Fighting Ecocide in the Bengal Delta



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?

The Phulbari project was initially sold to the public as a development project and, as expected, the British High Commission, the Indian High Commission, the World Bank, and their consultants went on a promotional blitz. But our investigation revealed that 80 percent of the coal would be exported, and Bangladesh would only get six percent royalty. Not only that, but Bangladesh was also on the hook to build a rail connection from Phulbari (north of Bangladesh) to all the way through the Sundarbans (south of Bangladesh) for exports. The environmental devastation and negative effects on the community would be immense and the benefit to Bangladesh would be minimal. Resisting this project wasn’t easy: there was intimidation from the military, the main contracting corporation Asia Energy even appointed retired military officials who went around threatening activists and organizers.

But the movement finally prevailed thanks to a community uprising against coal mining in the area. That was a victory. 

I am often asked to explain how we define “national interest.” And I admit it’s hard to define when there are multiple interests within a nation, for example, corporate interest, class interest, people’s interests, some of which go beyond the nation. So, for us, the priority is the public interest. 

PSS: Which brings us to Rampal. Why is the Rampal power project a dangerous undertaking and why is the Sundarbans important? 

AM: Spanning the southern coastal area of Bangladesh (and extending into West Bengal, India), the Sundarbans is the largest mangrove in the world. It works as a strong, natural barrier against cyclones for the coastal belt. The repeated cyclonic storms we experience are weakened by the Sundarbans, protecting the region’s people. It also has a rich and diverse ecosystem. There are species of bees in the area which are unique to the Sundarbans, and they are essential to the mangrove’s ecological balance and the food chain. Any disturbance to that will have adverse effects—from the trees to the small and large animals to people—and can destroy the entire system’s reproduction and regenerative capacities. 

Now under construction, Rampal is a coal-fired power plant. It is estimated that the plant will use nearly five million tons of coal every year, that’s 12,000 tons each day. The coal will be transported through a river in the Sundarbans. This is even before production starts, which will already distress the forest. Once production begins, there will be more air and water pollution, fly ash in the atmosphere, and pollutant deposits. When chimneys emit that pollution, no matter how high they are, it will be released into the atmosphere. As I have said before, the Sundarbans has an enormous capacity to withstand stress as we have seen with the cyclones, but when there is such a coordinated, man-made attack on an ecosystem as precarious as the Sundarbans, there will be unimaginable devastation. 

Rampal has also been an excuse for the government to approve several other industrial developments (LPG and cement plants, for example) in the area. All these businesses view the Sundarbans as an “opportunity” for land grabs under the cover of development and economic progress. Making the Sundarbans vulnerable will jeopardize the coastal areas of Bangladesh, displace millions, and will leave Bangladesh unprotected. Millions of lives in the Khulna, Satkhira, and Bagerhat areas will be harmed, but to my previous point, the Sundarbans aren’t enclosed by borders. If this ecosystem is in jeopardy, then the lives and environment in the West Bengal part of India will also be affected. We have stressed upon the environmental and ecological balance and since there is a major Indian involvement in the Rampal project, we tried emphasizing people’s interest in preserving that balance. A people’s interest beyond borders. We tried to formulate cross-border public solidarity, appeal for mass support because our opposition is to a profiteering corporate and government interest (in both Bangladesh and India), but not against the public. 

PSS: Could you tell us a bit more about the public support and mobilization in support of saving the Sundarbans from the rampages of the Rampal power plant?

AM: In Bangladesh, the Sundarbans already has a kind of appeal and evokes a form of attachment that people already understand its importance even without any scientific evidence. There’s a soft spot in people’s minds for it and its destruction is undesirable for many. This is why it was easier to create mass mobilization. People from all areas of Bangladesh, from Dhaka, from Chattogram joined our long marches. In the early days of the “Save Sundarbans” movement against Rampal this cross-regional support helped us.

Aerial shot of the Sunderbans.
Surrounded by the high tide water, a fishing village in the Sundarbans. / IMF photo, K.M. Asad (April 2021).

The National Committee is also the only forum that, for more than two decades, has been organizing around the natural resource industry and extraction in Bangladesh. 

But I have to highlight several factors here which affected our movement in subsequent phases. 

Firstly, Rampal was sold as a development project and as experience has shown, it is easy to convince people with that narrative. The same was true in Phulbari but, thankfully, that narrative did not hold and resistance against coal mining was successful. We had to simultaneously learn about the harmful effects of coal, engage and work with the locals, and challenge developmentalist narratives. But the ruling class also learned from their Phulbari experience, and when the current regime took charge and proceeded with Rampal, one, they had integrated into a “war on terror” agenda which only emboldened them to repress any dissenting voices and platforms, and two, the national elections of 2014 and 2018 only made it clear that we were further descending into an authoritarian system. 

Secondly, Phulbari was mainly a local-led movement but, after the initial phase, it became difficult to connect with the local communities in Rampal and surrounding areas and that’s directly related to the factor above. A climate of threats, harassment, and violence gripped the area, others were bought off. People were regularly threatened with “crossfires” [extrajudicial murder]. A repressive machinery was fully entrenched and in operation. There are signboards announcing that the Bangladeshi army has custodianship of the project. Unless anybody resides or tries to visit these mega-projects, it is hard to explain the scale of securitized and violent zones that are created from and surrounding them. There’s palpable panic and fear among the people in Rampal, especially because this is also an area with a sizable Hindu population (and from the oppressed castes) who already find themselves on fragile footing. 

