The Midas Curse

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The Central Highlands gold rush has been an irresponsible and destructive experience, and it could get worse

Illegal gold exploitation on Ba River in the central province of Phu Yen. Experts say uncontrolled gold mining in several provinces nationwide has destroyed he local environment and would inflict greater damage without urgent remedial steps.

The loss of arable land, the severe damage to the environment and the chaos in the lives of local residents Vietnam needs to reverse this process if it is to avoid the gold "trap", experts say.

Authorities have to vastly improve the management of gold exploitation as well as that of other natural resources like minerals, said Nguyen Trung, a scientist and former official of a governmental research committee on natural resources.

Mincing no words, he said: "[The exploitation of] natural minerals are extending the country's dated economic mechanisms, devastating the environment, hindering the growth of other economic sectors and worsening hunger and poverty."

He said the exploitation could easily have negative impacts because of the fact that the country's resources were concentrated in forests and upstream rivers. The corruption of officials only made things worse, he said.

"A resource curse could befall us even before all the minerals are exhausted," he said, warning that the country could experience the paradox of being harmed by the abundance of natural resources.

Recent investigations by Thanh Nien of both legal and illegal exploitation of several gold mines nationwide found thousands of locals suffering the consequences of severe environmental pollution.

A natural reserve was being destroyed for the mining of the precious metal, he said.

It was the recent discovery of 8.1 million tons of gold ore in Cambodia's Mondulkiri, a province bordering Vietnam's Central Highlands, that prompted the gold rush among local firms and individuals.

Rich resource

Nguyen Truong Giang, head of the Radioactive and Rare Minerals Division at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said initial surveys had found gold reserves in Kon Tum Province, not too far from the Cambodian site.

In another survey, scientists estimated reserves of between five and six tons of gold ore at the Dat Sa Mine in Gia Lai, a province neighboring Kon Tum in the Central Highlands, according to Prof. Phan Truong Thi of the Hanoi National University's College of Natural Resources.

Thi said although there has been no aggregate research into Vietnam's gold reserves, the precious metal has been found in the northern, central and southern regions, including a vein of around five tons of gold at the Bong Mieu Gold Mine in Quang Nam Province's Phu Ninh District.

Charles Barclay, executive director of Bong Mieu Gold Mining Co. Ltd., has also said they had estimated a reserve of 7.2 tons of gold in the province's Phuoc Son District.

Among northern provinces with rich natural resources, Bac Kan is known for its rich gold mines. Nguyen Dinh Lai, a natural resources official of Na Ri District said: "A handful of sand in any river or stream in Bac Kan has some gold dust."

Big is ugly

Na Ri residents said individual gold panning has been common since 1980 but significant environment devastation has become evident over the past several years when some firms were granted licenses to exploit gold on a large scale.

The site of the Ao Tay Gold Mine near the Bac Giang River is an empty land with deep holes on the ground after Kim My Hung Company stopped its activities here recently. The company's deputy director, Le Hong Thai, said he couldn't comment on the filling up work at the site because they were waiting for its license to be extended for future exploitation.

Residents of Na Ri District's Na Lang Hamlet said they have suffered severe pollution since the Hung Dung Company obtained a license to exploit gold there last September. A 2,000-liter petrol tank belonging to the company broke late last year and spilled oil into the local streams.

Unable to suffer the incessant noise from the company's generators and repeated complaints to local authorities falling on deaf ears, Na Lang resident Nguyen Cong Kieu said he would relocate elsewhere.

Nguyen Tien Hung, a company official, showed Thanh Nien a pond the company used to store and treat wastewater. However, Thanh Nien found that the pond was connected directly to the Bac Giang River. A local official even said he was not sure if the company had not used harmful chemicals like cyanide or mercury as they claimed.

Destroying nature

Gold exploitation was destroying the Kim Hy Natural Reserve in Na Ri District's Kim Hy Commune that was established in 2003 by Bac Kan Province authorities to preserve the precious ecosystem of the limestone mountains.

A scientist and former senior official at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment told Thanh Nien on condition of anonymity that he couldn't believe that Bac Kan authorities had illegally issued a license to mine for gold in a natural reserve.

Dinh Van Duy, head of the Kim Van Hamlet at Kim Hy Commune, said a large area of farmland had been flooded with water and stones after the Tan Thanh Company changed the course of a stream during its gold exploitation work in 2006.

Apart from the approved gold mine at Kim Hy, individuals and groups have also exploited gold illegally at the place. A miner said they just pump water from a stream to the ground and gold from the eroded soil will be retained by a carpet that the muddy water flows over.

Experts also criticized a document issued by the Bac Kan People's Committee in 2008 that allows investment in tourism and mining together. They said this was being done to make it easier to license mining, as issuing a license just for mining is more difficult.

Nguyen Dinh Lai of Na Ri District's Natural Resources and Environment Section said no tourism project has been carried out under such an investment license. "The decision is actually a green light for miners to exploit gold in Na Ri District," he said.

Killing rivers

Further south, in the central province of Quang Ngai, a number of dredging machines are competing in the hunt for gold in Tay Tra District's Tang River.

Although Quang Ngai authorities have granted gold mining licenses to only two companies, other companies and groups of individuals have operated illegally and seriously polluted the river, which is a major water source for the riparian communities.

Around 117 households at Tra Tho Hamlet in Tay Tra District are worried after many members have contracted skin diseases from using the river water. Hundreds of hectares of farmland have collapsed into the river due to mining activities.

The situation is the same at the Ba River in the neighboring Phu Yen Province. Hundreds of individuals have illegally exploited gold in the river over the past several days, concerned early rains during the rainy season would sweep the gold ore downstream.

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