Precious metal wreaks havoc on priceless environment

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Devastated forest areas and destroyed mountains are not an uncommon sight these days in the northern province of Thai Nguyen.

They are evidence of the gold rush that has plagued the province for several years now, of the loss of natural resources and biodiversity, and of severe pollution of water sources.

From the nearest residences to the gold mining sites in the northern province, xe om driver Khoa charges VND350,000 (US$20).

The way is not far but Khoa says "it's really tough," with hills, passes and makeshift bridges crossing streams.

Khoa says gold miners from all over the country rushed to Vo Nhai District's Than Sa Commune several years ago, digging the place up day and night.

Site owners spend millions of dong to build shacks, buy machines, and hire workers.

Hung says he and 11 co-workers take turns to work six hours a day each.

Site owners sometimes get 10 kilograms of gold at a time, Khoa says.

And every time the story of the windfall gets around, the number of people rushing to the area increases.

Arguments and fights ensue, and stabbings happen.

On a mountain side at Na Village, shacks are put up in front of the caves that lead 40-50 meters deep into the mountain.

There's a motor-run pulley at each entrance to move one person down as well as to take the rock and soil up.

Duong Van Khanh, director of Thai Nguyen Province Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said illegal mining in the area was first targeted in 1998.

In 2004 officials had to take up the fight again after another gold rush heated up the area in 2002 and 2003.

'Obviously the gold resources have been damaged," Khanh said.

In 2005 the province People's Committee started work to license gold mining in the area but has only issued one last year for the Hanoi-based Thang Long Company to mine gold in Na Village.

Complicit officials

Down south in the central province of Quang Nam, illegal mining is even harder to control as many local officials have been compromised.

Experts say there are more than 46 tons of gold in Quang Nam, making the province one of the richest in deposits of the yellow metal in the country, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

The province People's Committee recently blacklisted commune and district officials who granted work permits to many illegal gold mining sites in the province.

Earlier this month the committee listed 42 communes in 13 districts as areas accommodating illegal gold mining.

But licensed gold miners are not safe either.

The Vietnam Environment Administration last December found Bong Mieu Gold-mining Factory in Phu Ninh District had killed fish in a local river after discharging up to 680 times more cyanide than permitted.

Officials are testing the river samples twice a month, something they'd never done before.

Environment suffers

Nguyen Dinh Xuan, member of the National Assembly's Science, Technology and Environment Committee, said officials have not controlled properly the use and exploitation of more than 100 kinds of natural resources nationwide.

Many people take up the job of exploiting minerals because it makes big money: $10 from exporting a ton of white sand and $500-800 from exporting one cubic meter of freestone, Xuan said.

'Vietnam's Laws of Natural Resources took effect in 1996 but those regulations have been rarely implemented.

'The process to license mineral mining is not clear and still contains loopholes."

According to several official reports, Vietnam will have to import coal by around 2012, while it is now exporting half of the coal produced domestically, he said.

The country now exports mostly raw ore, which is cheap, but the use of outdated technology causes huge waste, has severe environmental impacts such as deforestation, land erosion and water pollution.

Xuan said many lakes and streams in Tuyen Quang and Nghe An provinces once watered farmland but are now 'not usable due to the waste from tin mining sites."

In 2006, 218 hectares of forest had been destroyed in Thai Nguyen and 200 hectares in Nghe An because of mining activities.

Deforestation impacts

'We usually show pity and rush to send relief aid every time there's a destructive flood, but no one ever asks why the flood comes," Xuan said.

'We've never carried out an investigation to find that out. We've never wondered why a village can be wiped away in one night or thought about preventing natural disasters."

Duong Van Ni, a lecturer at Mekong Delta's Can Tho University, said, 'Forests these days are no longer an ecological system with little human intervention but merely areas where logging and hunting are banned.

'(Mangrove) Forests can no longer confront waves and winds, or conserve biological diversity.

'Forests are now only for officials to measure for producing annual statistics."

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