Villagers in Laos worry large mining concession will disrupt their lives

The government signed more than one-fourth of an entire province to 10 mining companies.
By RFA Lao
2023.02.15
Villagers in Laos worry large mining concession will disrupt their lives The Attapeu provincial government signs a contract with a construction company to conduct a survey for pagodite and other soft stones in Khamvongsa village, Phouvong district, Attapeu province, Laos, on Feb. 8, 2023. Pagodite, also known as soap stone, has applications in Chinese stone carvings, among other things.
Pathedlao

Residents in southern Laos’ Attapeu province are concerned that more than one-fourth of the province has been granted to 10 companies in a concession that would allow them to mine for minerals.

People living within the 2,766 square-kilometer (1068 square-mile) concession told Radio Free Asia that a mining project on such a large scale will disrupt their lives and ruin the environment. Attapeu’s total size is 10,320 square kilometers.

Laos owes much of its recent economic growth to land concessions that have mostly gone to companies in neighboring countries like China, Thailand and Vietnam that extract natural resources. But the concessions have destroyed habitat for animals, decreased biodiversity, and have generated friction between developers and residents, many of whom refuse to speak out publicly because they fear retribution.

Vithaya Phommachanh, director of the Energy and Mines Department of Attapeu Province, announced the deal on Nov. 10, 2022, saying that the province gave permission to the 10 companies to engage in 15 separate mining projects in the designated area. Additionally, the province signed an MoU for two land studies for potential mines in a 1,000 hectare (3.86 square-mile) area in the province’s Phouvong district.

At that time, the province already had 12 active mining operations.

“This area is supposed to be a protected zone which the people can live on,” a resident of the province’s Phouvong district told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “Now it is taken by the projects and we can’t even access the zone. It’s difficult for us.”

The resident said that an area of 700 hectares (2.7 square-miles) was taken from his tiny village of Khamvongsa.

“All of us want the authorities to stop giving land away in concessions,” he said. “We want to preserve our forests and natural resources.” 

Forest coverage in Attapeu province is shrinking daily, the resident said. Excessive concessions have resulted in an oversaturation of projects like dam construction, mining operations, factories and farm development.

Another resident of Phouvong district explained how mining has disrupted villagers' lives, saying “They cause road damage, traffic, noise, and they decrease residents’ farmland.” He also said that foreign developers hire local labor, but pay very low wages, including a Vietnamese company that pays only 60,000 kip (U.S. $3.58) per day.

An official of the Natural Resources and Environment Department of Attapeu Province responded to the villagers’ concerns, telling RFA that developers and the local government must approve environmental and social impact assessments before the concession can be awarded.

“After that we have to actually go down there and inspect the area,” the official said. “If the project has a serious impact, we’ll solve it or minimize the impact by paying fair compensation, reforesting the area, or treating the wastewater.”

The official said that the recently signed MoU in Phouvong province is only for survey and exploration of pagodite and other soft stones, not for the extraction of minerals. Investors must complete feasibility studies, environmental and social impact assessments first, before the province can approve the projects.

Pagodite, also known as soap stone, has applications in Chinese stone carvings, and in traditional Japanese writing tools. 

An official of the province’s Energy and Mines Department said initial data of a pagodite mine and mapping of the survey area has been completed. 

“But we still don’t know whether the government will give concession for pagodite extraction or not,” he said, adding that any approved project would be beneficial because it would develop the province and create jobs for residents.

Translated by Max Avary. Edited by Eugene Whong and Matt Reed.

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