RANGOON — Villagers in Tenasserim Division’s Dawei District announced they will file a legal complaint against a Thai company and a Burmese government firm operating the Heinda tin mine, in order to seek compensation for severe environmental damage to their farmlands caused by the mine’s wastewater.
In a press release Sunday, disseminated by US campaign group Earth Rights International, residents of Myaung Pyo village said they would complain to Dawei District Court over the operations of Thailand’s Myanmar Pongpipat Company and state-owned Mining Enterprise 2, which falls under the Ministry of Mining.
The inhabitants of the ethnic Dawei village said their lands have been affected by increasing amounts of wastewater ever since Myanmar Pongpipat took over the Heinda mine. The Thai firm signed a production-sharing contract with Mining Enterprise 2 in 1999 and reportedly holds rights to 65 percent of produced tin and tungsten, which is transported to nearby Thailand for processing.
“[C]reeks and rivers got shallow, many species of plants and animals went extinct and many of our plantations, houses, wells and religious buildings were destroyed due to waste and sediment,” villagers said in a release. “In 2012, there was more flooding causing further destruction of houses, plantations and water sources along the Myaung Pyo creek, which is now filled with waste and sediment from the mining project.”
Myaung Pyo is the worst affected of about 10 villages that suffer from the direct environmental impacts of the huge tin-ore mining operations, located about 25 km east of Dawei town in Myitta Township.
The village of about 100 families is located in a lush valley in the Tenasserim Hills and mining operations at Heinda, located on a mountaintop about 2 kilometers away, produce a continuous run-off of mud-filled water that flows into a stream passing by Myaung Pyo village.
During a visit by Irrawaddy reporters late last year, the creek and swathes of farmland had been covered by an expanding mud plain, about a kilometer wide, which had reached the edge of the village, where an earthen wall had been built to protect local homes.
Runoff from the mine, however, seeped through the wall and residents had dug a network of small trenches to channel putrid, black waste water around their bamboo and thatched-roof homes.
The impoverished families complained of a sharp drop in income due to a loss of farmland, while their health suffered from a lack of drinking water because wells had been contaminated by wastewater.
The villagers said they filed numerous complaints with the Thai firm, local authorities and the Karen National Union (KNU)—an ethnic rebel group that controls the mountain territory around the mine—but demands to end the pollution and receive compensation for loss of land were ignored.
On Sunday, the villagers said they would now “seek justice and ask that our rights be respected in a peaceful way by filing a court case to No. (2) Mining Enterprise and Myanmar Pongpipat company Ltd. who are responsible for damages in our village.”
Thant Zin, a coordinator with the Dawei Development Association (DDA), a local NGO that supports community rights initiatives in Dawei District, said a lawyer of the villagers had first contacted the Thai firm in July last year, but the company had referred their complaints to local authorities.
“So … the villagers decided to sue the company and Mining Enterprise 2,” he told The Irrawaddy by phone on Monday. “It’s the best way to claim compensation… because the government and company neglected their complaints for many years. This is their last resort,” said Thant Zin, adding that villagers expected to file the complaint with Dawei District Court by late March.
It remains to be seen what will happen to the case, however. Burma’s judiciary has often been criticized for lacking independence and being susceptible to corruption.
The Tenasserim range, running north-south along the Burma-Thai border, is rich in mineral wealth, and tin and tungsten deposits have been mined at Heinda and other sites from British colonial times. Until the signing of a 2012 ceasefire, the KNU fought a decades-long insurgency in the densely forested range, leaving the area inaccessible and largely uncharted.
Since Burma began opening up under a reformist government in 2011, numerous foreign mining firms have shown an interest in exploring the country’s remote regions, including the Tenasserim Hills. Although a lack of progress on reforming the 1994 Mining Law and long processing times for mining license applications have reportedly dampened investors’ enthusiasm
The Tenasserim Division Chamber of Commerce and Industry has said that more than 50 mining companies have applied for a government license to explore for tin, tungsten, lead, coal and gold reserves in the southern range. Currently, 10 firms are licensed to carrying out mining and prospecting operations in the area.
Indonesian state-owned mining giant PT Timah told media in January that it expected to begin exploration of a 10,000-hectare mining concession in Tenasserim Division in June and mining operations in early 2015.
The planned increase in mining activities in the range has raised local fears over the future projects’ environmental and social impacts.
Thant Zin of DDA said the court case against the firms operating the Heinda Mine served to send a signal to mining companies looking to exploit mineral reserves in the Tenasserim Hills. “The Heinda Mine is the biggest mine in the area, so if they don’t follow the rules, why should other companies?” he said. “We hope this case can be a warning to other mining companies.”