Peoples March in Bangladesh: Voices against Corporate Grabbing
By Anu Muhammad
Translated into English by Nusrat Chowdhury
“We gave our votes, not our country,” a farmer from Netrokona categorically said to Mizan, a young participant of the Long March (October 28-31 2011), organized by ‘National committee to protect oil gas mineral reources port and power in Bangladesh’. While giving out fliers, Anha heard the following from a laborer from Gazipur: “If we had enough rice in our stomach, we would’ve joined the Long March too. Keep walking. Don’t think we’re not there with you.” A woman’s collective in Dharampasha told theater activist Shahed, “We’re keeping an eye on whoever comes in our direction to snatch away our property.” In a small teashop in Trishal, a debate unfolded over the legitimacy of our movement and how to make it more effective. Another laborer spoke up from afar while working near our meeting place close to the bus stop in Shombhoganj: “Did people care about parties when they joined the muktijoddho,war of liberation? There’s no need to think about banner of parties in this movement either.”
Why Long March?
Main demands of this long march included peoples ownership over natural resources, prohibition of disastrous open pit mining and export of mineral resources, strengthening national capability. The driving force of this four-day 300 km Long March starting from the heart of Dhaka to Sunetro (Badshaganj) in Sunamganj through Tongi, Gazipur, Bhaluka, Mastarbari, Trishal, Maymensing, Shombhuganj, Shyamganj, Netrokona, Mohonganj, was the impetus to reclaim the ownership of our land and natural resources from the corporate grabbers like multinational corporations (MNCs). The constitution of the country says that it is the people who own the natural resources, but reality of our people, however, is like those who own their land in title but not in reality. We realize that if people gain a consciousness of proprietorship of the country and its resources, if s/he can identify the imposters, if s/he can touch the power that rests within themselves, then no one can stop them. Therefore the struggle of our mind and our body is to decolonize our land, that is, our nation, and to rid ourselves of a sense of inferiority and slavery.
Who were the participants?
We could only take with us a fraction of those who were interested to join this ‘Peoples Long March’. Still, there were more than a thousand participants most of whom were young. There were students, teachers, laborers, peasants, jobless youth, lawyers, doctors, writers, artistes, journalists, political activists and bloggers. Our financial ability is poor, but we are rich in facts, moral strength and peoples support. Therefore, financial inability did not matter much. Those who came along contributed for their participation. Local organizers took care of food and lodging at the various stops on the way, the cost of which was borne by the local people. The participation of peasants, workers, fishermen, transportation workers and other low income groups was very significant.
We walked through crowded cities and townships. We crossed the empty stretches on bus. There were meetings, larger gatherings in big cities, people’s music, street theatre, and exhibitions organized along the way. As we walked, young marchers ran around giving out hand bills and talking to people. During the long travel of those four days, numerous people expressed their solidarity with the cause and offered their suggestions. Our experience was thus enriched. We enlightened ourselves with the light of hope in people from different strata.
Government policy to marginalize national capability in favor of MNCs
But, why was there a peoples march at this point towards Sunetro? Let me briefly explain. Last year, Bapex, the national energy company, identified a geological structure with a potentially large reservoir of natural gas along the borders of Sunamganj and Netrokona. Combining the names of the two districts, this gas field was named “Sunetro.” It is estimated to be the largest reserve of gas in the country. Soon after the discovery of the Sunetro gas field, Bapex submitted a four-year plan to develop the national gas sector to the government. According to the proposal, the cost of the project would be about Tk 2.79 billion. For the same project, a foreign company would charge much higher, at least 10 times; eventually recovering their cost from the people of this country by creating indebtedness and rising price of gas and electricity.
National organizations such as Bapex have time and again proved their expertise in exploring and extracting natural gas from land reserves. In the backdrop of popular movements for the development of national capability and the gradual rise in awareness on the issue, the government has been obliged to give Bapex some opportunities. In consequence, a young team of experts at Bapex has very recently accomplished a 3-D seismic survey of international standard at Rashidpur in Habiganj. A large gas reserve was discovered there as well. It has now been proven that without the artificially created impasses in making opportunities and financial support available, our national capabilities could have further developed. Bapex would have succeeded in competing internationally with countries such as India and Malaysia. For a long time now the local expertise and hard-earned information has been used for the sake of foreign companies. Limiting the scope of Bapex, by using it as a sub-contractor of the MNCs and by giving its hectic work schedule as an excuse, for instance, the government has revealed its interest in handing over national wealth to Multinationals.
The immediate extraction of gas from Sunetro and Habiganj by state-owned companies was the primary demand of the Long March. Such a decision could potentially lead to: 1. an immediate solution to the national gas and power shortage; 2. no extra financial pressure to extract or import natural gas; 3. less probability of disasters such as the ones inMagurchhora or Tengratila done by US company UNOCAL and Canadian company NIKO; 4. Guaranteeing gas and electricity distribution at a much lower cost; 5. Less pressure to keep increasing the price of energy; 6. The development of the industry and agriculture in the specific regions because of adequate gas supply; This region spearheading power production; 8. New employment opportunities.
Despite the aforementioned possibilities, we were worried that the government has still not given its nod to the Bapex project in the name of a lack of capital. And yet, TK 12 billion, nearly 6 times more than it was claimed by Bapex was accumulated in the gas development funds of Petrobangla, by increasing price of gas. Simultaneously, there are ongoing activities within the government to hand over this resource rich gas fileds to MNCs in the name of joint venture or PPP. The creation of PSC 2011 is aimed at a similar outcome.
