ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN MYANMAR, THE CHINA-BACKED COPPER MINE, AND THE INDO-BURMA BIODIVERSITY HOT SPOT

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN MYANMAR

Pollution and environmental problems—other than littering, sewage directly into waterways and environmental degradation associated with mining and deforestation— are not big problems in Myanmar because the country is so underdeveloped, uses relatively little energy and lacks industry and automobiles. Environmental issues in Myanmar: deforestation; industrial pollution of air, soil, and water; inadequate sanitation and water treatment contribute to disease. Carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of energy: 12.8 million Mt (2010 est.), country comparison to the world: 95 Environment - international agreements: party to: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94. CIA World Factbook]

According to the article “Capitalizing on Conflict: How Logging and Mining Contribute to Environmental Destruction in Burma the trade in timber, gems, and gold is financing violent conflict, including widespread and gross human rights abuses, in Burma....Ironically, cease-fire agreements signed between the late 1980s and early 1990s have dramatically expanded the area where businesses operate. “ Capitalizing on Conflict” focuses on two zones where logging and mining are both widespread and the damage from these activities is severe... Both case studies highlight the dilemmas cease-fire arrangements often pose for the local communities, which frequently find themselves caught between powerful and conflicting military and business interests. The information provides insights into the conditions that compel local communities to participate in the unsustainable exploitation of their own local resources, even though they know they are destroying the very ecosystems they depend upon to maintain their way of life. The other alternative — to stand aside and let outsiders do it and then be left with nothing — is equally unpalatable.” [Source: Ken MacLean, EarthRights International (ERI), Karen Environnmental & Social Action Network, November 7, 2003]

The Irrawaddy River Delta is threatened by rising sea leveled caused by global warming. Eastern India and Myanmar are regarded as a biodiversity hot spot. Over 7,000 plant species unique to the area are found there. There are also large populations of elephants, tigers and other endangered animals there. The eight hottest biodiversity "hot spots" according to Conservation International are: 1) the Caribbean; 2) Western Ghats and Sri Lanka; 3) Sunderland (Sumatra, Malaysia, Borneo and Java); 4) the Philippines; 5) Brazil's Atlantic Coast; 6) Coastal forest of Kenya and Tanzania; 7) Madagascar; 8)Indo-Burma. These regions are threatened by agriculture, logging and the wildlife trade.

See Separate Article on Dams, Deforestation

Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot

Encompassing more than 2 million square kilometers of tropical Asia, Indo-Burma is still revealing its biological treasures. Six large mammal species have been discovered in the last 12 years: the large-antlered muntjac, the Annamite muntjac, the grey-shanked douc, the Annamite striped rabbit, the leaf deer, and the saola. This hotspot also holds remarkable endemism in freshwater turtle species, most of which are threatened with extinction, due to over-harvesting and extensive habitat loss. Bird life in Indo-Burma is also incredibly diverse, holding almost 1,300 different bird species, including the threatened white-eared night-heron, the grey-crowned crocias, and the orange-necked partridge. [Source: Conservation International **]

VITAL SIGNS: Hotspot Original Extent (square kilometers): 2,373,057; Hotspot Vegetation Remaining (square kilometers): 118,653; Endemic Plant Species: 7,000; Endemic Threatened Birds: 18; Endemic Threatened Mammals: 25; Endemic Threatened Amphibians: 35; Extinct Species: 1; Human Population Density (people/square kilometers): 134; Area Protected (square kilometers): 235,758; Area Protected (square kilometers) in Categories I-IV: 132,283. **

The Indo-Burma hotspot encompasses 2,373,000 square kilometers of tropical Asia east of the Ganges-Brahmaputra lowlands. Formerly including the Himalaya chain and the associated foothills in Nepal, Bhutan and India, the Indo-Burma hotspot has now been more narrowly redefined as the Indo-Chinese subregion. The hotspot contains the Lower Mekong catchment. It begins in eastern Bangladesh and then extends across north-eastern India, south of the Bramaputra River, to encompass nearly all of Myanmar, part of southern and western Yunnan Province in China, all of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia and Vietnam, the vast majority of Thailand and a small part of Peninsular Malaysia. In addition, the hotspot covers the coastal lowlands of southern China (in southern Guangxi and Guangdong), as well as several offshore islands, such as Hainan Island (of China) in the South China Sea and the Andaman Islands (of India) in the Andaman Sea. The hotspot containes the Lower Mekong catchment. **

