A Chinese company has signed an agreement with central Laos’ Xaysomboun province to begin preliminary studies for iron mining operations, RFA has learned, raising fears of polluted rivers and fields among villagers and environmentalists.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the province and the Tai Xan Meng Sino-Lao Minerals Corporation, signed Feb. 11, allows the company to perform feasibility studies in Xaysomboun’s Anouvong district, an official of the provincial Energy and Mines Department told RFA’s Lao Service Tuesday.
Xaysomboun, a province established in 2013, has been a popular target for foreign mining companies over the past two years. In that time, provincial authorities and the Lao central government have given the go-ahead to about a dozen such companies to explore the possibilities for mining operations
“Xaysomboun is a new province and it is poor, but rich in natural resources, especially from mining. It is in need of development,” an official of the Xaysomboun Administration Office told RFA on Jan. 28.
“At least 10 proposed projects have been granted the right to perform feasibility studies since 2019. That’s just for the feasibility study, not for exploitation yet. If any project is found to be infeasible, it will be abandoned,” the official said.
While businesses welcome the province’s interest in drawing foreign investment, local residents are wary of how mining in the province has affected their lives over the years and have taken a stance against new iron mining projects.
“The exploration and exploitation will destroy nature, especially in the forest, the habitat of a lot of species,” a worker from an international environmental advocacy organization, who requested both individual and organizational anonymity to speak freely, told RFA.
“For example, blasting activity kills or displaces wildlife in its vicinity. Additionally, the noise and dust created by exploration are detrimental to the health of local residents, especially when we consider particulate matter created by explosions. It will have a silent, but gravely harmful effect,” the environmental advocate said.
Although developers usually sign agreements to protect livelihoods and the environment, the environmental advocate said that, in practice, the affected people suffer. Provincial authorities never measure particulate matter levels, and those living near the mining operation frequently have respiratory issues, according to the source.
A resident of Anouvong district’s Nam Yon village, the area of the province most affected by mining operations, told RFA that life near the mines was smelly and noisy.
“The smell of chemicals is so bad, it smells like sewage, and it is so pervasive in the evening,” the resident said.
“We hear very loud explosions every day. It’s so loud and strong that it shatters the glass in our windows and shakes up metal gates and our homes,” the resident said.
Another Nam Yon villager told RFA she was concerned about river contamination.
“They use chemicals that eventually flow into the river. We are now too afraid to eat the fish, shrimp or crabs from the river. Most of us here don’t have jobs, so we live off the forest and the river as our only food sources,” she said.
“My home was once damaged by an explosion. The project developer came to see the damage but did nothing to fix it. I had to make repairs myself,” she added.
In a separate mining project, Vietnam’s Look Yao Company has been exploring gold mining possibilities in Xaysomboun since September. The mine would be located near Namxan village, in Longchaen district.
A resident of the village told RFA that the hopeful miners have disrupted village life.
“Their trucks run through the village, damaging roads, hitting cows and creating dust. They never repair the damage,” the Namxan villager said.
An official the province’s Energy and Mines Department told RFA that the Tai Xan Meng project will have limited environmental impact.
“They signed the initial contract to explore the iron mine, not to exploit it yet. This is just the first phase. Anyway, the iron ore is far away from the villages and not near the river. If it were close, we would not give permission,” the orifical said.
The department reported late last year to the provincial people’s council that Xaysomboun has agreed to exploration rights for four different projects since 2019.
The most recent signed MoU will allow Tai Xan Meng to explore 102 square kilometers (40 square miles) in Anouvong district. Under the second project, the Lao Kalongdepo Company, is exploring a 177-square-kilometer area.
The third project is a joint venture between the Lao Defense Ministry and Joe Bounmy Minerals Corporation to explore 234 square kilometers in Longhaeng district. For the fourth project ZY Mineral Processing Corporation is exploring an unspecified area.
In addition to the Vietnamese gold mining project, Australia-backed Phu Bia Mining has been operating gold mines in what is now Xaysomboun since 2006.
The remaining projects are smaller in scale and backed by Chinese companies.
An official of the Xaysomboun Agriculture and Forestry department insisted that the developers all protect the environment.
“During these explorations, the project owners must protect the environment. For example, if they cut down trees to clear the forest for an access road, they must pay for replanting and reforestation,” the official told RFA.
Souanesavanh Viyaket, the secretary of the Lao National Assembly, said at a parliament meeting in November that companies with concessions should strictly comply with their contracts and local law to protect the environment, nature and livelihoods.
Much of Laos’s recent economic growth is generated through land concessions to China, Thailand and Vietnam for natural resources, including timber, agricultural products, minerals, and energy, but the policies have sparked friction over land taken without proper compensation, environmental pollution.
Land grabs and the appropriation of public property to turn over to foreign and domestic companies are common in Laos, and villagers affected by them often refuse to speak out publicly because they fear retribution.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.