The Chinese-backed operators of a controversial nickel mine embroiled in a longstanding dispute with villagers in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region over accusations of shortchanging them for land now face allegations that waste byproducts from the metal-processing plant have contaminated local land and water resources.
A contract that China’s CNMC Nickel Company Ltd. (CNICO) signed with the mine in 2007 called for the seizure of more than 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of land and the payment of 50,000 kyats (U.S. $32) an acre in lost crop compensation for 122 farmers in five communities comprising the Maung Kone village tract, according to a Myanmar Times report in 2016.
The Tagaung Taung plant, which sits near the boundary between Sagaing and Mandalay region, began processing operations two years later, and now employs more than 1,500 workers, both Myanmar and Chinese nationals.
Maung Kone residents now charge that the compensation they received failed to take into account the contamination of their fields and the nearby Irrawaddy River by the plant’s solid waste runoff, and they are demanding additional payment.
The 500 acres of land on which the plant’s operators have dumped coal waste are nearly full, villagers said, so that when it rains, the runoff flows directly into the waterway and nearby cultivated fields.
Residents of Maung Kone village, which sits between the nickel-mining operations and a sugar-processing plant, also said that polluted air and solid waste from both operations have affected their health, and they have accused both plants of discharging wastewater directly into the Irrawaddy River.
When residents went to the village tract health department to discuss the situation, the medical officer in charge said he could not answer their questions because he did not have permission from his superiors.
Ruining the local ecosystem
Then in May, a nickel plant employee took to social media to bring the problem to the attention of national lawmakers, who were discussing at a parliamentary session the country’s membership in an independent intergovernmental body on biodiversity and ecosystems.
Worker Win Bo wrote that CNICO’s Tagaung Taung plant was ruining the local ecosystem and that legislators should come to the village to see the impact for themselves.
When his manager found out about the post, he angrily slammed down a phone and confronted Win Bo, showing him the message he had posted online.
“The manager threw the telephone down and asked me, ‘What problem do you have?’” Win Bo told RFA.
The boss pointed out that the message contained Win Bo’s national identity card number identification number, his photo, the name of the village, and the name of the company.
“The company’s name is there. You will be sued,” the manager told Win Bo and suspended him from work for three weeks.
The operator of the nickel mine declined RFA's request for comment on the dispute.
Information on CNICO’s website, however, says the company works to ensure environmental protection with its operations in Myanmar.
“Bearing corporate social responsibility in mind, CNICO will work hard to boost local economic development, cultivate local talent, protect [the] local environment, and realize the win-win cooperation between China and Myanmar,” it says.
‘I want it back’
Residents of the Maung Kone village tract in southern Sagaing’s Htigyaing township have long accused the operators of the Tagaung Taung nickel-processing plant of underpaying residents when it previously appropriated thousands of acres of farmland.
The township administrator, who declined to provide his name, said the company has already compensated villagers for the crops they lost.
“We want compensation for the value of the land that is in the project area,” said local resident Myint Hlaing. “If there’s land, then we would like land.”
Another villager, Aung Naing, said he lost about 15 acres of land to the mining company.
“I want it back,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “If they cannot give me substitute land, then I want compensation for the land.”
Local residents also complain that the presence of the nickel-processing plant has driven up prices of everyday goods in the area, making it difficult for farmers to afford them given their decreased income from land losses and the likely contamination of their produce by the mining operation.
“The bad effect is that because of the arrival of this factory, the prices of necessities are different from those [in the larger areas] of Htee Gyaint and Maung Kone, and [small towns of] Myadaung, and Tagaung,” said area resident Zaw Moe Aung.
“Here the prices of daily necessities have become very high,” he said.
Reported by Khaymani Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.