Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bauxite mining plans raise concerns

Concerns have been expressed by scientists and others in Vietnam, even Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, over government plans to embark on major bauxite mining projects in the Central Highlands and mountainous northern regions. Such mining could cause serious ecological damage and destroy the way of life for the people living in these regions, predominantly ethnic minorities.

Vietnam ie estimated to have up to eight billion tonnes of bauxite ore, the third largest supply in the world. It has signed agreements with Alcoa, and Australian and Chinese companies to mine these reserves. The government plans investments of US$15 billion by 2025 to exploit these reserves. The state-run Coal and Minerals Industrial Group (Vinacomin) has begun building an aluminum processing factory and is preparing for major mining operations in Dac Nong and Lam Dong provinces of the Central Highlands, where most of the bauxite reserves are located. Vinacomin plans for annual aluminum production of 4.8 to 6.6 million tons by 2015.

The environmental problems come in the process of mining, which will generate mountains of toxic sludge and also destroy much of the soil since it involves strip mining. Bauxite is the material used to produce alumina which is in turn the raw material for aluminum. But in the conversion process to alumina, about three tons of red sludge is generated for every ton of alumina. The sludge contains about 70% water and 30% ore, which according to Nguyen Thanh Son, director of the Red River Energy Co., a Vinacomin subsidiary, is "very dangerous to the environment because 70% of that is NaOH,"or sodium hydroxide.

If not managed properly, the sludge can pollute the waters and vegetation. A serious obstacle to management is the problem of disposal. In Australia, the sludge from alumina production is transferred to dry areas of the outback. But in Vietnam, there is no such option, most of the country under heavy tropical weather, meaning the sludge is more likely to run into the water table and vegetation, threatening the cash crops currently grown in the region, such as coffee; as well as the forests and also possibly polluting the water running into the heavily populated Mekong Delta.

Concerns have also been raised over the displacement of ethnic minorities in this region, who have already been affected by the large-scale agricultural projects and deforestation. Nguyen Ngoc, a writer and expert on the region, said: "Its culture could be called a forest culture, with a close attachment between humans and nature... If the land and forest base of the western highlands disappear, its culture will be broken, its society will be unstable, and these ethnic minorities will no longer exist."

Also in question is how the necessary support system can be developed to provide enough electricity and proper transporation for the bauxite mining and processing.

In an open letter written to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in January, General Vo Nguyen Giap urged the government stop bauxite mining, warning it would harm the environment and ethnic minorities in the highlands. He noted that in the early 1980s he oversaw a study on this question and was advised by Soviet experts not to proceed with such mining because of the risk of serious ecological damage.

Sources: Asia Times Online [Duy Hoang] March 16; Radio Free Asia March 17; Viet Tan Open Letter March 20; Agence France Presse Jan. 15 and Feb. 6; Vietnam Business Finance Dec. 17, 2008, Asia Sentinel (Anh Le Tran) March 24; see also Bloomberg/Mining Weekly Sept. 5, 2006; VietnamNet Bridge Sept. 10, 2006; AmCham Vietnam press release May 6, 2008. For text of Giap's letter see Jan. 14 and Dien Dan forum Jan. 10.


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