BANGKOK—Vietnam will proceed with a controversial plan to mine bauxite from the Central Highlands region, following an endorsement by the country’s top legislative body.
The Politburo has directed state-run Vietnam National Coal and Mineral Industries Group (Vinacomin) to proceed with plans to extract bauxite from Vietnam’s vast reserves, the official Vietnam News Agency said, adding that the process must take into account potential environmental impact and issues affecting local residents.
The government should find another method of developing the Central Highlands."
Vinacomin has contracted a subsidiary of Chinalco, a state-owned Chinese mining group, to build one mine and agreed with Alcoa, an U.S. aluminum producer, to carry out a feasibility study for another.
The announcement drew criticism from scientists and intellectuals who said proceeding with the plan would ignore environmental and social issues.
Mai Thanh Truyet, chairman of the Vietnamese Professionals Society of Southern California, said he is concerned that the Chinese-run extraction process will be particularly damaging.
“Technical exploitation of bauxite in China currently generates a red mud which is toxic to the environment. At the same time, many other countries are applying more modern techniques which are reducing harmful wastes,” he said.
Nguyen Trung, Vietnam’s former ambassador to Thailand, said the Politburo should consider the concerns of the community.
“I think the Politburo is listening to ideas regarding a review of the bauxite project. This is advisable as they said it must be carried out with respect for the environment and local residents,” Nguyen Trung said.
“The government should find another method of developing the Central Highlands. It should be a green development. It's time for Vietnam to switch to a period of in-depth economic development, and this issue needs further discussion,” he said.
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.
Bauxite is considered the most important aluminum ore and is generally strip-mined.
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.
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.
Earlier this month, head of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Thich Quang Do, voiced his opposition to the plans, citing concerns for the environment and indigenous people, his organization has said.
Do, under de facto house arrest in Ho Chi Minh City, urged workers to stay away from factories to protest the plan to allow Chinese companies to mine bauxite in Vietnam's Central Highlands.
The planned project “will destroy the forests of the Central Highlands, pollute the basalt-rich red soils, increase the risk of prolonged periods of drought or flooding, and seriously contaminate water supplies, thus directly threatening the economic development of the southern regions of Central Vietnam,” he said in a statement.
"This project is not the fruit of studies by economists or environmental experts, but an illustration of Vietnam's dependence on China," he said, calling for a month of "peaceful demonstrations at home” in May.
Do joined war hero Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who in January sent an open letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung asking for the bauxite mining plans to be put on hold until international experts had studied the environmental impact.
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.
Original reporting by RFA's Vietnamese service. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.