Tuesday, March 22, 2016

One villager’s struggle for justice at Heinda tin mine

Myanmar Times Monday, 21 March 2016

Miners pick their way along a river bank at Heinda tin mine in Tanintharyi Region.
( Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar Times)
For more than a decade, U Saw Dar Shwe has been fighting a battle against a Thai tin mining company which he says has irreparably destroyed his land.

A smallholder areca palm farmer and ethnic Kayin, U Saw Dar Shwe has repeatedly refused compensation from Myanmar Pongpipat Company, the operator of Heinda tin ore mining project in Tanintharyi Region, deeming the figure too low.

Instead he has taken the company to court, to demand higher compensation – K50 million in return for losses incurred by waste water to his 13-acre plantation in Myaung Byo village.

Myanmar Pongpipat has been operating the mine since 1999.

The problems started when the company blocked the nearby Myaung Byo creek with a barrier, causing water levels to rise. Eventually the creek broke its banks and thick waves of sediment and waste from the mine were deposited into houses, plantations and sources of fresh water.

In 2012 the floods were worse than in previous years and caused irreparable damage. Four acres of U Saw Dar Shwe’s plantation were destroyed, he said, yet the company ignored his requests for compensation on the grounds that his land is not part of its project.

That same year, he decided to take his complaint to the Ministry of Mines. The following year officials from the ministry visited Tanintharyi Region from Nay Pyi Taw to assess the project.

The ministry asked the company to improve its waste management system, according to documents seen by The Myanmar Times. It also told villagers that the Union ministry could not grant compensation and referred them to the regional government.
Since then, U Saw Dar Shwe says he has seen no justice. In January 2015, he visited Myanmar Pongpipat again and asked for K50 million. The company relented somewhat and offered K2 million, he said, an offer that remained unchanged during two further attempts at negotiation.

Attempts by The Myanmar Times to find a way to contact the company were unsuccessful.

A local group formed to tackle issues arising from the tin mine, including the local township administrator, surveyors and officials, have valued each areca plant at K50,000 – meaning that U Saw Dar Shwe’s 564 plants would be worth K28.2 million. The company values each plant at K7000.

“The company didn’t want to pay the amount determined by the team, and I was not satisfied with the offer [of K2 million] so the negotiations were cancelled,” U Saw Dar Shwe told The Myanmar Times.

Last October he enlisted the help of a civil society organisation called Takapaw to take the company to court.
“The compensation offered does not cover my losses, so I refused to agree. If they pay me K50 million, I will give them my land. After a decade of [being buried beneath] sentiment, it’s no longer good enough to farm.”

The Kayin State minister, two officials from Myanmar Pongpipat and officials from the regional mining ministry asked U Saw Dar Shwe to attend the Dawei district court on Febuary 10 to settle the case for K3 million, he said.

“I can’t receive such low compensation. They have said they can pay no more than K3 million even after devastating more than 9 acres of my land. I have refused, and will not stop in my efforts to charge the company.”

Nine other villagers have been suing the company and the mining ministry for three years, according to Ko Thant Zin, coordinator at the Dawei Development Association.

In 2014, residents of Myaung Byo village released a joint statement announcing they had filed a lawsuit against the Thai company and its joint venture partner, No 2 Mining Enterprise under the Ministry of Mines, alleging that the area around their village has been plagued by environmental issues since the company began operating in the area.

“Many species of plants and animals went extinct and many of our plantations, houses, wells and religious buildings were destroyed due to waste and sediment disposed by the company,” it said.

U Aung Kyaw Oo, general manager for Tanintharyi Region at the No 2 Mining Enterprise, told The Myanmar Times that the ministry has warned the company to conduct its operations responsibly.

He witnessed negotiations with U Saw Dar Shwe and confirmed that the two sides could not agree.

“They will settle the matter legally. We do not have the right to force the company to give as much compensation as residents ask for,” he said.

Yet he did not appear to see the problem, arguing that during 16 years of operation, the mine has damaged just a fraction of the total production area. Moreover, Myanmar Pongpipat gives 35pc of the mine’s proceeds to the government, he said.
“This is not the sort of project that will stop at once when a resident protests about some issues. If you look at the profit the mine brings to the country, [the damage to farmland is] not such a big deal,” he said.

“Mining involves digging up the soil and cannot be done with zero damage.”