Finally, owing to this repressive system and given this overall climate, we have had to contend with a lack of energy and morale, but the government has been very determined even during Covid-19 to continue apace. I will say public support for saving the Sundarbans and against Rampal remains strong, but we have very little space for democratic organizing and mobilizations. 

PSS: What is the status of Rampal now? Especially with the ongoing energy crisis, there seems to be renewed effort to promote coal-generated power plants, even revive the Phulbari project.

AM: If we had a modicum of democracy, I don’t imagine we would still be in a struggle to save the Sundarbans because a movement this long and strong would have achieved its goals sooner. The government has conceded a bit: instead of two, there will now be one plant with 1320 MW production capacity, and another 600 MW private plant was also canceled. But the Rampal project is ongoing and so are other coal-generated power projects (Payra, for example) along the coastal belt. 

The defenders of Rampal have used a series of arguments like the use of “super critical technology,” long chimneys, and fly ash capturing technology, all of which we have refuted. Fundamentally, coal is damaging and there is no possibility of further research, investment, or newer technologies for coal as the world is moving away from it. Countries like China and India, which use Bangladesh as a site for their geopolitical and business interests, are also investing in renewable energies, and distancing themselves from coal.

Every crisis, like the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine, presents two types of possible scenarios. One is to find our way out of real problems, like changing the course of global capitalism, and then two, the deepening of the current crisis, emboldening of corporate interests. Unfortunately, the second one seems resurgent; we are creating more billionaires. And in Bangladesh, the coal and nuclear lobbies are again energized and active in light of the energy crisis. 

The Committee’s position is very clear: neither coal nor nuclear energies are acceptable to us. We have developed and presented an alternative and renewable energy plan with short-, mid-, and long-term goals and we are optimistic that by 2041, Bangladesh could satisfy 55 percent of its energy needs from renewables. Worldwide, including in Bangladesh, the fossil fuel industry is subsidized. In Bangladesh, there is in-built support like tax-free import for equipment. They won’t survive without these subsidies. Since Bangladesh did not have a coal infrastructure to begin with, we were in a good position to develop cheap, environment-friendly, safe, and sustainable methods, but we have chosen a path that is disaster-prone, expensive, and import-based just to satisfy the interests of a few. But this is all part of the political struggle, and these are political questions. A more democratic space would have made it easier to discuss, resolve, and contest those questions, but we have to continue the struggle. 

PSS: You have spoken about public ownership and interest when talking about natural resources. But should we not rethink ownership and extractive models in the first place? Must we not think of the common good and a commons instead of profit-oriented progress or national interest? What I mean is a need for an epistemological rehauling of interest and progress based on ownership and extraction. 

AM: Of course, yes, I agree. But to go that route is a political struggle; we have to undergo an unlearning and relearning process—especially our educated classes. Besides, capital has a menacing and all-encompassing productive capacity, including cultural reproduction. No other activity other than transactional activities can make space and you observe that in the rural areas of Bangladesh too. 

With regards to public ownership and the common or collective good, when we are fighting the glorification and dominance of private ownership and profit, we have tried to argue for public ownership and interest.

When profit motive or private interests (with government support and when government interests align with private interests) lay claim to land or river or forest as we see happening in Bangladesh, our position is they belong to the people. We use public ownership to counter private ownership. But if everything belongs to the people, the concept of ownership becomes irrelevant because nobody really owns anything then. 

The world we have inherited and inhabit is not an individual’s property. That’s a very simple concept, we instinctively understand that, but it’s also difficult to convince people. They will say, if I don’t accumulate wealth or don’t have property, my son will starve—notice they are not as concerned about daughters who will most likely be married off. Yes, fighting for an idea of the commons is part of our struggle, but when there is such a strong pro-privatization sentiment and apparatus, arguing for public ownership in that context is a phase in the struggle. 

PSS: Let’s end with the Sundarbans and how it can be an example of living with nature instead of owning nature. 

AM: As a mangrove, the Sundarbans’ ecosystem combines land and water. And like other sensitive ecological systems in the world, its well-being is deeply connected to the well-being and survival of people, their lives and ways of living. Its destruction by the power plant will create inevitable chain reactions. 

Bangladeshi activist speaking at a rally with a huge poster in the backdrop.
Anu Muhammad speaking at a rally in Khulna in April 2017 to protest the setting up of the coal -fired power plant in Rampal near the UNESCO heritage site in Sunderbans. / Photo by Shahidul Alam.

When we say the Sundarbans offers protection, we argue from a position of immediacy and material benefits. But we also know there is a deeper, broader question of survival and existence connected to the mangrove ecosystem and its features. Devastating this ecosystem may lead to our extinction. And in that sense, it is a global concern because the Earth’s ecological balance is sustained by these interconnected natural systems, and when one of them is threatened, the effects spread over space and time. So yes, the people of the coastal regions in this area will bear the brunt, but so will others. It is harmful to the Earth. The people who obsess over profit and power will make money; but what are we losing in return?

The faiths and fables, music, myths, lore, and stories from this area highlight the unique features of the Sundarbans and in them, human beings are but one character among many. They are not always at the top, sometimes they are subordinate, minor or secondary characters. There is an element of dependence. 

We have created a world of waste and the remaining shelters like the Sundarbans face decimation. It’s a wonder we are still standing amidst all that, oceans full of plastic, electronic waste, nuclear waste, and chemical waste; it’s vital to save the shelters and breathing space we have in the Sundarbans. ■