RANGOON — A civil suit by villagers in Tenasserim Division has been accepted by a local court, with plaintiffs claiming to have suffered years of negative environmental impacts from the activities of a Thai company and a Burmese government firm operating in the area.
The tort is seeking compensation for damages to houses and farmlands allegedly caused by wastewater from the Heinda tin mine, and the legal action was accepted this month by the Dawei District Court, according to Tin Tin Thet, a lawyer representing the complainants.
“We filed the case on the 9th [of May] and they accepted on the 14th. The defendants, Myanmar Pongpipat Company and Mining Enterprise 2, are asked to appear [in court] on the coming 29th [of May],” Tin Tin Thet told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
The hearing will convene next week, involving the Thai firm Pongpipat and Burma’s state-owned Mining Enterprise 2, which falls under the Ministry of Mining.
Mee Gan, one of nine plaintiffs and a resident from the affected village of Myaung Pyo, said they filed the lawsuit because the companies had failed to address their complaints concerning damages cause by wastewater over the past several years.
“Our houses are not livable anymore. We are losing farmlands and gardens,” Mee Gan told The Irrawaddy. “Plants in gardens and farmlands have died. Betel [nut], mango, long-term plants have died. Water comes in during rainy seasons and floods underneath the houses. All the plants we have are dead because water is always there, since 2011.”
Mee Gan said she was asking for 39.9 million kyats (US$41,000) in compensation for damages to her home and crops, located on two acres of land in the village. Her request lies on the upper end of villagers’ demands, with others asking for compensation ranging from 10 million to 30 million kyats.
She said she had lost a monthly income of about 80,000 to 100,000 kyats since more than 200 poles of betel nut plants died out due to mining wastewater that flooded her crops in 2011.Mee Gan also claimed that although the whole village had suffered varying degrees of damage, some residents were scared to file the lawsuit. “[Drinking and cooking] water is not usable during the rainy season. We have to get water from others’ houses. It has become oily water, yellowish and reddish in color—sometimes black.”
The Thai firm Pongpipat signed a production-sharing contract with Mining Enterprise 2 in 1999 and reportedly holds rights to 65 percent of the tin and tungsten produced at Heinda, which is transported to neighboring Thailand for processing.
Thant Zin, a coordinator with the Dawei Development Association (DDA), a local NGO that supports community rights initiatives in Dawei, said that although mining in the area had been carried out since British colonial times, the most severe environmental degradation has been inflicted relatively recently. The Myanmar Pongpipat Company took over the project in 1999, but locals say the most severe environmental degradation began some years later, starting in 2006.
“Gardens, farmlands, wells, houses were destroyed because of the mining. A creek [Myung Pyo creek] next to the village completely dried up. The rainy season in 2012 was the worst; the waste sediment in the creek came into the village along with rainwater, burying about three to four feet,” Thant Zin said.
“Heinda is the largest mining project in the region. Generally speaking, mining projects are quite weak in respecting human rights and environmental rights in the region. This [lawsuit] could be a force and warning for coming companies who are going to do projects here, and for current companies, to follow better norms and standards.
“We can’t say the case will win or lose with certainty, based on our current judicial system,” he added, noting the judiciary’s notoriously corrupt reputation. “The villagers, however, are doing what they can, problem-solving by legal means rather than other ways, which is expected to produce a better result.”
Myaung Pyo is said to be the worst affected among some 10 villages that have suffered directly from the environmental impacts of the huge tin-ore mining operation, which sits about 25 kms east of the city of Dawei in Myitta Township.
The village of about 100 families, numbering some 500 people, is located in the Tenasserim Hills and mining operations at Heinda, about two kilometers away, have produced a continuous run-off of mud-filled water that flows into a stream passing by Myaung Pyo village.
The Myanmar Pongpipat Company extended its five-year license to continue mining on May 8, local media reported on Monday.