Vietnam bauxite plan opens pit of concern By Duy Hoang
One of Vietnam's most verdant regions faces severe ecological damage if the
government moves ahead with its multi-billion dollar plans to mine and process
bauxite. The perceived risk has sparked a rare public outcry in Vietnam's
government-controlled society, with residents, scientists, state media,
bloggers and even military officers lodging vocal protests.
Though apparently not coordinated, their collective dissent is part of a
budding Vietnamese environmental movement, notable for challenging the state's
traditionally unquestioned authority in implementing large-scale economic
In recent months, a number of local scientists have written thoroughly
researched articles, some published in state-controlled
media, exposing weaknesses in the government's mining plans. A state-sanctioned
domestic news site, vietnamweek.net, has been at the forefront of probing the
issue, while bloggers have provided even more critical analysis.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has called bauxite exploitation "a major policy
of the party and the state", and he has approved several big mining projects
for the country's central highlands. The government's master plan calls for
investments of around US$15 billion by 2025 to tap Vietnam's rich bauxite
reserves, estimated to be the third-largest in the world.
Over the past decade, Vietnam's rise as an agricultural exporter has come in
large part from increased cultivation of coffee and other cash crops in the
central highland's fertile plateau. It is an area of stunning beauty with rich
eco-tourism potential. Thus many Vietnamese question the economic rationale and
environmental wisdom of converting what is already an economically productive
area into an open pit mine.
Bauxite is converted through a toxic process to alumina, the raw material for
making aluminum. Known by environmentalists as "red sludge", the waste product,
if not properly managed, can contaminate water supplies and choke off
vegetation. For every ton of alumina produced, three tons of red sludge is
given off, according to international experts.
Australia, a world leader in aluminum production, addresses the problem by
disposing of its red sludge in remote outback areas with little rainfall, thus
mitigating the risk of waterway contamination. Vietnam, which has a
comparatively wet climate and is densely populated, does not have the luxury of
vast tracts of unused land.
Nor is the country recognized for its expertise in managing hazardous
industrial waste. Vietnam's emerging environmental movement fears the toxic
residue from processing bauxite could run off into rivers that flow into
heavily populated areas, including the Mekong Delta in the country's southern
To be commercially viable, bauxite processing usually requires access to cheap
electricity. Because Vietnam faces mounting power shortages, the economics of
bauxite mining and its low-margin exports are in doubt and will likely require
heavy state subsidies just to cover costs.
The government has already announced plans to build a dedicated rail line to
transport the produced alumina 250 kilometers to the Pacific coast. There a
yet-to-be-built port will be installed to serve exclusively the bauxite
Those plans, too, have underscored environmental concerns that the government's
alumina export plans are an ill-begotten scheme devised simply for the sake of
state-led industrialization. Other critics have questioned whether officials
close to Prime Minister Dung and Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai have
personal stakes in the big-ticket ventures.
There is also a touchy strategic dimension to the ventures. Chinese interest
and cooperation in Vietnam's bauxite industry was established through a joint
statement issued after a meeting last June between Communist Party secretary
general Nong Duc Manh and China's President Hu Jintao. In subsequent agreements
between the Aluminum Corporation of China Ltd and state-owned Vietnam Coal and
Mining Industry Group, it has become clear that China will be the primary
market for Vietnamese alumina exports.
As part of those arrangements, thousands of Chinese workers are to be stationed
permanently in Vietnam to assist in the production, according to local
Vietnamese authorities. According to a recent fact-finding trip in Lam Dong
province organized by the pro-democracy Viet Tan party, Chinese guest workers
are appearing in growing numbers in the central highlands. Pictures obtained by
Viet Tan show rows of newly constructed housing for Chinese workers and
roadside restaurants with signs in the Chinese language.
Vietnamese bloggers, many critical of China's encroachment on the Paracel and
Spratly Islands and perceptions that Beijing bullied Hanoi into accepting an
inequitable border treaty this year, have questioned why Chinese guest workers
are required in a country with a labor surplus and growing unemployment.
Bloggers have also expressed concerns that undercover Chinese military and
intelligence agents could mix in with the workers. Vo Nguyen Giap, the famed
communist military leader and later sometimes government critic, sounded the
same alarm about the potential strategic threat of unregulated Chinese workers
in an open letter in January to communist party's politburo.
The 97-year-old Giap referred to the central highlands as the strategic gateway
to Vietnam, where previous wars have been won and lost through gaining control
of the region's high ground. A month after Giap's warning, which only one
newspaper in Vietnam was willing to publish, a second retired general issued a
similar letter calling on the party leadership to reconsider allowing a
permanent Chinese presence in the middle of the country.
Most of Vietnam's ethnic minorities live in the central highlands and they are
the people likely to bear the environmental brunt of the government's bauxite
scheme. They risk losing their lands with little or no compensation and
subsequent exposure to mismanaged industrial waste.
Nor is it clear that the jobs created by bauxite production, even if they went
to local Vietnamese rather than imported Chinese workers, would be enough to
replace those lost with the forced elimination of pre-existing coffee, tea and
cashew fields. It's from these ill-conceived government plans that Vietnam's
grassroots environmental movement and calls for more sustainable development
are being heard.
Duy Hoang is a US-based leader of Viet Tan, an unsanctioned pro-democracy
political party active in Vietnam.