RANGOON — Hundreds of locals in the Karen State capital Hpa-an gathered on Tuesday to voice objections to a recently revived proposal there to develop a limestone quarry and cement factory, which was put on hold two years ago pending public consultation.
At a “No Cement” prayer vigil, protestors demanded a scrapping of the project, slated to produce 5,000 tons of cement per day in Mi Karen village, part of Hpa-an Township.
Residents from dozens of villages fear the cement project, near Kawt Phyan Mountain, will have negative environmental and public health impacts if it goes forward.
The villagers said they went to listen to Maj. Chit Thu of a Karen Border Guard Force, who held a meeting on March 19 in a hotel in Hpa-an, where the rebel-turned-businessman shared details of the project. The locals were not invited, but showed up to the meeting and were allowed to sit in after hearing about it on social media.
Saw Nyan Win, a Mi Karen villager who attended that meeting, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that villagers were concerned that in addition to environmental and health consequences, the project would involve land confiscation.
“There are four villages near to the project area, but we did not give our consent to Major Chit Thu as we don’t agree with it,” he said, adding that organizers had collected the signatures of more than 500 people who attended the prayer event on Tuesday, and believed many more than that had turned out for the protest.
Saw Nyan Win said he and the other villagers were told to consider the project a positive contribution to regional development.
There are already two cement factories in Hpa-an run by the government and the military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), which have a combined production capacity of 4,900 tons per day. Both factories are located in Myaingkalay town, with the new project just a few miles away from the current operations, according to the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).
Saw Tha Phoe, an ethnic Karen environmentalist from KESAN, told The Irrawaddy that locals were facing enough health problems from the existing factories, which he linked to both air and noise pollution. Mining related to the operations had produced vibrations that also caused damage to an ancient pagoda, he said, adding that with the factories drawing migrants from elsewhere, both drug use and sexual abuse of women were social ills increasingly facing the community.
“As the new cement project is supposed to be run by coal, impacts could be added on crops and the local environment,” he said, “and the residents in a 10-mile radius around it will suffer more.”
Saw Tha Phoe said despite boosters’ touting of projects like the cement factory as “development initiatives,” the country still lacked a systematic approach to implementation.
“A significant change is our mountains have been getting gradually smaller, if we compare them to our childhood,” Saw Tha Phoe added, referring to the impacts of mining on the area.