Can Vietnam Greens Block a Bauxite Mining Project?

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Aude Genet / AFP / Getty Images

A bauxite mine at Bao Lam, in Vietnam's Lam Dong province, on April 13, 2009

On Oct. 4 last year, as toxic red sludge from a Hungarian aluminum plant flowed toward the Danube, critics of the fledgling bauxite mining industry in Vietnam resurfaced after being silenced in 2009. The European disaster gave Vietnamese dissenters an opportunity to bring attention to two proposed Chinese-backed bauxite mines and aluminum plants in Vietnam's Central Highlands, the potential impact of which has worried scientists, environmentalists, religious groups, bloggers and even national heroes like nonagenarian General Vo Nguyen Giap. The general, who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, has written three public letters lambasting the project.

As Vietnam's 11th Party Congress kicked off last week in Hanoi, those critics wondered if their concerns might finally be heard. Plans to mine the remote highlands for bauxite were first broached by the former Soviet Union, but the project was eventually dismissed due to environmental concerns. But in 2006, China signed a framework agreement with Vietnam for the state-owned mining company Aluminum Corp. of China to extract bauxite and refine aluminum at two plants in the region. The finished product would be exported to China, prompting, in addition to the existing environmental worries, new concerns that the agreement could exacerbate the large trade imbalance between the two nations.

The mine projects are currently moving ahead despite criticism that the storage facilities in Dak Nong and Lam Dong provinces may not be able to properly store the aluminum production runoff containing, among other things, metal oxides and sodium hydroxide. Critics say the impact of any potential contamination of regional waterways on both highland crops like coffee and downstream crops of rice would be devastating, and that land clearance for future storage facilities could displace many ethnic-minority communities in the region.

In years past, protests over the mines brought together normally disparate groups and concerns, for which the Internet was the obvious organizing ground. But online protest was soon quashed: bloggers were arrested and websites like Bauxite Vietnam were allegedly hacked. It's also thought the reason for an unacknowledged nationwide Facebook block enacted at the time was to target groups organizing via the social-networking site. "The crackdown began in 2007 in response to increasingly organized political opposition and Vietnamese taking advantage of the political space created by the Internet," says Duy Hoang, of U.S.-based Viet Tan, a pro-democracy party that is banned in Vietnam. The block has seemingly been stepped up again for the 11th Party Congress: the social-networking site is now even harder to access inside the country.

In October, several retired high-level officials, scientists and intellectuals signed a petition asking the government to postpone or entirely cancel the mines. The petition called the Hungary disaster a stern warning and said that calling off the multibillion dollar project would be an unhappy decision but one that may have to be undertaken in the interests of "national destiny."

The refreshed public debate, staged in autumn in newspapers, blogs and the decisionmaking National Assembly, is in part a result of the nation's slow but growing environmental movement, says Scott Roberton, the Vietnam representative for the New York City–based Wildlife Conservation Society. He says that in Vietnam, green concerns have often been sacrificed in the interests of rapid industrialization, but a more educated populace with greater Internet access has seen environmentalism move beyond the purview of the NGO sector. "People are speaking out publicly, decisionmakers are being lobbied and there seems to be far more public debate than before. It's in the early days, but the signs are very promising," he says.

Others agree. "The bauxite mining issue is the most prominent environmental issue to emerge in Vietnam," says professor Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert who recently resigned from the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. He says that unlike some protests of 2009 and 2008, in which objections to the mines had at times functioned as a way to push a wider political agenda, including the legitimacy of a one-party system, the dissension voiced in the past few months has mostly been more effective, and officials, in turn, now understand there are lines they may not be able to cross.

One member of the National Assembly who has been particularly vocal in his questioning of the bauxite mining project is Duong Truong Quoc, a signatory to the October petition. The representative for Dong Nai province in the south, an important economic hub and an area that could be badly affected should runoff from the mines travel downstream via waterways from areas in the Central Highlands, says people in his province are worried. "People's concerns are very realistic," he says. He also says that key elements of infrastructure important to bauxite extraction, such as water and power supplies, are not up to the task.

The government has agreed to oversee an environmental-impact study of the mines, and a working group visited Hungary after the disaster there, but some have their doubts. The Party Congress, which sets the direction of the country for the next five years and decides important positions within the government, could reverse the decision to go ahead with the mines, but it's seen by many as a long shot. The Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, has from the beginning pushed the project forward, despite reservations by some in the government and military. "A handful of delegates might raise the issue," says Thayer, "but it's likely to be swept under the carpet."