HANOI—Vietnamese authorities appear set to launch a controversial bauxite mining project in the Central Highlands region despite warnings from some experts and war hero Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap that it could harm the environment.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has called bauxite exploitation “a major policy of the party and the state” and approved several large-scale mining projects for the country’s Central Highlands.
The government’s master plan calls for investments of around U.S. $15 billion by 2025 to tap Vietnam’s rich bauxite reserves, estimated to be the third-largest in the world.
I don’t have enough information to be sure it’s guaranteed safe."
Nguyen Lan Dung
Bauxite is considered the most important aluminum ore and is generally strip-mined.
Earlier media reports said Dung had approved a directive in November allowing the mining, processing, and use of bauxite ore in the mountainous coffee-growing region.
The project has met with protests from scientists and some residents, who fear open-cut mining will destroy vast forest and crop areas and create mountains of toxic sludge.
Most residents say they expect the mine to provide badly needed jobs, as Vietnam's economy slows sharply as a result of the worldwide slowdown.
State-run Vietnam National Coal and Mineral Industries Group (Vinacomin) has begun building an aluminum factory and is preparing for major mining operations in Lam Dong and Dac Nong provinces.
Vinacomin is aiming for annual aluminum production of 4.8 million to 6.6 million tons by 2015, state media have reported.
Fears and protests
“Among many concerns for the bauxite projects, I’m interested in the social and cultural aspects of the western highlands,” Nguyen Ngoc, a writer and expert on the region, said.
“Its culture could be called a forest culture, with a close attachment between humans and nature … If the land and forest base of the western highlands disappear, its culture will be broken, its society will be unstable, and these ethnic minorities will no longer exist.”
In Dac Nong, he said, with the most bauxite ore in the Central Highlands, the mine “has a very thin layer of ore, so they spread it out widely on the earth”
“To excavate bauxite as planned in Dac Nong, it will take two-thirds of the surface of the city,” he said.
Nguyen Thanh Son, director of Red River Energy Co., a Vinacomin subsidiary, said “red mud” waste generated by the mine contains 70 percent water and 30 percent ore, which he called “very dangerous to the environment because 70 percent of that is NaOH,” or sodium hydroxide.
Tran Binh Chu, deputy head of the geology department of Hanoi Mining and Geology University, also raised concerns.
“The problem is where to leave the waste. Even if you keep it, there will be some impact as it could penetrate into the soil,” Chu said.
Nguyen Lan Dung, an academic and deputy in the National Assembly, called for more information and discussion.
“I know from the media that the project was carefully planned by the government so as to avoid pollution,” Dung said. “Personally, I don’t have enough information to be sure it’s guaranteed safe—I just don’t know enough yet.”
In January, war hero Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, 97, sent an open letter to Dung asking for the bauxite mining plans to be put on hold until international experts had studied the environmental impact.
Giap, writing for the online news site VietnamNet, also said he feared it could harm ethnic minorities in the region.
Giap still wields moral authority in Vietnam for leading the defeat of French colonial forces and Americans as military leader and confidant to late revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.
He cited concerns among scientists and activists about "the serious risk to the natural and social environment posed by bauxite exploitation projects.”
"However, these projects have still been implemented,” he added.
He said that in the early 1980s he had overseen a study on whether to mine for bauxite in the region, and that Soviet experts had advised against the project because of the "risk of serious ecological damage."
Original reporting by An Nguyen, Thien Giao, and Thanh Quang. Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.