The story of Phulbari struggle is a story of injustice and abuse, but it’s also a tale of solidarity and resilience.
In 2006, 50,000 people gathered to protest coal mining in Phulbari, in the Dinajpur district in Bangladesh. After the protest, as people were returning home, the paramilitary opened fire and killed 3 people, injuring over 200 more. 2 of the 3 killed were school-age children.
13 years after this shooting, GCM — the company responsible for the Phulbari killing — is still selling shares for this coal-mining project in the London Stock Exchange. The local people have been led to believe the project has been stalled.
GCM, “Global Coal Management”, is not the name the locals know the company by. On January 11, 2007, the company, in an attempt to clean its image of the killings, officially changed its former name – Asia Energy – to the current one.
Asia Energy began operating in the region in 1997 with the mission statement “Making natural resources work for the people of Bangladesh,” buying the rights to mine from BHP. In 2004, they started disseminating information using colorful posters and video images about how the mining project will help bring development to the people. They started to recruit local middlemen to manage local public sentiment. Over time the company tried to buy the locals’ approval by providing color television, cash money, the promise of a high price for their homestead and land, and nice flats for relocation. But these efforts only made people more suspicious.
Local resistance began to strengthen in response to the public relations propaganda. National Committee of Bangladesh or NCBD — a National Coalition that had historically resisted the government’s cooperation with multinational energy companies, joined hands with the local resistance from 2005.
The indigenous community played a vital role in the resistance. The project was estimated to impact more than 220,000 people out of which, 50,000 were to be of indigenous communities. For them the mine meant losing their identity. It would break their small communities, force them to change cultural traditions, religious practices, and languages. When asked why opposing the project, Golbanu, a valiant woman in her mid-fifties said:
“This land is all we have. We live here together and can help each other. We don’t have a lot, but this place is our home. If we have to move from here, what will I do with some paper money that will run out? My neighbors, my community will not dissipate in the air, no?”
The pain of losing their loved ones also does not dissipate for the families of Tarikul (18), Salekin (14) and Amin (16). As the families continue fighting to make ends meet, Salekin’s mother keeps crying remembering her youngest. He went to the protest on the 26th of August, 2006 with his uncle. When asked if he was forbidden to go to the rally that day, his aunt says, “Everyone was going to the protest that day. We did not fear anything like this would happen.”
The families received the equivalent of 2000 euros in compensation from the government at that time. Amin’s younger brother, Al-Amin is attending high school now. Although it’s difficult for the family to bear his educational expenses, the National Committee leaders encourage them to keep his education going.
Amin’s older sister Hanifa Banu recounts her memory of the day, “I was away in another village. My wedding was coming up. I was visiting a relative. Only in the evening we heard the news of his death”. In her voice lingers the emotion of disbelief even after all these years. The family finds peace in knowing the project is abandoned and the company has left the country. Yet GSM’s stock is still being traded in the international share market.
A Guardian article published in 2010, referring to WikiLeak Cables, reported that the US ambassador to Dhaka, rather than asking for the company to be held accountable, had been insisting to the country’s then chief energy adviser to allow the Phulbari Coal Project to resume.
This year, on 23 August, Phulbari Solidarity Group – led by expat Bangladeshi Activist Rumana Hashem and the National Committee’s UK branch held a Black Vigil in front of London Stock Exchange with 12 international organizations. They demand that GCM should be delisted from the London Stock Exchange. The activists are convinced that this is the final way to stop GCM once and for all.
The families of Salekin, Amin and Tarikul didn’t know about the US ambassador lobbying, nor the Phulbari Solidarity Group Action in London. When we spoke to the local organizers in Phulbari, it became clear that they had not heard about the Global Climate Strike from Septemeber 20-27. Their struggle, despite bearing the burns of the fossil fuel industry and the fossil finance, takes a different shape: keep the community strong and active, and the memory alive, not give in to threats.
So when we mobilize, with the new generation of activists, it is also our duty to acknowledge this legacy and take forward the struggle. This connection strengthens our global fight and grounds the movement in true environmental and climate justice solidarity. This September, when we strike, we take forward the stories of school students in Bangladesh, who went to a strike 13 years ago.