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Sunday, March 26, 2023

Campaigners flay violent crackdown on Bangladesh coal protesters

Activists have condemned Monday’s deadly police crackdown on villagers protesting coal plant construction in Bangladesh. Officials say that at least four people died when police opened fire on an unarmed crowd in Gandamara, a small coastal town in Bangladesh, where 500 villagers had gathered to oppose two new Chinese-funded coal projects.

Wild deer in the Sundarbans. The forest is home to more than 1,000 species including Bangladesh’s last population of tigers Photo credit: Majority World/Getty Images
Wild deer in the Sundarbans. The forest is home to more than 1,000 species including Bangladesh’s last population of tigers Photo credit: Majority World/Getty Images

Thousands of Bangladeshis had marched from the country’s capital, Dhaka, to the world’s biggest mangrove forest to protest plans to build two coal-power plants on the edge of the World Heritage-listed forest.

The organisers intended to persuade the Bangladeshi government to drop its backing for construction of the plants near the Sundarbans, an area of rice paddies, shrimp farms and vast mangrove forests.

Indeed, the villagers had been protesting peacefully for days, despite a police ban, after the local conglomerate behind the planned coal expansion started bulldozing land to pave the way for the obviously popular plants. Authorities in Bangladesh have long used intimidation tactics to prevent locals voicing their concerns – a move the Climate Action Network (CAN) termed a “new and deadly means of silencing opposition to dirty coal power is an extremely worrying escalation.”

“More than six thousand farmers are dependent on this fertile land for agriculture and salt production, these farmers travelled to Gandamara to save their livelihoods and some paid for it with their lives,” said Sanjay Vashist, Director of Climate Action Network South Asia. “Experts have also pointed out that the operation of coal plants would cause major damage to the delicate ecosystem of the area, due to air and water pollution and increase in boat traffic to deliver coal to the plant,” he added.

“It is time for government to stop the death and destruction caused by coal projects in Bangladesh and show real leadership through redirecting investments away from coal to renewables like wind and solar,” said Dr. Mohd. Abdul Matin, Convenor of the Coal Affairs Programme Committee and General Secretary of BAPA.

Wael Hmaidan, Director of Climate Action Network International, said, “People have a right to peacefully stand up against reckless coal expansion that threatens to destroy their homes and ruin their livelihoods. This community is trying to defend itself from an increasingly desperate industry and has suffered a direct attack from the authorities who should be preserving their rights, not trampling on them.”

CAN, a global community of over 950 NGOs in more than 110 countries fighting for action to tackle climate change, has declared its support for the demand from local groups for an immediate, full and independent inquiry into Monday’s events, to hold those responsible to account for the unnecessary murder of at least four people.

“It is simply unacceptable for police to open fire on protesters and shoot to kill,” the group stated.

“No sensible person will deny that there are many alternative ways for electricity generation,” said Anu Muhammad an economist with Jahangirnagar University, and head of the march organisers, the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports. “But there is no alternative for (the) Sundarbans.”

Both the proposed 1,320 MW Rampal coal plant and the 565 MW Orion coal plant will sit within 14km of the Sundarbans, a 10,000 sq km (3,860 sq miles) forest listed as both a UNESCO World Heritage site and a Ramsar-protected wetland. The great forest is split between Bangladesh and India, but the bulk of its lies in the former.

Activists fear that the coal plants will slowly destroy the Sundarbans – already under threat from forest fragmentation and overpopulation – due to air and water pollution, changes in water quality and increased boat traffic. The Rampal coal plant alone will take 219,600 cubic metres of water every day from the Passur river, potentially changing the salinity and temperature of the water on which mangroves depend.

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