Local residents and mining companies leave north-central province scarred by gouging mountainsides and digging up riverbanks and beds
Illegal gold mining at a section of the Dakrong River in Quang Tri Province. With surveillance by authorities in the north-central province being lax, the mining has seriously damaged the
Ho Thi Cuoi is among the hundreds of people in Quang Tri Province's Mo O Commune who earn their living by illegally panning gold in a local river.
"My two children and I go to the Dakrong River, and when a place is exhausted, we move to another section," the 51-year-old said.
"We go wherever there is gold."
People in the north-central province began scouring for gold several years ago after many companies were licensed to explore for the metal, mostly along the Dakrong and the Ben Hai River in Vinh Linh District.
Local officials and residents said the companies often mined illegally though were only granted exploration rights.
The effect of this unchecked mining has been devastating on the environment, for it usually involves digging along the riverbank or the use of mercury to pan for gold in the river bed besides gouging mountainsides.
For their labor, the illegal miners said, they earned VND100,000 (US$4.8) to VND150,000 a day, more than double the wage paid to hired laborers.
Le Phuoc Chuong of the Agency for Natural Resources and Environment in Dakrong District said it was hard to stop the mining in the river since people were poor and it was their only livelihood.
"We organize regular patrols and force people out of illegal mining areas. But they return after we leave or just move to a new site," he said.
Along the Ben Hai River in Vinh Ha Commune, the destruction caused by the illegal mining is stark along a 20-kilometer stretch between the Tien and Nay canyons.
Miners work at some 20 sites using dredges and pumps or hoes and pans.
The Ben Hai River was an important landmark during the partition of the country into the North and South along the 17th parallel by the Geneva Accords of 1954.
During the Vietnam War, the US bombarded the area heavily to stop arms transportation from the North to the South.
But Ho San, a resident of Vinh Ha Commune who said mining activities had increased since the end of last year, added worriedly: "The land looks just like it did after being damaged by bombs during the war. I wonder how bad it will get if mining activities continue for the next several years."
During a recent visit to the site, Thanh Nien found rampant mining going on, with people both digging into the mountainside and panning the river's banks and bed.
Ho Dan, police chief of Vinh Linh District's Vinh O Commune, said there are around 15 illegal mining sites in the commune besides "countless" number of sites worked by Axiom Vietnam and Quang Tri Minerals companies.
They have obtained permission from Quang Tri authorities merely to explore for gold, but locals said they actually mine there.
Vo Truc Linh, director of the province Department of Natural Resources and Environment, admitted to suspicious activities by the companies but claimed strangely there was no evidence.
"We have not caught them mining red-handed," he said.
The Quang Tri people's committee, the provincial administration, has organized several meetings recently to review the process of issuing mining licenses and discuss surveillance following the severe environmental damage and rampant mining.
An environment department official said a company has to get approval from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment either to explore for or mine gold.
Meanwhile, Axiom Vietnam and Quang Tri Minerals have obtained licenses to explore a further 23 square kilometers in Vinh O and Vinh Ha districts.
Many locals expressed the fear the companies would continue with their illegal mining despite getting only exploration licenses.
Le Van Hien, chairman of the Vinh Linh People's Committee, claimed to work with the provincial police to organize patrols and stop the mining.
But the local police said it would be difficult to stop the mining because there were just a few officers who could not hope to cope with hundreds of aggressive miners, including criminals and drug addicts who were ready to respond with violence.
Vo Truc Linh, director of the Quang Tri provincial environment department, said the illegal mining had worsened in the last two months because people wanted to earn money for Tet (January 23).
His agency had just two officials to monitor gold mining throughout the province, he said.