Much of Indo-Burma is characterized by distinct seasonal weather patterns. During the northern winter months, dry, cool winds blow from the stable continental Asian high-pressure system, resulting in a dry period under clear skies across much of the south, center, and west of the hotspot (the dry, northeast monsoon). As the continental system weakens in spring, the wind direction reverses and air masses forming the southwest monsoon pick up moisture from the seas to the southwest and bring abundant rains as they rise over the hills and mountains. **

The transition to the Sundaland Hotspot in the south occurs on the Thai-Malay Peninsula, the boundary between the two hotspots is represented by the Kangar-Pattani Line, which cuts across the Thailand-Malaysia border, though some analyses indicate that the phytogeographical and zoogeographical transition between the Sundaland and Indo-Burma biotas may lie just to the north of the Isthmus of Kra, associated with a gradual change from wet seasonal evergreen dipterocarp rainforest to mixed moist deciduous forest. **

A wide diversity of ecosystems is represented in this hotspot, including mixed wet evergreen, dry evergreen, deciduous, and montane forests. There are also patches of shrublands and woodlands on karst limestone outcrops and, in some coastal areas, scattered heath forests. In addition, a wide variety of distinctive, localized vegetation formations occur in Indo-Burma, including lowland floodplain swamps, mangroves, and seasonally inundated grasslands. **

Karen Environmental Activist: Ka Hsaw Wa

Ka Hsaw Wa, Co-Founder and Executive Director of EarthRights International, is the Winner of the 1999 Goldman Environmental Prize, the 1999 Reebok Human Rights Award, the 2004 Sting and Trudie Styler Award for Human Rights and the Environment, the Conde Nast Environmental Award and the 2009 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership. [Source: EarthRights International >>]

Ka Hsaw Wa is a member of the Karen ethnic nationality in Burma. In 1988 he led peaceful student demonstrations in Rangoon, calling for human rights, democracy and an end to military rule. In the ensuing crackdown by the Burmese regime, he was captured and tortured. Upon his release, he fled the country. Since that time, he has traveled clandestinely to remote areas of Burma to interview witnesses and victims of human rights abuses perpetrated by the junta. >>

In the course of this investigation, Ka Hsaw Wa realized that his people face another threat—that of transnational corporate investment aimed at exploiting Burma’s resources. He found that the killings, rape, torture, forced labor and relocation of villages were all connected to the exploitation of natural resources in the name of development. In particular, the Yadana pipeline which cuts through the Tennaserim region of Burma has been the cause of widespread brutality and forced labor, compounding the persecution of ethnic minorities populating this area. >>

In 1995, Ka Hsaw Wa joined two American lawyers to found EarthRights International (ERI), an organization initially conceived in response to the Yadana Project. Subsequently, ERI has applied the earth rights concept to other regions in the world where protection of human rights and the environment is intrinsically connected. As ERI’s co-director, Ka Hsaw Wa has been instrumental in the creation of new strategies for corporate and government accountability as well as innovative training programs aimed at building the capacity of indigenous peoples to protect their rights, restore control over natural resources and conserve the environment. >>

In speaking tours around the world, Ka Hsaw Wa has made the international community aware of the oppression his people suffer under the military junta and inspired many new activists to take action to defend Burma. "We will not let them defeat us. We know the companies and their military partners have lots of money, guns, power and influence. But they do not have what we have. We have truth, we have justice, we have courage, and most importantly, we have each other to protect human rights and the environment. We will win." >>

Chinese-Financed Copper Mine in Myanmar

The massive Monywa mine and Letpadaung copper mine project in the Sagaing region of northern Myanmar is run by a unit of China North Industries Corp, a leading Chinese weapons manufacturer, under a deal signed in June 2010 after Canada's Ivanhoe Mines Ltd pulled out in 2007. It is backed by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL). UMEHL has operated with impunity under Myanmar’s military regime. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, November 28, 2012]

Many people in Myanmar—especially those living near it—oppose the mine because of the environmental damage it causes and the villagers it displaces. The villagers complain of health problems and environmental destruction around the mine, including water tainted by chemicals, dying crops, higher cancer rates and the loss of beneficial insects. In 2012, discontent swelled to political action as villagers and activists staged demonstrations—that in some cases were violently put down by Myanmar authorities—opposing a $1 billion expansion of the mine project that displaces nearly 8,000 villagers.