Indebtedness, burden, destruction created by MNCs
While Long March was moving, some people in the government tried to make arguments that there was no harm in involving a foreign company. The issue is, all burden falls on the people, not on the policy makers, who are infact the beneficiary. Since 1993-94, we have incurred irreparable loss due to various unequal contracts with MNCs in the energy sector, both in land and in offshore drillings. Till today people are paying for this in a number of ways. In the last seven years, we have bought gas from foreign companies at a price of Tk. 160 billion, the same amount of gas could be extracted by a fraction of that amount, Tk 20 billion by a national company. This difference could have played a crucial role in developing the health, education, and energy sectors for the benefit of the people. Instead this amount was converted into dollars and was sent out of the country. A pressure on foreign exchange reserve was also felt as a consequence. A US and a Canadian company have destroyed about 500 billion cubic feet of gas in Magurchhora and Tengratila blowout, which was enough to produce power for about two years across Bangladesh. The compensation estimated to be about US$5 billion has not been recovered by any of the successive governments.
It is because of these contracts and governmental subsidies that the burden on national debt and taxes is increasing. What is more, to lessen the burden of subsidies, the government is hiking up the price of gas and electricity. A consequent rise in the cost of production and transportation has increased the price of all commodities. The cost of living has gone up and poverty has increased. Industrial and agricultural production has also been stunted.
“My soil, my mother, shall not become Nigeria,” was the resounding slogan of the Long March. Why Nigeria, you ask? Nigeria is one of the world’s most resource-rich countries. Its reserve of natural gas is ten times as much as Bangladesh. Nigerian oil reserve is also one of the highest in Africa. The steps that we are often told to be necessary for national development include the extraction of resources through foreign companies, foreign investment, and the export of oil and gas. Nigeria had taken all these steps, and yet, despite its wealth, it is now one of the world’s poorest nations. It is riven by an intense power crisis and heightened poverty. Income has drastically decreased since the 1980s and there are not adequate funds for education and health. What has taken shape is a political domination of a few super rich and general oppression.
And yet, in Bangladesh, these are the same arguments that are still being used to rationalise contracts with the multinational companies. A contract signed between the Government of Bangladesh and the US company ConocoPhillips on June 16, leaves provisions for a hundred percent export of gas and eighty percent authority of the company. This contract with a company infamous for its record on accidents in offshore, has not only jeopardized the energy security but the national security of Bangladesh. Who would agree with an export-oriented contract that kept the people of Bangladesh mired in poverty and its industries and agriculture stunted while propagating a severe power crisis? It is precisely in response to this scenario that that we have observed vibrant protests across Bangladesh.
No to Open pit mining
The day we started on the Long March, the parliamentary committee on energy had submitted its recommendations for open pit coal mining. This was not their first recommendation to the Government of Bangladesh either. They had made similar gestures many times in the last year. On the one hand, the government is repeating its stance that there would not be any decision on the coal extraction before the finalization of the coal policy. On the other hand, having returned from Germany, the parliamentary committee is making their propaganda in favour of open pit mining. The core demand of the Long March, therefore, included the declaration of a moratorium on open pit mining in Phulbari, expulsion of Asia Energy (GCM), and the fulfillment of the 6-point Phulbari agreement signed on August 30 2006, between the then government and the agitating people.
Our position was shaped by the analysis of independent experts and the verdict of the people of Phulbari. What was the influencing factor in the case of the parliamentary committee? According to recent Wikileaks revelations, its decision has been directly shaped as per the lobbying of the US ambassador and the various MNCs. It is true that upto ninety percent coal can be extracted through the open cut method. The question remains, however, what is the human and environmental cost of this extraction? Who will gain from this? Under whose tutelage would this coal be extracted? If, according to the previous contract, Bangladesh gets only six percent royalties and is bound to give up the rest of the coal’s ownership to a foreign company, and then eighty percent of it is exported, and 14 percent of that coal is to be bought back at international market rate, then, could we not conclude that the larger amount of coal is extracted the worse it is for Bangladesh? When extracted under these conditions, for every Tk. 100 of profit about Tk. 500 in loss would be incurred by the people of Bangladesh in water system, biodiversity, lives and livelihood, not every loss is quantifiable.
People are the protectors
If a government hands over the country’s wealth to foreign-local grabbers, then it rests on the people to become its protectors. It was with this conviction that the Long March concluded on October 31. In the “Sunetro Declaration”, people promised that, they would turn the Netrokona-Sunamganj-Rashidpur region, as in Phulbari, into an invincible fort to protect its natural resources from the intrusion of multinational oil companies.
Crushing the dreams of the war of liberation of 1971, a trend of corruption and corporate grabbing have dominated Bangladeshi economy and politics. In the alternating civilian, military and two-party/alliance rules of the last forty years, it is only the faces of the rulers that have changed. There has been no respite in the activities against national interests. The various leaders and their lackeys have not stopped at making the lives of Bangladeshi people vulnerable; they have been competing to establish a permanent reign of local and foreign plunderers. It echoed through the Long March that the mainstream political parties may have sided with the forces of imperial plunderers and their local allies, but the people of Bangladesh did not and shall not give in to servitude.