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Angry Santa interrupts AGM over Phulbari mine

United Kingdom

Tens of thousands joined a 7-day and 250-mile march in Bangladesh, 2010. Photo: Anha F. Khan

British coal mining company GCM Resources may have hoped that scheduling its London AGM for 20 December, just before Christmas, would allow the event to pass under the public radar.

Instead, Chair Gerard Holden found his stage invaded by Santa Claus, who presented him with a Christmas stocking and the words, ‘Ho, ho, ho, have you been naughty or nice this year? St Nick always knows – your stocking’s full of coal!’

A stocking filled with coal in place of gifts is a (usually only threatened) punishment for very bad behaviour. The behaviour that won Santa’s disapproval in this case was GCM’s plan to establish an open-pit coal mine in Phulbari in northwest Bangladesh, which threatens to displace up to 220,000 people.

The project has been on hold since 2006 due to opposition from the people who stand to lose their homes, their land and their livelihoods. In August that year, three people were killed and many more injured when Bangladeshi troops opened fire on protests against the mine. Prominent investors, including Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Asian Development Bank eventually withdrew their financial support for the project.

But this year, GCM has renewed its efforts to get the go-ahead to mine in Phulbari. Last month, the Bangladeshi government told the local authorities to co-operate with the company’s exploration work in the area, and slapped a ban on gatherings of more than five people.

In response, local people called a two-day strike, and have promised further protests unless GCM and open-pit coal mining are both banned from the country by the end of December.

As well as devastating the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people whose land would be taken or polluted, the mine would destroy a huge area of agricultural land, and could pollute the Sundarban Reserve Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Seven top United Nations human rights experts have called for an immediate halt to the project on the grounds that it could lead to the violation of fundamental human rights.

‘The Phulbari development would displace vulnerable farming communities, and threaten the livelihoods of thousands more by doing irreversible damage to water sources and ecosystems in the region,’ the UN officials said in a statement earlier this year.

Following pressure from Bangladeshi campaigners and the World Development Movement, the British government publicly distanced itself from the Phulbari coal project in 2008. But emails obtained by the London Mining Network through Freedom of Information requests reveal more recent attempts by the government to avoid disclosing the nature of its relationship with GCM. Information requested by the group was refused on the basis that it would ‘prejudice the UK government’s international relations with the Bangladesh government’.

British MP John McDonnell, speaking in parliament in November, labelled GCM’s proposed mine as ‘destructive’, ‘outrageous’ and ‘shocking’. He condemned the government’s refusal to provide information on its relationship with GCM, saying: ‘In other words, the government would be ashamed of the support they have given this company if it came to light.’

The US-based International Accountability Project and the World Development Movement have this week submitted a complaint about the mine to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD provides a set of basic standards for corporate behaviour. If the complaint is upheld, it would deal a blow to GCM’s plans.

The British government’s stance – and GCM’s London listing – invite renewed pressure from campaigners in Britain, while international solidarity can only strengthen the movement against the mine in Phulbari.

For details of international campaigns, see the International Accountability Project and Cultural Survival in the US.

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