As a truck rumbled by loaded with tailings to be dumped on village land, a villager named U Bo Than told Reuters, “"As a boy I'd walk these mountains, graze cows, everything was green. To lose your land is like losing your soul. Nowadays, this place is like hell." U Bo Than lost 70 acres in government seizure in the 1990s, He told the Los Angeles Times, "During the junta days, we had no recourse, no voice. It's your duty to the nation, we were told."

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “"Toward a better future," read a company billboard by a sign warning that martial law was in effect. A few hundred yards away, past dozens of shiny Chinese dump trucks and concrete dorms for Chinese workers, pools of water in Technicolor shades dotted fields that were largely devoid of plant life. Most Burmese are wary of the military's intentions, and the feeling is compounded when China, with its voracious appetite for resources, is involved. Ties between China and Myanmar grew stronger after the West first imposed sanctions on Myanmar in 1988, and many Burmese believe Beijing helped prop up the military regime for years. China uses copper in some of its weapons systems, and the metal also has broader strategic value. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, December 14, 2012 <>]

“Villagers near the mine face tough opposition from powerful interests. "Fear is pervasive," said Ko Wai Lu, an activist with the Yangon People Honorary Network, who was detained by police in Yangon for more than a week for his support of the Letpadaung protest. "Since it's the military, even the police are afraid, let alone villagers." In November 2012, the parliament launched an independent investigation headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of whether the Letpadaung expansion should proceed. Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin opposed the inquiry, saying the project employs "world-standard management practices." <>

“Rumors have swirled that Chinese officials are unhappy that their Burmese military partners haven't controlled the protesters. "The Chinese want to squeeze more and more profit out without thinking of the people," said farmer Ko Moe Khaing. "They just cozy up to local officials." Chinese Ambassador Li Junhua said compensation, relocation and other sensitive issues had been negotiated with the Myanmar government in accordance with its laws. That followed a November editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, that said halting the project would be a "lose-lose" situation and that "only third parties, including some Western forces, will be glad." <>

Displaced Farmers and Environmental Problems by the Copper Mine

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “For generations, Ko Myint Tin and his ancestors grew wheat, corn and onions on this fertile land in northern Myanmar. These days, he's propagating banners and slogans to protest the seizure of his family's farmland by powerful Burmese and Chinese military interests hungry for the copper beneath the furrows. Ko Myint Tin, 34, said he was pushed into accepting $650 per acre in "crop damage" in 2010 that, once the documents were signed, resulted in his losing control of his 24 acres. All told, the mining company has appropriated 7,800 acres from area farmers as part of an expansion of Letpadaung's copper mine. So far, four of 26 communities have been forcibly removed, their schools and monasteries razed for strip mining. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, December 14, 2012 <>]

“A few miles from the mine, villagers in Kankone attended the funeral of San Dar Win, 26. The pregnant woman had complained of breathing problems, then died three days after her child was stillborn. Locals blame chemicals used in the mining. Buddhist sutras blared from a loudspeaker as women wailed around the body, wrapped in pink sequined cloth beside flower sprigs and cookies. A few houses away, Ko Aung Soe, 41, sat under a rattan roof with his father, remembering the 5,500 acres seized in 1978, 1997 and 2003 from Kankone farmers for its copper. <>

