MAC: Mines and Communities

The mystery death, a town in uproar and a $1bn UK mines deal

Published by MAC on 2006-09-03

The mystery death, a town in uproar and a $1bn UK mines deal

Nasreen Huq was fighting a controversial opencast coal plan when she died in a car crash. Since then, conspiracy theories have multiplied and protests spiralled. Jamie Doward and Mahtab Haider report from Bangladesh

The Observer September 3 2006

The truth died with Nasreen Huq on 24 April, the day a car rammed her against a wall, expunging a life in its 48th year. The private conversations she had with senior government officials in the weeks before her death went with her to the grave.

But the ghost of the popular human rights activist has since continued to weave a haunting narrative which sweeps back and forth between Whitehall and the Indian sub-continent, and seems to have come straight from the pages of a John le Carré novel.

Huq, a household name in her native Bangladesh for her work with the campaign Action Aid, had become concerned about the activities of a British company planning to develop an opencast coal mine in the country's poorest province, a controversial move that, if approved by the government in the capital, Dhaka, will lead to between 40,000 and 100,000 local people losing their homes.

Asia Energy, whose plush offices are in London's Piccadilly and whose shares trade on the London Stock Exchange, wants to mine 15 million tonnes of coal a year for the next 30 years in Phulbari in the north-western province of Dinajpur, selling most of it to fuel-hungry India and China.

This is a huge amount, making this one of the biggest mining projects of its type in the world. Backed by a number of leading British banks, including Barclays, the company will make a huge amount of money if it is allowed to dig for coal there. When Asia Energy signed a provisional agreement with the government in 1998, coal fetched £14.70 a tonne. Today, thanks to the soaring demand, it can fetch £52.50 a tonne if the quality is as high as that in Phulbari.

But Asia Energy's proposals to dramatically alter the landscape around the town have triggered an outcry. Last Saturday thousands of people marched through the town's streets where they were met by a force of armed police.

Both sides blame each other for what happened next. As protesters carrying bows and arrows clashed with the police, shots were fired. In the ensuing melee five people, including a 14-year-old boy, died and scores more were wounded, an event that on Wednesday triggered a national strike as thousands turned out to protest against the killings.

Anu Muhammad, who has led protests at Phulbari for the past 16 months, remembers the events of Saturday evening clearly. 'We were about 30,000 people - all local farmers, day labourers and members of the local aboriginal communities who marched to protest outside the local Asia Energy office,' Muhammad told The Observer. 'As evening descended we started back towards the town centre. Ten minutes had passed when we suddenly heard the crack of rifle shots behind us. It was utter chaos. The police were charging and there were dead bodies on the street.'

However, Fazlul Haque, the local police chief, saw it differently: 'The mob turned violent and the paramilitary were left with no choice but to open fire.' Asia Energy blames the riot on a 'rentamob' which it claims was bussed in from far away. 'Around 95 per cent of them weren't from the local community,' said David Lenigas, a non-executive director of the company. These people are carrying on like we've got a coal mine there. We haven't. All we've done is spend $20m on a feasibility study.'

The company claims that the vast majority of the local population support its plans. But it is clear that experts on sustainability, such as Nasreen Huq, have long expressed reservations which may play powerfully with politicians in the run-up to Bangladesh's general election, which is due next year.

Huq is known to have raised concerns about Asia Energy's plans when she met company representatives last February. According to several people close to her, the UK Department for International Development was becoming increasingly concerned by her opposition to the scheme. She talked to her sister Shireen, deputy programme director at the Danish aid agency Danida, who said that Nasreen told her that David Wood, the department's chief in Dhaka, asked her to drop her campaign against the mine.

'I remember she was furious,' Shireen Huq said. 'She said: "They think they are the East India Company, telling us to leave Asia Energy alone because Action Aid is a British organisation".'

As Nasreen learnt more about the plans for the mine, she contacted lawyers in London with the idea of challenging the deal in an international court.

Shireen Huq says that her sister was planning to share a dossier she had compiled with legal friends and the press. However, Action Aid in Bangladesh says it knows of no such dossier.

