A China-backed copper mine operating alongside the controversial Letpadaung project in northern Myanmar has been accused of releasing toxic dust that is destroying farmland and leaving blisters on the skin of villagers nearby.
The Kyisintaung mine is part of the Chinese conglomerate–run Monywa Copper Project, which also operates the larger Letpadaung mine vehemently opposed by villagers who claim it causes environmental, social, and health problems in the area.
Just north of the Letpadaung mine, residents of five villages surrounding the Kyisintaung mine said this week that operations there have given off harmful mineral-laden dust over the past two months.
Villagers get blisters when they try to wash the dust off of their skin, and residents in one village, Htantaw Gyi, are suffering from respiratory problems from the dust hanging in the air, they said.
The dust is also harming fields and cattle pastures in Ywarthaya, Htantaw Gyi, Gonetaw, Dontaw, and Shew Pankhine villages, they said.
“The dust which has copper mixed in with it is destroying the betel leaves that we plant,” local resident Pho Zaw told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We assume that the reaction between the water and the copper in the dust is what is destroying the leaves,” he said.
“Here we just have problems with our farmland, but people in Htantaw Gyi are having breathing problems because of the dust.”
Myanmar Yang Tse Copper Limited which runs Kyisintaung could not be reached for comment at the company’s Yangon or Monywa offices.
Yang Tse is expanding operations at Kyisintaung—which has been mined since the 1990s— including with new designs that will involve “higher levels of dust control” and are expected to “improve air quality,” according to its website.
Air quality at the Kyisintaung site “is good, with only localized emissions from the existing operations above international standards for particulates,” the website states.
Yang Tse is a subsidiary of Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Limited, which runs the Letpadaung mine as a joint venture with Myanmar’s military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL).
New Letpadaung contract
In an apparent bid to assuage public anger by giving the nation a share of the profits, officials announced Wednesday the contract for the Letpadaung mine has been revised to give the Myanmar government 51 percent of its revenues.
Under Wednesday’s revised agreement giving the Myanmar’s government a larger share of the profits from the project, Wanbao is now entitled to 30 percent of the revenue and UMEHL to 19 percent.
The new terms also stipulate that two percent of net profits from the project go toward corporate social responsibility with a focus on immediate communities.
Previously, after Wanbao took over the project from Canadian company Ivanhoe in 2010, the profits were split such that the Myanmar government received 16.8 percent, UMEHL 13.8 percent, and Wanbao 13.33 percent after deducting production costs of 56 percent.
Wanbao welcomed the deal as “a new dawn in the relationship between mining companies and their host countries,” according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
The revision of the deal follows public uproar against the project sparked after a violent police crackdown in November last year that prompted a government inquiry.
Local residents in 26 villages in the area—separate villages from those affected by the Kyisintaung dust—had begun protests against the mine early last year, saying they had not received proper compensation for confiscated land and that they did not want pollution to destroy the area.
After protests escalated, in November police used phosphorus to disperse demonstrators at the mine in the harshest crackdown since the end of military rule.
A government commission set up after the crackdown and headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to look into the project recommended earlier this year that the project be allowed to continue despite concerns over its environmental impact and land-grabbing.
But local residents have kept up their protests and vowed to do so until the project is completely halted, with many of them refusing higher compensation offers recommended by the commission.
Rights campaigners have expressed concern at the continuing arrest of activists opposed to the mine.
Letpadaung is the largest of four deposits in the Monywa Copper Mine Project, which includes Kyisintaung, Sabetaung, and Sabetaung South.
Before large-scale mining began there in the 1990s, the area was one of the largest copper mine deposits in Southeast Asia.
Reported by Moe Thu Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.