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Right time for Vietnam to halt bauxite projects, prominent citizens say

A rescue worker stands on the reservoir wall at the Ajka Timfoldgyar plant near the Kolontar village in Hungary on October 10, where a toxic red mud spill killed nine, injured 150 and caused an environmental disaster

Vietnam has an unprecedented opportunity to avert a potential economic and environmental catastrophe by taking a affirmative action on a petition recently submitted by prominent citizens, the petitioners and others have said.

While commending the government for being receptive to the petition signed by former senior officials, intellectuals and war veterans demanding a halt to the bauxite mining projects in the Central Highlands, they stressed this was a unique opportunity to take action.

"In the wake of the catastrophe in Hungary, the [Vietnamese] government might have no better chance to pull out without risking losing face," said Chu Hao, a prominent signatory to the petition.

In 2009, General Vo Nguyen Giap, the founding commander-inchief of the Vietnam People's Army who has just turned 100, wrote a letter to the Vietnamese government warning that bauxite mining would damage the environment, social well-being and national security.


"¢ Most of the arguments made during preliminary seminars held in 2008 and 2009 presented evidence that bauxite mining in the Central Highlands would be unprofitable, cause environmental harm, and have far-reaching social impacts for local residents.

"¢ This costly project will yield a sure loss due to lack of water and electricity at the remote mining sites. The high cost of shipping alumina to aluminum processing plants (presumably in China) would seriously hinder any possibility of making significant profits. The plant's target production capacity (of up to six million tons of alumina by 2020) would be a mere drop in the bucket of global alumina output. Nowadays, miners tend to produce aluminum at the mining site to reduce transportation costs.

"¢ An environmental disaster is hanging over millions of residents in the Dong Nai River basin. Tens of millions of tons of toxic sludge will be pumped into the plant reservoir. Many of the surrounding rivers flow from this location into major economic zones. Natural disasters and impacts of climate change are on the rise and the Central Highlands' climate and terrain present far greater risks than the areas surrounding the now infamous plant outside Hungary's Ajka.

"¢ The project will affect the life of local residents (including the ethnic minority tribes) and deteriorate their cultural identities, further complicating social, national security and defense issues.

"¢ Losses from a halt or cancellation of the project are much lower than the possible impacts of a spill or unforeseeable disasters.

Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai had responded by saying the country would not consider exploiting the mineral at "any cost" and would readjust the project in an effort to minimize damage to the environment.

Also last year, another public appeal urging a halt to the projects made no headway.

"I just hope that the [latest] petition will pave the way for serious debates on whether or not the [bauxite] projects should proceed," said Hao, who stepped down as deputy minister of Science and Technology in 2005.

Le Dang Doanh, another petitioner, said this time the debating atmosphere is much more energetic than in the past.

As the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, is in the middle of its final five-week session, Doanh said he hoped the legislative body would be able to intervene in "this very serious matter."

"It would be just wonderful if the National Assembly decides to halt the projects," said Doanh, a lecturer at the Hanoi Economic College.

"I hope lawmakers will take into serious consideration the fact that any environmental aftermath stemming from bauxite development would be irreversible and perpetual."

Others, including the petitioners, have also asserted that the project is economically unfeasible, and bound to result in a loss.

"I think we should ask a question first: Whether Vietnam will die if it does not explore bauxite in the Central Highlands? The answer is: No."

This was a comment made by Dang Hung Vo, another petitioner and former deputy minister of Natural Resources and Environment. Vo was quoted by news website VnExpress on Monday (October 25).

Nguyen Minh Thuyet, an outspoken lawmaker of the National Assembly, said: "It is a positive sign that the government appeared to be increasingly receptive to growing public fears over a Hungary-like catastrophe."

But Nguyen Quang A, another petitioner, said he was not expecting "immediate results" from the petition.

 "I just hope through this petition, the public will understand that we petitioners are trying toward off a catastrophic scenario for future generations," said A, an independent analyst who used to head the now-disbanded think tank called Institute for Development Studies.

Lawmaker Thuyet, not one of the signatories to the latest petition, said he hoped that pressure from the National Assembly and the public would be able to sway the government.

"This is absolutely the ripe time," Thuyet said. "I would at least suggest that the government halt negotiations [with a foreign partner] over the proposed factory in Dak Nong Province."

"If the projects go ahead, there are certainly similar petitions waiting in the future. I'm just concerned the social rifts on this issue will continue to widen."


Although the quality of drinking-water supplied to the affected areas in Hungary remains adequate and poses no health risk to the community, more action should be taken to minimize short and longterm health impacts, the World Health Organization said.

On October 20, an assessment team from the UN body said it would continue to monitor environmental indicators in the area in the short, medium and long-term. It has further called for closer attention to be paid to the 4,000 clean-up workers in the affected areas.

In another action designed to prevent the potentially harmful effects of bauxite mining, a project in Australia's Queensland has been deemed unviable due to a state laws designed to protect the catchment areas of pristine rivers.

The mining company, Cape Alumina Ltd, which sought to produce seven million tons of bauxite a year from its Pisolite Hills project, said that 45 percent of the resources at the site "has been directly locked up or indirectly rendered uneconomic to mine" due to protection rules and buffer zones designed to prevent run-off entering the nearby Wenlock River.

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