationally condemned open-pit mine that will displace an estimated 100,000-200,000 villagers and ravage land and water?

When thousands of Bangladeshi take to the streets again on March 28th as part of a decade-long battle to halt a devastating British-owned open-pit coal mine, the world will not only be watching whether Bangladesh’s government will honor a coal ban agreement from 2006 or resort to violence.

In light of disturbing WikiLeaks cables, American and worldwide human rights and environmental organizations will also be questioning why the Obama administration is covertly pushing for Bangladesh to reverse course and acquiesce to an internationally condemned massive open-pit mine that will displace an estimated 100,000-200,000 villagers and ravage desperately needed farm land and water resources.

The short answer, from US Ambassador James Moriarty’s leaked memos: “Asia Energy, the company behind the Phulbari project, has sixty percent US investment. Asia Energy officials told the Ambassador they were cautiously optimistic that the project would win government approval in the coming months.”

Two years ago, an independent review of the coal mine by a British research firm warned:

“Phulbari Coal Project threatens numerous dangers and potential damages, ranging from the degradation of a major agricultural region in Bangladesh to pollution of the world’s largest wetlands. The project’s Summary Environmental Impact Assessment, and its full Environmental and Social Impact Assessment are replete with vague assurances, issuing many promises of future mitigation measures.”

For US-based Cultural Survival and International Accountability Project, the Phulbari coal mine is nothing less than a “humanitarian and ecological disaster.”

Last month, Cultural Survival and International Accountability Project joined with Jatiya Adivasi Parishad, Bangladesh’s National Indigenous Union, to launch an international campaign to stop the open-pit mine and raise awareness of on-going Big Coal human rights and environmental violations in Bangladesh.

I did this interview with Paula Palmer, Director of the Global Response Program for Cultural Survival, to get the backstory on this growing international crisis and CS/IAP’s letter-writing campaign.

Jeff Biggers: Can you briefly described the controversial history over the British company and the Phulbari open pit mine?

Paula Palmer: This Earth Touch article has an excellent time-line of events starting with the Bangladesh government issuing prospecting and exploration contracts in 1994. It also tells the story of the massive August 26, 2006 protest that resulted in the death of three people, including a 13-year-old child. Huge public protests against the Phulbari coal project involving thousands of citizens started in 2005 and continue through today. In fact, this week there are daily protest events in various locations, building up to March 28, when organizers say they will blockade major highways unless the government responds to their demands. They are asking the government to honor the agreement signed after the August 26, 2006 protests, which committed the government to banning open pit coal mining and booting Asia Energy out of the country. Just about the only thing that actually changed after the 2006 protest is the name of the company, which became Global Coal Management.

What’s fueling these protests? The project would forcibly displace over 100,000 people from their homes and their farms without offering them equivalent land in exchange, and reduce access to water for another 100,000 people (possibly forcing them to eventually leave their homes and farms). Among the potentially displaced are Indigenous peoples of more than 20 ethnicities who trace their ancestry in the region back 5,000 years. Clearly this forced displacement is the cause of the greatest public outcry against the project, but there are other reasons. The project will also contaminate the air and the water, destroy productive farmland in a country where nearly half the population is undernourished, and threaten the biologically and economically valuable marine and terrestrial life in the Sundarbans mangrove forest.

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