“Initially, there was little obvious damage. But tanks used to leach out the ore began to overflow, spreading chemicals on the land and in the creek, killing crops and fish. After 1993, when miners started spraying acid on the tailings under a new open-pit system, people began complaining of nausea, asthma, blisters, eye inflammation and higher rates of cancer, especially liver cancer. Soon, butterflies and the bees needed to pollinate crops disappeared, Ko Aung Soe said. Well water acquired a metallic taste, turning yellow after sitting a few minutes. The mining company wouldn't release findings of its testing, he said, and most residents started traveling miles to get their water. <>

"Half of us have breathing problems, including me," said Ko Moe Khaing, 38, a peanut farmer with two children. "When we walk to other villages, they think we're weak, but I think we're poisoned." Area residents say they're doubly squeezed, forced to buy food they once grew and to spend more on healthcare. Unlike their Letpadaung neighbors, Kankone farmers who lost land years earlier seem more resigned to their fate. <>

Protests Against the Chinese-Financed Copper Mine in Myanmar

However, emboldened by reforms under President Thein Sein, who took office in March 2011, villagers are pushing back and testing the limits of newfound freedoms, including a relaxation of laws on public protests. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “For the first year or so, farmers kept quiet, conditioned to obey in a country where dissent has long been met with brutal force. But growing desperation, and the promise of nascent freedoms in Myanmar drove them to speak out. In November 2012, hundreds of farmers backed by student leaders and veterans of the so-called 88 Generation, some of whom spent years in jail for opposing the government, blocked mine access for weeks under banners carrying slogans such as "Our mountain, do not invade." "We are ready to give our lives to get our land back," said Ko Myint Tin. Local authorities reacted harshly, jailing protest leaders, destroying makeshift tents and beating demonstrators. Dozens of injured monks were reported hospitalized. The government apologized after the U.S. State Department, international civic groups and monasteries protested.[Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, December 14, 2012 <>]

In November 2012, Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “Protesters hold placards as they stage a rally outside the city hall in Yangon against a copper mining project in central Myanmar. Emboldened by Myanmar's changing political climate, farmers, villagers, factory workers, and others are now staging demonstrations in various parts of the country over issues ranging from land confiscation to electricity cuts. Riot police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse people protesting against the forced eviction of villagers in northwestern Myanmar to make way for a copper mine expansion, residents and activists said. Protests stretching back at least three months have involved thousands of locals and supporters. They told Reuters in September that four of 26 villages at the project site had already been displaced, along with monasteries and schools. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, November 28, 2012 ><]

“Truckloads of police arrived at camps set up near the Monywa mine in the Sagaing region to protest against the $1 billion expansion, which locals say has caused the unlawful confiscation of more than 7,800 acres of land. "They started to disperse the crowd by using water cannon at Kyaw Ywa camp at about 2:55 a.m.," Shin Oattama, a Buddhist monk who had been helping the villagers, told Reuters by telephone. "They then shot some sort of canisters that caused fire at the camp. We just don't know what sort of weapon it was." He said about 10 monks were injured and two of them were in a critical condition. "We are now seeking refuge at a nearby village. There's no ambulance, no doctor to take care of the injured," he said. ><

“Authorities had warned the protesters late on Tuesday to clear the site by midnight that day so that a parliamentary commission could carry out an investigation. State television said all project work had been halted since Nov. 18 because of the protests. Myo Thant, a member of the 88 Generation Students Group who has been monitoring the situation in Monywa, said: "Police used tear gas canisters. Gun shots were not heard. So far as we know, three Buddhist monks were injured in the fire that broke out at one of the camps. Nobody knows for sure how the fire started." ><

In April 2013, AFP reported: “A protest by villagers evicted from land near a Chinese-backed mine was violently quelled by police Thursday, activists said, in an echo of a crackdown at the flashpoint site last year. Farmers attempting to plough land seized to make way for the mine clashed with police protecting the site, according to Ba Htoo, an environmental activist speaking to AFP from the scene in Monywa, central Myanmar. "About 200 police asked the villagers -- who went to farmland in the copper mine area -- to stop... police said the area was restricted. "There were some clashes between the police and villagers," he said, adding one villager was shot and more than two dozen others hurt by police batons. It was unclear if the police used real or rubber bullets. A monk, who is an activist in a village near the Letpadaung mine, confirmed villagers were injured -- although he was not at the scene -- explaining some farmers who refused compensation went to reclaim their land. "They tried to farm the land with their cows and carts. The police stopped them and there were clashes," the monk, called Nandasarya, told AFP, adding at least one villager received gunshot wounds. [Source: AFP, April 25, 2013]

