Residents lose livelihoods, lives to titanium in south central Vietnam

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Residents of Binh Dinh Province in south central Vietnam have been living near coastal fern forests since early June to protect them from being cleared for titanium excavation, which according to them has caused many cancer deaths in the area.

Five years ago, an 18-year-old boy from Binh Dinh Province in south central Vietnam slipped and died in a muddy hole left by a titanium excavation survey and his body had to be fished out by a crane.

"The company brought us VND15 million so that we wouldn't file any lawsuit. I almost went crazy at the time, didn't know what to do," recalled Nguyen Thi Vinh, the 40-year-old mother.

Since early June, locals in Phu My District of the province have set up tents to live in the area allocated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to titanium companies in a coastal forest to stop further expansion of the excavation, which they say has caused much more than a boy's death.

They are accusing the operation of destroying their seafood sources and causing more people to die of cancer.

"We fishermen are very strong. People just died of old age here. But since the excavation, with the sewage and gas emissions, many people have got cancer and died inexplicably," said Huynh Chien, a 69-year-old fishermen from My Tho Commune.

Over the past two years, more than ten people from the commune have died of liver and lung cancer, local statistics show.

Two brothers Pham Y, 66, and Pham Sy, 59, in the commune have developed blisters that leak yellow fluid after they were fishing near a titanium factory when it emitted white, stinky smoke. Sy got the condition two months ago and Y in early May. They have not sought treatment at major hospitals and thus do not know what their ailment is.

They are still fishing around the factory.

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People from My Thanh and My An communes in the district also complain about how life has become much harder since the excavation, with fewer fish and shrimps in the rivers and the air badly polluted to the point of suffocation.

Locals say the factories emit titanium dust every day that has formed layers on their furniture.

Several times a day, the residents have to close all their windows and doors tight until the emission stops.

Locals said the excavation has left local houses more exposed to the sea as it cleared a large area of coastal fern forests, which were planted by the residents when they moved to the area nearly 40 years ago.

The excavation has killed off a little transparent shrimp along the coast called "ruoc" that provided food and livelihood for many locals.

Nguyen Thi Trang, 46, had lived for nearly eight years on the job till the titanium factories started operating three years ago.

Her neighbor Le Thi Loan said, "Anytime people complained, the factories would close their sewage pipes and the shrimp would come back, but only for a few days. Then they would discharge again and the shrimp just died."

Loan also had to quit her job of making dried or fermented "ruoc" several years ago.

Local figures showed that 19 businesses have got licenses for titanium excavation on around 1,200 hectares in the area.

The latest license was given in February, in which the ministry allowed the Binh Dinh Mineral Resources and Commerce Company to destroy more than 180 hectares of forest for titanium.

Local people have strongly objected to the plan. Sometimes more than 500 of them gather to protect the forest.

"If we let the companies keep digging and excavating like this, in several years, the sea will just go into each house without being stopped by anything," said local Nguyen Thi Vinh.

The company withdrew their equipment after the locals surrounded the Phu My District People's Committee in protest.

But then, three forest fires occurred within the ten last days of May in the very area allotted to the companies. And despite locals' requests, the cause of the fires has not been investigated.

Pham Le Nhung, director of the company, said they would continue negotiating with locals, giving them jobs in the project that has cost VND10 billion (US$477,150) in initial investments.

Nhung said any titanium factory is objected to by locals in the beginning, but it would no longer be a problem after negotiations and the local government's intervention.

That does not ring true.

"Mister commune chairman told us that My Thanh is lucky to have titanium. Maybe he's the only one seeing the luck, while we locals don't want the dust and pollution," said 70-year-old Phan Thi Tia.

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