'After Nasreen's death, her colleagues came to visit us. This was early times, so it was quite emotional,' Shireen said. 'They told me that David Wood had told Nasreen that he was "under a lot of heat from London" and that whatever differences Action Aid had with Asia Energy they should be settled.'

Claims that the department told Nasreen to drop her opposition to the mine, and warned her that it could threaten the future funding for Action Aid, are categorically denied by government officials in London and in Bangladesh. 'Any such rumours are totally false,' said a British High Commission spokesman in Bangladesh. Neither the commission in Dhaka nor the department's representative there had 'summoned Nasreen before her death. Nor did either organisation threaten to withdraw assistance to Action Aid'.

Nevertheless, the manner of Nasreen's death has fuelled conspiracy theories in a country where they are as common as rain. The person at the wheel of the car that rammed into her was her own driver, a fellow Action Aid employee. Initially the police treated the death as an accident but, following an outcry from Nasreen's friends, they launched a murder investigation and arrested the driver, who has not been charged but remains under investigation.

Shireen maintains that what happened to her sister was no accident. 'We believe Nasreen's death was a pre-planned murder and that's why we gave permission to exhume her body for a post mortem,' she said.

Many other people are not convinced of this, however. 'We think it was a tragic accident,' said Jane Moyo, head of media at Action Aid who was in Bangladesh with Nasreen shortly before she died. Moyo believed that the driver's 'foot slipped and went down on the accelerator instead of the brake'.

Privately some of the Action Aid staff feel that it was not Nasreen's place to campaign against the mine. The charity specialises in education and health projects in developing countries, not environmental issues.

The organisation told The Observer it does not know whether any British official told her to drop her campaign. 'The family did make those claims to us,' Moyo confirmed. 'But to be frank we just don't know. We have no record of her saying those things.' Although the department is not involved with the project financially, it is not hard to see why it would at least tacitly endorse Asia Energy's plans.

The company has pledged to bring 2,000 jobs to the poorest area in Bangladesh. More than half of its people are illiterate. The firm claims that it will spend $250m on building schools and hospitals for those who will lose their homes, and even relocate them in new villages. 'This town didn't exist until 1970,' Lenigas said of Phulbari . 'It's not like it's 300 years old. A lot of people live in tin shacks or mud houses.'

But others have yet to be convinced. Many feel a putative profit-sharing deal struck by Asia Energy and the Bangladesh government is heavily weighted in the mining company's favour. Scientists have sounded a warning that the water which will be pumped out of the mine to get to the coal may result in drying up underground aquifers.

Roger Moody, of the firm Nostromo Research, an expert on mining companies and corporate responsibility, visited the site earlier this year and spoke to a number of local charities and community groups. 'I have no doubt from the people that I talked to that the majority are against it,' Moody said. 'There is very strong local opposition from all sides.'

Asia Energy, which is to withdraw staff from the region until the situation calms down, argues that mining underground, which the local people would prefer, is not economical. It also claims that the protests are whipped up by left-wing militants. 'In October the government goes into caretaker mode and the country is run by the judiciary before elections in January,' Lenigas said. 'You've basically got two months left for people to get on their soap box.'

'I'm not convinced,' Moody said. 'Asia Energy hasn't consulted local people' - a claim that is disputed by the company, which has opened an information centre in the region to explain its proposals and boasts an impressive range of supporters, from universities to charities.

Amid the claims and the counter-claims only one thing is certain. Asia Energy cannot afford to have the scheme rejected. Its future is predicated on the $1.1bn plan being approved.

But last Saturday's tragic events will have done little to reassure Asia Energy's investors, who have pumped millions of pounds into the company since its flotation in 2004. The company's shares were suspended on Thursday at its own request after they plunged in value by 59 per cent in one day, amid claims the government had said no.

If that is true, it will be a setback for those who claimed that the mine would bring prosperity to the dirt-poor region. But it will also be a vindication of Nasreen Huq's campaign, which has given events in a long ignored corner of Bangladesh global significance.

'We would say to any multinational company you can't ride roughshod over the needs of the poorest people,' Moyo said. 'We believe that this should be Nasreen's legacy.'

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