The high sale price of alabaster has brought local people flocking to Phoukanghong Mountain in Attapeu province, where they have been digging up blocks of the mineral to sell, despite a government ban on its removal. Locals told Vientiane Times yesterday that villagers were continuing to remove the rocks illegally and with great enthusiasm, as if celebrating a festival.
Director of Attapeu Provincial Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, Mr Sisavan Chanthaphayboun, admitted that despite provincial authorities having deployed some 100 security officials to protect the rocks, they were unable to stop people from digging them up. Some local residents observed that villagers did not seem to be encountering too many problems in entering the area, despite it being cordoned off by about 100 security personnel.
They said the soldiers were displaying a degree of tolerance to the villagers, who had been in the habit of excavating the rocks freely until the site was put up for concession by provincial authorities when local and overseas investors realised how much money there was to be made from the mineral. There appear to have been few or no arrests so far and the soldiers are simply confiscating any blocks of alabaster they find in the possession of villagers, while also monitoring the presence of traders in the area.
The government will soon finalise a feasibility study to identify the exact amount of easily accessible alabaster before any further decisions are made. Mr Sisavan said locals have sold the rocks to Chinese and Vietnamese traders at prices ranging from 50,000 kip per kg to 1.5 million or even 2 million kip per kg depending on quality and size. Traders buy alabaster immediately from villagers in times of high demand, following the Prime Minister’s order issued last month to halt the feasibility study being carried out by 48 companies as authorised by provincial authorities. Mr Sisavan said the blocks of alabaster were at risk of all being removed by villagers but he believed deposits could lie more than 100m beneath the surface.
In the meantime, Attapeu provincial authorities have confiscated about 10 tonnes of alabaster after it was excavated and sold illegally. They have stored it at the provincial police office, but could not say what they would do with it, or whether they would sell it. The government is using its own resources to carry out the alabaster feasibility study, which is being carried out by the Ministry of Planning and Investment, the Ministry of Energy and Mines, and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
Located about 60km from the provincial capital, Phoukanghong Mountain covers an area of 7,800 hectares. About 250,000 tonnes of alabaster is thought to exist on the surface, over an area of 1,020 hectares. Alabaster occurs naturally in Vangkhaen village, Phouvong district, which is roughly 40km from downtown Phouvong. The mineral is mainly used by sculptors and artisans for decorative purposes. Alabaster has existed on this mountain for generations.