Vientiane Times, November 7, 2016
Mining operations are proliferating in Laos but many of them are not utilising environmentally friendly practices, adversely affecting local communities and failing to comply with government regulations. Vientiane Times went to the National Assembly to ask members about their experiences of these issues in their home constituency.
Mr Vilaysouk Phimmasone, NA member for Xieng Khuang province: Xieng Khuang is one of the largest regions in Laos, possessing minerals and natural resources such as silver, gold and iron. It has been an attraction for both Lao and foreign companies. But the problem in our province is the same story across the country; we still don’t benefit from mining because the companies claim they are constantly in the survey stage and have not yet begun extraction. The companies have reached an agreement with the government that their operations will play a role in developing the areas where the minerals are found, but we have not seen any of these promised benefits yet. So many empty promises of infrastructure investment and job creation have been made. What effects local people have experienced are all of the negative impacts mining has on the surrounding environment. Chemical runoff leaching into the river and livestock poisoning occur all too frequently. I disagree with the extent to which foreign mining companies control the country’s mineral wealth as they extract the minerals and then leave the mess for local people and government to clean up, without even delivering on their promises of infrastructure development and job creation. We should leave the mining up to Lao companies who have a stake in the development of the country and can be held more accountable for their actions.
Dr Khamchanh Sophaphaseuth, NA member for Xaysomboun province: According to government assessments, we can see that mining has adversely affected both the natural environment and people who live near mines. Oftentimes, when issues like these are brought to the attention of the authorities, it is too late. Our country still has little experience in holding mining companies accountable for the collateral effects of their practices. Many local communities have campaigned against mining companies releasing runoff into the water supply, especially in the wet season. Now the government is trying to address this problem before a new project begins by talking clearly with each company about the projected effects on the natural environment. Such actions should first be approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment before they take place.
Mr LomPhengsouk, NA member for Borikhamxay province: We recently received a message about a gold mine in Nakadong at Km 20. It’s affecting local residents who are now forced to move to other locations. Of course, the company paid for them to move and built new houses. But where they lived before, they could forage for food in the forests and had all the basic living essentials they needed. Now their lives are more difficult because they only have a house but no natural source of food. They are poor people and their displacement deprived them of an essential means of survival. Another issue we face are mining companies avoiding paying taxes. Companies often claim to employ less staff than they actually hire. This allows them to accomplish two things. Firstly, the more staff they employ the more tax they must pay. By hiding the real number of staff on their payroll, they avoid paying taxes. Secondly, hiding the real number of employees allows the companies to utilise informal labour, thereby depriving the workers of the rights afforded to formally employed staff. Government authorities have on many occasions attempted to approach mining company owners to confront them on these issues but to no avail. We recently had a meeting to discuss these issues, and concluded the government must do more to make sure mining companies are paying their fair share in taxes and formalising their agreements with the local labour they employ.
Dr Buakham Thipphavong, NA member for Vientiane: The problems surrounding mining have come to my attention because people have submitted it to their NA members for discussion at this meeting. As a representative of the people, I always visit local constituencies nationwide. Many of them complain about illegal mining and the impact it has on their lives. Because the operators illegally dig for minerals and they don’t follow the rules on safety and security, their actions often come at great cost to local populations. People complain that many operators work illegally because there is no official body to monitor and inspect their work. The problem becomes more complex when some local people illegally cooperate with investors by providing them with information and access to facilities, which is against the law. Even in Vientiane, people in districts like Sangthong and Xaythany complain about the impact of mining projects. This issue has already been discussed by the National Assembly. The prime minister is even considering permanently solving the problem by putting a halt to mining operations altogether.