Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Vietnamese lawmakers and environmentalists have come out against plans to mine bauxite, warning that the risks and costs are higher than any potential advantages, most of which go at any rate to Chinese mining companies.
Bauxite is considered the most important ore for making aluminium. In Vietnam, mining began in 2008 in the Central Highlands, a predominantly farming region home to some of the country’s ethnic minorities, located upstream from the densely populating Mekong River Delta.
Protests broke out back in 2008. Critics noted that developing this resource is energy intensive (a problem in a country with limited electrical power generating capacity), and required the construction of a 250 km railway and a new harbour, all this in exchange for limited local spinoffs.
The government crushed this incipient protest movement, but a recent toxic spill in Hungary reawakened opposition. On 4 October, the containment reservoir at an aluminium plant collapsed in the European country, flooding nearby villages with a high alkalinity “red mud” that killed dozens of people and injured more than 150, with disastrous environmental consequences for the Danube River.
Prof Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a Member of Vietnam’s National Assembly (MNA) representing Langson Province, told Radio Free Europe that the project has few economic benefits but high risks. If Hungary failed to prevent a disaster, he wonder how could Vietnam expect to do better when it has not yet developed the necessary technology to develop the resource and the appropriate labour practices to protect workers. The more so since the region itself is exposed to frequent “torrential rains”.
Similarly, Prof Duong Trung Quoc, MNA for Dongnai Province, believes that Vietnam should wait until it has acquired the necessary experience and developed the right technology to exploit bauxite reserves.
War hero General Vo Nguyen Giap had already released an open letter last year, expressing his opposition to the planned mining development.
In the past, the government tended to ignore critics and crackdown on opponents, including blocking online protest sites. Last year, the authorities did agree to an environmental impact study, but have not released the findings. They did nevertheless arrest an important critic on 13 August, Prof Pham Minh Hoang, for his support of the protest movement.
Shawn McHale, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University, said that Vietnamese officials and members of the public have felt bolstered in their opposition to the mining due to the involvement of Chinese companies.
In the past two years, the Aluminum Corporation of China Limited (aka Chalco or Chinalco) has operated two bauxite mines and processing plants in central Vietnam, and is considering four more.
Companies from China, Russia and Australia are also bidding for additional joint ventures with Vietnam to explore its rich bauxite reserves, estimated to be the third largest in the world. In the meantime, the government’s master plan calls for investments of around US$ 15 billion by 2025.
State-run Vietnamese company Vinacomin (Vietnam National Coal and Mineral Industries Group) has begun building an aluminium factory and is preparing for major mining operations in Lam Dong and Dac Nong provinces with the aim of reaching an output of 4.8 million to 6.6 million tonnes per years by 2015, state media reported.
In light of the Hungarian disaster, the opponents to the project, many in the National Assembly, note that its inherent dangers are far greater than any expected benefit, because China sets bauxite prices and employs primarily Chinese workers and staff.
In addition, allegations of corruption are flying around. An online report accuses Vietnamese Prime Minister of Nguyen Tan Dung of getting a US$ 150 million kickback, perhaps from Chinese companies, to get his support for the project.
Mr Dung has not yet responded to the charges.