MAC: Mines and Communities

Burmese farmers ratchet-up struggle against copper mining

Published by MAC on 2012-10-16
Source: The Irrawaddy, Mizzima News (2012-10-11)

With growing support from Burmese civil society groups, farmers from 26 villages in the Letpadaung area are suing the two Monywa copper mining companies, seeking compensation for environmental violations and the return of confiscated lands.

They are also demanding a halt to forced relocations and  to the dumping of waste on their fields.

See previous article on MAC: Burmese student leader puts "cronies" on notice over Monywa mine

Farmers Persist in Fight to Halt Monywa Copper Mine

By Zarni Mann

The Irrawaddy

11 October 2012

The public movement to stop a copper mining project in Sagaing Division is continuing, with farmers and locals symbolically planting about a thousand toddy palm trees in the area, and holding a theater show to publicize their plight.

"All the toddy palm trees, which once used to cover this area, were cut down to make way for the mine," said a farmer from Sae Tae Village who had his land confiscated by the mining companies. "We want to replant them to conserve the local environment and to show our objection to the mining project."

He said the farmers will continue to plant toddy palm trees around the site in the coming days.

On Wednesday, more than 100 farmers and their supporters organized a short performance for an audience including local media at Sae Tae village cemetery which they titled "Calls from the Spirits of our Ancestors."

Ahead of the performance, the audience prayed and paid respect to their ancestors in the graveyard. Many wept as they cried out to their ancestors to help them reclaim the lands that we seized from them.

An emotionally charged afternoon was capped off by a call to preserve Letpadaung mountain range from the decimation of copper mining. The mine is situated in a watershed area nearby the confluence of two of Burma's most important rivers, the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin.

About a dozen locals performed a short drama; painting their faces black and wearing torn rags, they acted out a scene whereby they had risen from the graves, shouting their grievances about the injustice that local landowners had suffered, and urging the authorities to put a stop to the copper mining project.

"The performance was to show that we are ready to sacrifice ourselves to fight for our rights and to maintain our environment," said a local who took part.

Several members of civic society groups which have supported the affected farmers in the area said that they would do whatever they could to help the Monywa farmers.

"They have said they may even organize a hunger strike if they do not receive assurances from the mining company or the government that the project will be completely abandoned," said Aung Soe from Rangoon Civic Society Group.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit against the mining companies for allegedly using force and intimidation against protesters has been filed by a consortium of farmers representing 26 local villages. It was presented to the Sarlingyi police station.

A previous lawsuit against the Burmese and Chinese investors for using force to keep protesters away from the mining site was already thrown out.

"We will submit a report directly to the Divisional Admissions Office just as we were told. We just want justice to be done," said Aung Soe.

More than 7,000 acres of land from 26 surrounding villages were confiscated after plans were announced in 2011 to award a joint-contract for the copper mining project to military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, Ltd. (UMEHL) and China's Wan Bao Company.

The farmers in the Latpadaung area began airing their complaints and demands for adequate compensation and the return of farmland on July 2. Tensions were raised with local authorities in August when hundreds of locals joined the farmers' protest.

Civic society groups from as far afield as former capital Rangoon have since become involved, actively publicizing the detrimental affects of copper mining, such as the damage caused by waste from the work site, which they say could destroy the fragile ecosystem in the nearby Sabae and Kyay Sin mountains.

Copper mining in the area started in 1980 with joint ventures between former Burmese Ministry of Mining-1 and various investors, including Canada-based Ivanhoe Mines.

Both sides file suits in mine protest

Mizzima News

11 October 2012

Over 1,000 villagers staged a symbolic demonstration on Tuesday at a graveyard to dramatize their struggle against a Chinese co-owned mine in the Letpadaung mountain range near Sagaing Division's Monywa city.

The villagers are protesting their displacement from land following months of confrontations with the company and the authorities.

"We went there and cried. We cried for the land lost, for the disappearance of the Letpadaung mountains," Phyu Phyu Win, one of the protest leaders, told Radio Free Asia (RFA) in a report on its website published on Thursday.

Phyu Phyu Win was among 12 activists detained last month at protests over the mine, which is being developed by Wan Bao Co.-a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco)- and Burma's army-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holding.

Villagers said that the mine developers have illegally confiscated more than 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) of farmland from 26 villages since 2011, and said they fear pollution in the area.

With growing support from groups around the country, villagers have sought adequate compensation, the return of confiscated land, a stop to forced relocations, and an end to the dumping of waste on their fields, said RFA.

Local villagers filed a lawsuit this week at Sarlingyi Township suing Wan Bao and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding.

Mine officials filed a defamation lawsuit last week against 16 activists for their role in the protests.

"The company bulldozed palm trees and farmland, and now they are building a road here and dumping waste on the land. We villagers think this is not fair. As long as they keep destroying our land, we will keep doing what we are doing," said one protestor.

Letpadaung farmers to sue copper mine - Zarni Mann

The Irrawaddy

9 October2012

Around a thousand farmers from 26 villages in the Letpadaung area of Sagaing Division prepared to file a lawsuit on Monday against the owners of a copper mine for allegedly using force and intimidation against protesters demanding the shutdown of the project.

