Laos says Chinese firm can explore for rare earth minerals

The compensation to villagers who will lose land in the deal has yet to be worked out.
Laos says Chinese firm can explore for rare earth minerals Phonsavane town in Xieng Khouang province in Laos is shown in a file photo.

Lao government officials have cleared a Chinese firm to dig for rare earths on farm and grazing land in a northeastern province of the country, with compensation for displaced villagers not yet settled, Lao sources say.

An agreement signed Jan. 21 by the Lao Ministry of Plans and Development gives the Tong Lee Seung Industrial Development Company permission to excavate a 3 square kilometer area in Xieng Khouang province’s Phaxay district. Another 25 square kilometers of area land may now also be explored, the agreement says.

Much of the land concerned is already in use for farming and grazing cattle, though, sources say.

“We don’t know yet what will be done about the villagers’ land,” a Lao official told RFA on Jan. 24, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the project. “The Chinese are still conducting a survey and haven’t begun excavating yet.”

Another Lao official told RFA, however, that company representatives are now negotiating compensation for villagers who will lose valuable land to the project, but that the number of affected families is still unclear.

“They are still in talks with the local villagers, and when the survey is finished in 12 months, they will sign a separate contract to do excavations,” he said.

One affected villager said that the Chinese company’s project has now encroached on 6 hectares of his grazing land. “I don’t know whether I will get compensation for this or not, but the project will negatively impact more local families in the future, especially those who raise cattle for a living,” he said.

Another villager agreed that though some villagers will now lose farmland to the project, those most seriously affected will lose grazing land. “We don’t know what minerals the Chinese will be digging for, and we don’t know who to talk to about compensation,” he said.

Attempts to reach the Tong Lee Seung Company for comment were unsuccessful this week, but an official from the Lao Ministry of Minerals and Mines told RFA that his ministry will soon draft a new decree to control the excavation of rare earth minerals in Laos in order to protect villagers from the projects’ negative impacts.

“The decree will come out this year after we finish drafting it. We are still waiting for a government meeting on this issue, and the process will start after that,” he said.

Rare earth minerals are important in the production of high-end technology such as cell phones, computers, and satellite and aerospace technology, with much of the international trade in the minerals controlled by China.

Laos last year also signed agreements with 19 companies to explore for minerals such as gold and silver in provinces across the country, according to Lao government sources.

Foreign-invested farming, mining, and development projects in Laos have sparked friction over cases of environmental pollution and land often taken without proper compensation, leaving villagers fearing retaliation if they speak out.

China is Laos’ largest foreign investor and aid provider, and its second-largest trade partner after Thailand.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Richard Finney.


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