BANGKOK—A leading Catholic Church official in Vietnam has joined a chorus of prominent intellectuals and scientists questioning government plans for a mining project in the country’s Central Highlands region.
In a sharply worded letter dated May 28, Ho Chi Minh City Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man criticized government exploitation of Vietnam’s environment.
“The natural environment…[is] a gift for everyone, not for a particular individual or minority group; a gift not only for the present generation but also for generations to come,” Pham said.
Pham said it was his duty to raise awareness about the risks of environmental damage in Vietnam after reviewing reports on a planned bauxite mining project.
“Since the natural environment is for everyone, no one has permission to damage or control it even in the name of economic development [or] strategies to gain profits for only a small group of privileged people,” the Cardinal said.
“Recent developments have proven that investors have only their personal profits in mind without taking into account the effects that their production might cause the living environment. These strategies of economic development can lead only to chaos,” he said.
Pham’s words echo calls from other prominent Vietnamese, including legendary war hero Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, in opposition to the planned mine.
Giap wrote his third open letter to Vietnam’s Central Committee and Politburo on May 20, which he also addressed to the ongoing National Assembly, criticizing the Politburo for what he described as failing to fully investigate “a number of problems” still associated with the project.
“I prefer not to implement this project and wait for further science and development … so we can save and exploit our natural resources more efficiently and safely,” Giap wrote.
“We should only decide [to proceed] after we know the result of a full and thorough study of all the related issues and listen to the opinions of scientists and others. In doing so, we can avoid mistakes which may harm our country.”
Giap has warned of environmental damage as well as possible national security breaches as a result of the long-term presence of hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers in the mines.
Vietnam holds the world’s third-largest reserves of bauxite, used to produce aluminum, with an estimated 5.4 billion tons of ore. The government is eager to exploit those resources, having set a goal of U.S. $15 billion in attracted investment by 2025.
The extraction of bauxite requires a type of strip-mining that can irreparably damage topography, while refining the product results in a toxic run-off that can pollute water systems.
Vietnam’s government has already signed a U.S. $460 million contract with a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese mining giant Chalco to develop one site and has laid the groundwork for a feasibility study for a second through U.S. aluminum firm Alcoa.
The collaboration with Chalco has ignited anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam, which was once colonized by China and with which it fought a war in 1979.
Opponents say that Chinese mining firms have particularly bad environmental records and that scores of Chinese laborers moving to Vietnam to work in the mines are receiving special treatment by the government.
Vietnamese officials have been quick to counter concerns over Chinese involvement in the mines, shutting down a bi-weekly newspaper, Du Lich (Tourism), for three months in response to a number of articles it ran examining territorial disputes between the two countries.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited China in April in a bid to attract more investment, pledging to make doing business easier for Chinese companies willing to set up operations in Vietnam.
After meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Dung said the two countries had agreed on a plan to expand bilateral trade from U.S. $20 billion in 2008 to U.S. $25 billion in 2010.
Original reporting by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Translated by Hanh Seide. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.