While the government wants to exploit the world’s largest reserves of the ore, others are not so keen
Protests in Vietnam against plans for six massive bauxite mines coupled with fears of Chinese economic imperialism have revived following last month’s toxic spill in Hungary that killed nine people and destroyed three villages.
The government of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has grudgingly agreed to review the bauxite mine and alumina production projects planned for the Central Highlands after receiving a much-publicized letter from 1,500 noted former politicians and intellectuals calling for new studies of the scheme.
“The disaster in Hungary is a serious warning to Vietnam,” said the letter, whose signatories included former vice-president Nguyen Thi Binh and former deputy minister of natural resources and environment Dang Hung Vo.
But although government spokesmen have said “It is necessary to listen to concerns of the public and intellectuals,” the tone and body language suggest there is no enthusiasm for halting the development of what, at 5.5 billion tonnes, are said to be some of the world’s largest reserves of the ore from which aluminum is produced.
Indeed, since the protests against the developments started in 2008 the Hanoi government has used all the regular powers of a one-party authoritarian state to try to suppress the movement.
Some critics have been detained and an enormous amount of government energy has been spent on sabotaging a website, Bauxite Vietnam, created by opponents.
Among those arrested was the webmaster who was forced to give up the site’s passwords so government hackers could try to erase it or infect it with viruses.
But the government has had to step with some caution. One of the early and persistent critics of the bauxite mines development is that great national hero, now 100 years old, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.
It was the general who defeated the French colonial masters at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, who fought the United States and its allies to standstill in the 1970s, and who masterminded the final onslaught to unify Vietnam in 1975.
In an open letter to the prime minister in January last year, Giap called for the mine development to be halted until proper environmental impact studies have been made.
But Giap, who has become known fondly as the “Green General,” went on to warn of the security implications of the development being undertaken primarily by China’s state-owned aluminum company Chalco in partnership with the Vietnam National Coal-Mineral Industries group.
Giap, who humiliated Beijing when his army easily defeated a massive Chinese military invasion in 1979, warned that Chalco would insist on bringing in thousands of Chinese workers for the project and that these people would be a security risk for Vietnam.
Large contingents of imported Chinese workers are now employed at the sites. One Chinese construction worker died in an accident at one of them last week.
After the first questionings about the safety of the bauxite projects, Dung promised to order a full environmental impact report to be produced by the end of last year. But none has been made public.
Instead the projects, which will require a $15-billion investment, have gone through the full process of approval by the Communist Party’s Central Committee, the government and the National Assembly.
This investment of political prestige makes it very difficult for the government to backtrack without losing authority.
And Dung is known to be a very determined man who is usually unfazed by opposition, even when it comes from an illustrious national hero like the general.
Even so, the stories of the generous cash and other gifts Chinese companies are reported to give African leaders in return for access to resources have left many Vietnamese wondering if similar considerations have been given to Dung and his family.
The persistent rumour is that Chalco gave the prime minister’s family $150 million to secure the contract. Dung has not addressed these allegations.
Having tried without success to silence opposition with the usual tools of the police state, Dung’s government is now trying reassurance.
Enough precautions have been taken, say spokesmen, to ensure Vietnam does not face the same risks as Hungary when, on Oct. 4, a reservoir of toxic residue from the alumina plant near Ajka, 160 kilometres from Budapest, burst and sent a wave of poisonous sludge cascading through three villages and on into the Danube River.
Duong Van Hoa, deputy director general of the Vietnamese partner in the first stage of the project involving two bauxite mines and processing complexes, said eight sludge reservoirs are being built, enough to store 12 years worth of toxic waste.
The waste, he said, is toxin-free after three years.
Sixty-six per cent of the first bauxite mining project has been completed at Tan Rai in Lam Dong Province and it is due to start production at the end of this year. Construction of the second project at Nhan Co in Dak Nong Province is due to start in March.