YANGON—The Sagaing regional government’s first public consultation on a Chinese company’s proposal to conduct a mining feasibility study in the Wazeintaung area came to an abrupt end on Wednesday due to resistance from local people.
The first public consultation was organized in Yinmarpin Township on Wednesday by Sagaing government officials, and attended by the regional municipal minister and minister of natural resources and environmental conservation. The meeting was brought to a halt when nearly 500 local residents in attendance began shouting, insisting they would not accept the project due to concerns over potentially serious environmental and social impacts. They later walked out of the meeting.
“All the villagers strongly oppose the project. We fear the potential impacts. We will lose water resources, our farms and livelihoods,” Daw Than Nyo, a member of the Wazeintaung Protect and Watch Committee (WPWC), told The Irrawaddy.
“We have already witnessed severe impacts due to mining in our region. We will object to whatever they say,” Daw Than Nyo said.
Sagaing Region is already home to many large copper mining projects operated by Chinese companies, including the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung (S&K) project and the Letpadaung project.
The feasibility study was proposed by the Myanmar Yang Tse Copper Limited, which operates the S&K project, the country’s largest copper mine, in northwestern Sagaing.
Myanmar Yang Tse’s proposal covers 113,900 acres covering the Wazeintaung area and nearly 120 villages within three townships—Yinmarpin, Salingyi and Kani—according to local lawmakers. The estimated cost of the feasibility study is approximately US$10 million (15.06 billion kyats).
In November, the Union government asked the regional government to submit a report on the proposal including locals’ views.
“Locals fear the impacts based on their past experiences with the Letpadaung project. Since they heard about it, nearly 2,000 people have signed a petition [opposing the project]. They asked me to send it to the government,” regional lawmaker Daw Aung May Yi told The Irrawaddy, adding that she submitted it in February. She also attended the public consultation meeting on Wednesday.
Myanmar Yang Tse Copper Ltd is a subsidiary of Wanbao Mining Ltd.
The Letpadaung copper mine is operated by Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Limited (MWMCL). For many years, the mine has made headlines due to land disputes and a series of violent crackdowns against anti-mine protesters. Villagers protesting against the project have received nationwide support. Two extensive reports by Amnesty International documented the mine’s devastating social impacts including destroyed livelihoods, and loss of water resources due to toxic spills from mining waste. MWMCL was founded in September 2011 by Wanbao Mining Limited, which is headquartered in Beijing and specializes in international mining projects in Africa and Asia.
According to the regional government, the study period for the Wazeintaung project will be about two to three years. The first phase will cover 28,136 acres. The study will involve collecting stone samples and drilling for potential copper ore in the proposed areas.
Regional Municipal Minister U Myint Kyi told The Irrawaddy, “We have already asked for recommendations from the mining and environmental departments. We found that the study won’t harm the environment or local residents.”
U Myint Kyi said the study should be allowed, as the proposal was first submitted at the Union level, adding that the National League for Democracy government views foreign investment as a major potential driver of economic growth.
“We also agreed that the company would hire 90 percent of its employees locally in the respective townships when they do the study,” U Myint Kyi said.
Despite the resistance from residents, government officials plan to go ahead with scheduled public consultations in Salingyi and Kani townships in the coming weeks.
Salingyi Township lawmaker U Saw Maung told The Irrawaddy, “The objections arose due to the mining company’s [poor] image here.”
He added, “Locals have suffered environmental impacts from previous projects in the region. We have guaranteed to them that the study won’t harm the environment, but they don’t believe us.”
The local lawmakers admitted that while the regional government is carrying out public consultations, they themselves have little knowledge about the project.
A lawmaker from Kani Township, U Htun Htun Win, told The Irrawaddy, “There should be more transparency in the project. The government has not explained the project to local lawmakers.”
U Htun Htun Win said he had learned that nearly 20 villages would be affected by the project in his constituency alone. He added that giving just one company a chance to conduct a feasibility study is not fair. The government should open a tender process to all foreign companies to carry out the study, he said.
The lawmaker said local residents want any company that carries out such a study to offer a large number of job opportunities and guarantee that the environmental impacts will be minimized, as well as tax benefits for the local government.
“If the government doesn’t listen to the public, it will create a new conflict between itself and locals,” he added.
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