Fighting Ecocide in the Bengal Delta

Published

PARSA SANJANA SAJID IN CONVERSATION WITH ANU MUHAMMAD
TRANSLATED FROM BANGLA BY PARSA SANJANA SAJID

In this conversation, past contributor Parsa Sanjana Sajid interviews Dhaka-based environmental activist and economist Anu Muhammad about the struggle against coal mining and power production in Bangladesh. They talk more particularly about the fight against the ongoing construction of the Rampal power plant near the largest mangrove forest in the world: the Sundarbans.

Aerial shot of river making its way into a brown and green patch of land.
View from space of the Sundarbans and the Bay of Bengal. / Modified elements by Lavizzara of this image furnished by ESA.

Parsa Sanjana Sajid: Please share with us a history of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power, and Ports. When was it formed and why? 

Anu Muhammad: The Committee was established in 1998 and our agenda at the time was to create a forum for public discussion on a series of gas exploration contracts the government of Bangladesh had signed with foreign multinational oil and gas companies. The precursor was a blowout in a gas field in Magurchara in the eastern part of Bangladesh in June 1997. That was the first time we learned that the then government had signed a production sharing contract with a U.S.-based company Occidental for gas exploration in the area. The media covered the explosion, and members of the public became aware of the existence of such a contract. I was teaching economics at the time, but whether you were in economics or geology or a member of the civil society, hardly anybody was aware of these deals, they were signed in total secrecy. Once we started probing that contract, we found it to be harmful to the national interest. For example, provisions for damage compensation were missing, at the first stage of exploration they retained 80 percent ownership and had opportunities for gas export. 

At that initial stage, our main demand was that no government could enter into these contracts without meaningful public knowledge and engagement. Second, we argued against gas exports, because Bangladesh had its own energy needs. At the time, there was a strong public mobilization against gas exports and from the late-1990s to early 2000s, public debates, demonstrations, and long marches contributed to solidifying that sentiment. When President Clinton visited Bangladesh in 2000, one of his agendas was to encourage gas export and there was a huge demonstration against it, which was also attacked by the police. Two to three years later, the government finally relented, because the public was so against it. Gas exports have since stopped. 

PSS: Since then the Committee has been mobilizing and building these movements around natural resources for decades now. What is your assessment of its successes and the ongoing movements?

AM: My assessment is that success or failure can’t be measured simply by whether our demands were met because it’s more multi-dimensional than that. The fact that we could bring this issue to the public’s attention, that we could make a convincing case that the people of Bangladesh are the owners of its natural resources—these are public and common property—that a government cannot do what it likes without public support were all major milestones.

Then there was the proposed open-pit coal mining operation in Phulbari in northern Bangladesh. That was a turning point for us (in the mid-2000s), simultaneously organizing and learning about the hazards of the environmental impact of open-pit mining. What would be the impact on water resources, the fertile farm and agricultural lands, and the air quality? And how would that impact the local populations, not to mention the eviction of almost a million people from their lands?