Police Defend Their Crackdown on Copper Mine Protest

AFP reported: “Myanmar authorities defended the police handling of a land protest near a Chinese-backed mine, state media, accusing villagers of attacking them with petrol bombs, sticks and stones. Activists on accused police of quelling a protest by farmers near the Letpadaung mine in Monywa, central Myanmar, with batons and rubber bullets, injuring more than two dozen villagers and arresting three others. [Source: AFP, April 26, 2013 ++]

“Dozens of farmers attempted to plough land which no longer belongs to them prompting police to move in, state mouthpiece the New Light of Myanmar reported. "Villagers attacked throwing handmade fire (petrol) bombs... and throwing stones at the security forces," injuring at least 15 police officers and prompting authorities to fire rubber bullets as a warning.Despite orders to disperse "an anarchic group" of villagers continued to attack police, with two protesters wielding a "stick and sword", the report added. Villagers vowed to protest again, calling for the release of three people arrested over the clashes. Denying protesters used petrol bombs, environmental activist Ba Htoo did admit stones were thrown at police lines. ++

Reuters reported: “Government supporters counter that the protesters are against Chinese opportunists. "Would they demonstrate if this were a Western company?" asked Wunna Mar Jay, a former air force pilot with the Myanmar Journalists Union. "I think farmers are faking and controlled by someone. Last year they got money, electricity, a new village. Now they're shouting again."

Aung San Suu Kyi and Legal Action Against the Myanmar Copper Mine

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Most in Kankone see their best hope in the courts or parliament, not demonstrations. Their demands wouldn't be controversial elsewhere: Compensation. Testing of water, soil and air by an independent laboratory. Trees to block acid rain. A clinic. "Simply shouting won't work," said Ko Aung Soe. "It'll just waste time and meanwhile the project goes on." And if the protesters' tactics work, he added, he and his neighbors can always ride their coattails. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, December 14, 2012 <>]

“Addressing decades-old injustices remains a huge challenge leading up to the 2015 national election, said Ma Thida, editor of the Myanmar Independent News Journal. "We're just seeing the iceberg, not what's under the water," she said. "But people's expectations are also unrealistic." Most farmers didn't understand their rights or the legal language when they signed away their land in 2010, said activist U Aung Soe, who has held tutorials on the constitution and helped write an open protest letter. "We're not expecting a settlement," he said. "Part of this is about empowerment, so people know they have a voice." <>

“The standoff is shaping up as a test of how the new Myanmar handles land acquisition, peaceful protest and political disputes after decades of totalitarian rule, and of what limits it places on Burmese and Chinese military and political influence. The copper mine is run by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and a unit of Beijing-based weapons maker China North Industries. "It's a worrisome indication there might be separate rules for military interests and others," said Phil Robertson, Thailand-based deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "When you talk about rule of law, it has to be applied the same everywhere." <>

“Aung San Suu Kyi has met with protesters against the mine to hear their grievances and led an investigation into the violent crackdown on protesters but for the most part has taken the government’s side on the issue. AFP reported: “ Aung San Suu Kyi has urged villagers in the area to accept compensation for their land, following a probe into a brutal crackdown on protest at the mine last year. The Nobel laureate, who is normally venerated around the country, was in March heckled by villagers enraged by her recommendation that the copper mine continue to operate, despite concerns over its environmental impact and land grabbing. Suu Kyi's report to parliament last month said police used phosphorus against demonstrators at the mine in November in the harshest crackdown on protesters since the end of military rule. However, the probe into the clampdown, which left dozens wounded including monks, recommended the mine project should not be scrapped, despite conceding it only brought "slight" benefits to the nation. Yi Win, a villager who was at the scene of Thursday's clashes, said locals "cannot accept what she (Suu Kyi) said", adding "we want to get our land back and stop the copper mine project". [Source: AFP, April 26, 2013]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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