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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 17, 2009
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 development projects.

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 region.

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 projects.

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.

China factor
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.

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