Chinese-Backed Nickel Mining Project Draws Concerns in Chin State

By Zarni Mann 31 January 2014

TEDIM TOWNSHIP, Chin State — A planned nickel-mining project in the mountains of Burma’s poorest state is causing concern among locals worried about its environmental impact.

Activists and people living in the area in Chin State’s Tedim Township say the Chinese-owned North Mining Investment Company, which began conducting surveys for the project in 2012, is not giving concrete information about the impacts mining would have.

“The company just said that the mountain and the environment will not be harmed due to the mining process,” Cin Tang, a local village chief, told The Irrawaddy.

“On the other hand, they said they will use an open cut mining method, and will dig 45 meters deep. How can they say the environment will not be harmed in the region if they will dig and produce many tons of rocks and stones over years?”

According to Burma’s Ministry of Mining, a preliminary survey for the nickel mining project on an area covering Mwe Mountain and Phar Mountain was completed December 2012, and construction on two purifying factories is scheduled to start in early 2014.

Representatives of North Mining Investment have reportedly visited more than 15 villages and met with the locals to explain the project. Hand-outs and posters distributed by the mining company make grand claims for the benefits of the project to the local area, and play down any potential downsides.

The posters also say that the $486.7 million project will produce purified nickel and iron, and will contribute US$500,000 a year to the development of Chin State, and bring jobs to the area, once it is up and running.

Electricity produced that exceeds the needs of the project will be distributed for free for a year to people living within 5 kilometers of the project.

They claim the process of purifying the nickel will not use chemicals or acid.

While omitting mention of any negative impacts, the materials say the company’s factories will use about 530,000 tons of coal per year for heating and to produce electricity. And in order to filter sulphur dioxide, it will use about 50,000 tons of limestone, the literature says.

The company also says it will build a dock at Kalaywa on the Chindwin River in Sagaing Division. The mine will produce ferronickel concentrates, which will be transported to the port, and shipped, via the Irrawaddy River, to Rangoon and then to China, the company says.

Despite the public relations efforts, locals are concerned they will face the same problems as the residents affected by the controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project at Letpadaung in central Burma. That project was recently restarted, with more favorable terms for the Burmese government, after public outrage and protests led to its suspension.

“They [North Mining Investment] said the first contract of project is just for seven years and six months. After that, the region will get everything that is left from the project. But who knows, maybe this Mwe Mountain will disappear, just as Sabae and Kyaesin mountains did at the Letpadaung copper mine,” said Cin Tang.

“I can’t imagine how much the air, water and our land will be polluted. They said our villages will not be displaced, but if the forest is destroyed and if our lands are polluted, we will have to find a new place on our own. Then there is no difference between this and being forcibly displaced.”

No clear-cut guarantees have been made by the company or the local government about environmental conservation efforts.

“The company repeatedly just says how much and what kind of help it will give to the region, and how their project will develop the region,” said Har Tuang, a member of Chinland Natural Resources Watch Group. “But they have failed to give a guarantee on how they will deal with the pollution, which would affect the economic, health and social life of the region.”

Locals and activists filed complaints to the Chin State government in 2013, urging it not to allow mining in the area.

“The state government said that they do not have the power to decide on this matter, only the Union government has,” said Zam Thuam, also a member of Chinland Natural Resources Watch Group.

The group has submitted a complaint to Naypyidaw after meeting with the state government in end of 2013 to review the project.

Meanwhile, the illegal trading of stone from Mwe Mountain and Phar Mountain has fueled a popular market in Kalay Myo, upper Sagaing Division, since mid-2013 as some Chinese traders have already begun moving into the area.

“Actually, the state government must handle such illegal trade. We can only educate the locals but we also do not want them to be arrested for unlawful acts. But this is just for their living, so we have nothing to say about this. It is like the state government is creating misunderstanding between the locals and the activists,” said Liantuang, another member of Chinland Natural Resources Watch Group.

About 1.5kg of stone is priced from 2,000 Kyats to 4,000 kyats ($2-$4) and is reportedly traded through Shan State and across the Sino-Burmese border.

“If the project is for the development of the country, we have no reason to oppose. But we see nothing concerning the development of our country or the region in this project,” Liantuang said.

“That’s why we don’t want this mining project. We don’t want the nature to be spoiled. We don’t want our people to suffer. We don’t want our region to be harmed. We want the responsible authorities to review this project.”

Apart from the environmental matters, locals, who are ethnic Chin, also worry about people of different cultures flooding into the region.

“There’s no one here who will be qualified to do the proposed work on the project. So, they will hire foreign laborers and many other people from outside,” said a chief of Zonumzam village.

“We are just afraid that our unspoiled culture will be affected and ruined by strangers who do not value it.”