Sagaing community divided over sweeteners from controversial military-run sulfuric acid factory
VILLAGERS and civil society are divided over what to do with community development funds from a controversial sulphuric acid factory operator, amid ongoing concerns about the potential health risks posed by the facility.
The Moe Gyo Sulphuric Acid Factory, run by military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, continues to operate after having its licence renewed for the 2016-17 period in October.
The renewal came amid ongoing opposition from Kan Kone village, in Sagaing Region’s Salingyi township, as well as strongly worded statements from the UK-based lobby group Amnesty International. They say the facility breaches international norms and poses severe environmental risks as well as being detrimental to the health of the area’s residents.
Moe Gyo Sulphuric Acid Factory was built in 2007 to serve two copper mining sites – at Letpadaung, and the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung mine. UMEHL operates these in partnership with Chinese subsidiary Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Limited.
“The factory has tried to give corporate social responsibility [CSR] funds of K18 million [US$14,000] for the fiscal year 2015-16, and K40 million for 2016-17 to support social and community development,” regional MP U Thein Naing (NLD; Salingyi 1) told The Myanmar Times.
He said many are hesitant to take the assistance, lest it signal their acceptance of the factory’s presence in the community. U Thein Naing said he has sought to dissuade people from this way of thinking.
“I told them it doesn’t mean [accepting the facility]. If the factory really does pose an environmental threat, the government would stop it,” he said.
He added that health surveying was carried out on villagers as recently as last week, but he conceded that the village lacks a meaningful way to monitor air pollution levels.
“If the air pollution is more than 20 parts per million [ppm], we can say that there is air pollution. We don’t have any equipment to test the Kan Kone village air situation. In the compound of the factory, there is a tester showing 16ppm, which assumes this has little threat for the village. We should make sure of it,” he said.
One Kan Kone villager told The Myanmar Times on condition of anonymity that he and other locals feel as though they have been placed in an awkward position. He says they see few options available to them to protest the factory’s operation, with representatives having told them talks between the facility’s operators and government are a done deal.
“As you know, we were always against the factory and always asking that the factory close. If we still continue to push for the factory to be closed, that means we are against the government,” the villager said.
“The regional government should have come to us first. Now they come to negotiate on accepting the funds. Do we need to go on the road to protest again? We have no idea,” he said.
Sagaing Region Development Minister U Myint Kyi told The Myanmar Times that if villagers reject the CSR funding, development will be stalled.
“We tried to negotiate between the locals and the companies. Every year Wanbao and Yang Tse gave $500,000 to 31 villages,” he said, the latter referring to Myanmar Yang Tse Copper Limited, the name of the Wanbaobacked venture operating the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung mine.
“We allocate the funds depending on the land used and the number of villagers. Last year, there were four villages refusing to take the CSR funds.”
He said this year, the majority of villagers have taken up the offer.
U Thein Naing said there should be a review of CSR policy, as money left over each year is currently not put back into a fund – even if that is due to the villagers rejecting the offer.
“Yang Tse gave K60 million for 2015-16 for the affected area, but the village didn’t take it. So the fund can’t be used for this year,” he said.
The controversial copper projects’ problems are seemingly improved through negotiations, U Thein Naing said. But, he conceded, there still need to be negotiations between locals and the companies for land compensation.
“The villagers ask for land compensation from Yang Tse for the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung mine. They want to get the compensation like Letpadaung,” he said.
Military-run Moe Gyo (Thunder) Sulphuric Acid Factory in Salingyi township, Sagaing Region, has been in local residents’ crosshairs for years.