"We are suing them for destroying our monasteries, taking our land and threatening us," said Thwae Thwae Win, one of the leaders of the group. "If we don't take this action, we will have to deal with even greater injustices in the future."

The farmers said that despite their repeated calls on the owners of the mine to stop dumping waste on their fields, the company's only response has been to threaten and insult them.

There have also been reports that the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, Ltd. (UMEHL), a military-owned conglomerate that is joint owner of the mine with China's Wan Bao Company, plans to sue 16 protests leaders, including Thwae Thwae Win, for defamation.

"We heard on the radio that UMEHL is preparing to sue us, but we haven't received any notice from the police or the court yet," said Thwae Thwae Win.

"We haven't done anything wrong, so we've decided to file a counter-suit to win back our basic rights. We will do everything we can to stop this project and protect the environment," she added.

According to the farmers, the police allowed only three representatives from each village to register as plaintiffs in the case against the UMEHL and Wan Bao, while other villagers were only permitted to sign as witnesses.

"The police said they will inform us at 4 pm tomorrow about whether they would submit the case to the court or not," said one farmer who asked not to be named.

The farmers said they are demanding adequate compensation for damages suffered since the mining project began; the return of their lands; an end to forced relocation; and a complete halt to the project, which they say has inflicted immense harm on the environment.

One focus of the protests has been the decimation of the Sabae and Kyay Sin mountains, while ongoing pollution of local farmland has also been a major source of grievance.

The protests, which began on July 2 and intensified the following month when several leaders were temporarily taken into police custody, have attracted growing support from local villagers and rights groups.

Like the movement against the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam hydro-power project in Kachin State, the Letpadaung protests have grown from a local expression of anger into a national cause célèbre, with many around the country now calling for a suspension of the copper mine on environmental grounds.

Copper mining in the area started in 1980 with joint ventures between former Burmese Ministry of Mining-1 and various investors, including Canada-based Ivanhoe Mines.

Mining, Repression and Imprisonment, an Uncertain Future

Burma Partnership Weekly Highlights

1 - 7 October 2012

Burma has been internationally praised for moving in a more democratic direction recently. Sadly for many citizens these changes are a world away. Their interactions with the Burma government are characterized by the same repressive, corrupt, strong armed tactics that made Burma an international pariah for decades.

In the Letpadaung mountains, huge amounts of land have been forcibly confiscated by the government, environmental degradation has occurred and a policy of arrest and detention of peaceful protestors has been implemented.

The Monywa Copper Project is located in central Burma's Sagaing Division with four large deposits: Sabetaung, Sabetaung South, Kyisintaung and Letpadaung. The project covers almost 8,000 acres of land, the majority of which was forcibly taken from villagers.

Resource extraction has been the cause of some of Burma's largest human rights violations and land confiscations.

The Monywa Copper Project is the country's largest mine in terms of recovery rates, production and revenue. Protests over the project and national attention have been growing, as have the number of arrests and detentions in association with those protests and land confiscation cases.

A Chinese mining company Wan Bao in collaboration with the Burma Army-backed Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL) has confiscated over 7,800 acres of land for the copper mine in the Letpadaung mountain range.

Another specific example would be in the town of Wethmay, one of more than two dozen towns affected by the project.

This past December authorities tried to force villagers to leave by destroying the village monastery, taking away the religious statues and removing all of the furniture and equipment for the primary school. The villagers organized themselves and protested, so far avoiding the forced relocation and land confiscation that has occurred with increased frequency in this area.

The protest drew national attention; it also resulted in the arrest and detention of 12 peaceful protesters. Nine were released the day and night after the protest, but three were held for four days until a public outcry for their release was headed.

In another instance of unjust arrest and detention Wai Lu, a former political prisoner and land rights activist whose involvement has furthered the prominence of the case, was taken off a bus returning to Rangoon, charged for religious offences and detained for two weeks.

There have also been cases of media restrictions surrounding the project. In March, a private weekly newspaper, The Voice, was sued by the Ministry of Mines after reporting on corruption by the government and the Wan Bao Chinese company involved in the mine.

In addition to the forced relocation, land confiscation, and arrest of peaceful protesters, there is huge environmental degradation occurring in association with the Monywa project.

The run off from the mines has irreversibly changed the ecology of surrounding rivers and fields. Villagers are forced to buy bottled drinking water. "While those who cannot afford to have no choice but to drink the contaminated supply. We're afraid that if this water goes into the Chindwin River it will get worse for the people downstream," said Han Win Aung of the Political Prisoners Families Network.

Despite the publicized changes that have been occurring in Burma, more and more of these worrying stories are coming out of rural areas.

Corrupt government authorities, cronies and the military are taking land from villagers and farmers; those who protest are arrested and imprisoned and media outlets that report on it are sued.

All of this is occurring under the cloud of irreversible environmental damage, suggesting an uncertain future for the people of Burma in terms of development, peace and prosperity.

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