'We Want the Project to Continue': Wanbao

By The Irrawaddy 22 February 2013

Since last year, the Letpadaung copper mine project near Monywa in Sagaing Division has sparked public outcry, especially after the government’s crackdown on protesters demanding its closure, citing environmental destruction, forced relocation and illegal land confiscation.

The mine is a joint venture between China’s Wanbao mining company—a subsidiary of Norinco, a weapons manufacturer—and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), a Burmese military-owned conglomerate.

The Letpadaung mine is part of the company’s Monywa copper mine project, which consists of four copper deposits at Sabe, Kyeesin and Letpadaung mountain in the Monywa region.

Dong Yunfei, also known as Myint Thein, is the administrative manager of Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Limited in Rangoon. He spoke to The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Phyo Tha recently about the company’s expectations and the way it will tackle the public outcry over the project’s environmental impact.

Question: There is strong demand for the complete shutdown of the Letpadaung mine project. What is your reaction to this?

Answer: We don’t accept it at all, because the project is based on a contract between the two governments [of Burma and China]. We followed every necessary legal procedure. When implementing the project, we took steps in accordance with the law. We have invested more than US $600 million so far in the project, so we can’t accept the total shutdown of the project just because of protests against it.

Anyway, we have to follow the Burmese president’s decision. The investigation committee will submit its findings to the president. We have to listen to what the president decides. But for us, we want to continue the project.

Q: But now people are demanding the total shutdown of the mine project.

A: Let me ask, who are the people asking for the complete closure of the project? How many of them are there? We have employed more than 1,600 Burmese at the Kyeesin Taung and Sabe Taung mines. At Letpadaung, we have hired more than 1,000, most of them locals. There are people who support the project, as well as those who opposite. How many people are saying “no” to the project? That’s the question we have. They just say “the cancellation of the project is the people’s desire.”

Q: Don’t you think there are more people against the project than those who support it?

A: We have to negotiate with those who are against us. We have to ask them why they are opposed to the project. Are they not satisfied with the compensation? Are they concerned about their long-term livelihoods or the next generation? Even if there’s only one person who complains about our project, we have to negotiate. We have plans to do so. At the moment, we are working on community support development like healthcare and so on in the vicinity of the project area.

Q: What if the president pulls the plug on the project, as he did with the Myitsone hydropower project?

A: Well, I have to say we have to respect the government’s decision. If he says no, it will be a huge loss for us. But we don’t expect to see that kind of situation. We want to keep our project go forward.

Q: Why don’t you expect him to say “no” to the project?

A: Because what we are doing is right. We fully understand all the issues, and we know that we have done everything right, such as environmental protection, compensation and the contract. We are confident that we haven’t made any mistakes. That’s why we don’t expect the project to be canceled.

Q: But local people have pointed out that acid discharged from the mine has polluted the water-table in their area.

A: There’s not much pollution caused by our project. Kyeesin and Sabe mountains are gone, because we have to extract the copper ore that lies beneath those mountains. There’s no pollution related to acid discharged. You can go there and see for yourself. The pollution they are talking about is caused by villagers who refine the copper by themselves using acid. At our site, we use High Density Polyethylene liners for leach pads wherever we use acid, to prevent the solution leaking into the soil. We can recycle it. We don’t discharge the acid at all. So we are not behind the pollution they accuse us of. I swear.

Q: Wanbao’s signed a contract with the former military government in 2010. Didn’t you think at that time that your decision might eventually have consequences like those you’re seeing today?

A: No, we didn’t, because historically China and Burma have had good relations for a long time. That’s why we didn’t imagine we would have the problems we are facing today. We only focused on whether the project would be profitable. But at that time, I wasn’t with Wanbao, so maybe only top officials know. But at the onset of the project, we carried out environmental and social impact assessments. Even now we are trying to reduce the environmental impact to minimum levels.

Q: Can you tell me more about the contract?

A: The project is good for the country. According to the contract, the Burmese government gets the lion’s share of the profit: more than 17 percent. For example, if the project yields 100 tons of copper, the government gets 17 tons. We get only 12. UMEHL gets around 13. They rest—more than 50 percent—goes to production costs. Wanbao has contributed 100 percent investment in the project.

Q: Local people say they are not happy with the compensations you paid for the land you took for the project. What do you say to this?

A: There are ways to settle their complaints, as long as they are in terms of business, I mean compensation. If they are based on politics, they are out of our reach, like demanding the total closure of the project. In terms of business, we welcome them, anytime.

Q: The Nov. 29 crackdown on the mine protesters happened on the premises of your company. Do you have anything to say about this?

A: We feel really sorry about it. We learned that there were monks who were injured. It shouldn’t have happened. At that time, we just stayed behind our gates for security reasons, as we didn’t dare go outside. The crackdown happened without our knowledge.

Q: Was Wanbao in any way involved in the crackdown?

A: Absolutely not.

Q: Some people say the projected has created mounting anti-China sentiment among the Burmese. What do you think?

A: It shouldn’t be like that, especially in Burma, which has had a long, healthy relationship with China. If any misunderstanding erupts, we have to negotiate.