Southeast Asia's largest iron mine leaves local residents with uncertain future

By Duc Hung   April 3, 2021 | 04:00 am PT
Southeast Asia's largest iron mine leaves local residents with uncertain future
A 'Keep Out' sign is erected outside of an abandoned land plot for the Thach Ke iron ore mine in Ha Tinh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Hung.
Thousands of families in Ha Tinh want the province to pull the plug on an iron mining project that has stalled but left them in limbo.

Pham Cong Bien has been living in his dilapidated home in Van Son village in Thach Ha District for several years now.

He can never fix or renovate it since it was acquired for the Thach Khe iron ore mine, Southeast Asia’s biggest, in 2006.

Bien, 63, received part of the compensation for his land in 2008 when the mining company brought over machinery and he handed over part of his land.

He says: "For the last 15 years our family of seven has been living in a decrepit house, but we do not want to fix it since it is part of the area to be taken over for the iron ore mine."

Ha Tinh had planned to move out in 2006-08 some 4,000 families living in five communes in Thach Ha for the Thach Khe mine.

But now, 15 years later, only 100 have been relocated, and out of the 4,821 ha of land to be acquired for the mine, only 839 ha have actually been handed over.

Bien's is among thousands of families to be told they will eventually move.

Before the mining began in 2008, the groundwater in the area was clear, Bien says. But when the mine started operating, the water became polluted, killing off all vegetation in the area.

Since 2011 the mines have temporarily been closed. While plant life began to return, local fields are pitted and scarred, with water inside them remaining muddy.

The environment has been irreversibly damaged already.

As a result, families in Van Son had to buy filtration systems to get drinking water. Bien decided to build a cement tank to store water and treat it using alum.

"I know using alum to treat water and use it for cooking would be unhealthy, but there is no other way.

"I used to have fields and a garden, and with my job as a builder we got by. Now that the fields are gone, it has been very tough."

Van Son village, since it is in the mine area, is not allowed to invest in traffic infrastructure. Thus the road running through it to the mine is now severely damaged.

"Where I live is only around 10 km from the province's center, but it is like going into some wilderness," Bien says.

Pham Cong Bien looks over his familys cemented water container, which is treated with alum. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Hung.

Pham Cong Bien by the water tank in his dilapidated house in Ha Tinh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Hung.

Stuck in limbo

Many people in Thach Ha District used to earn a living by catching seafood.

After being relocated to new areas up to five kilometers away from the mine, they gave up their old jobs and switched to manual, construction and domestic work.

But the unreliable nature of their gig work prompted many to petition authorities to let them return to their old houses since they were yet to be knocked down.

Seeing the mine had stopped operating, they wanted to return to their old lives.

Nguyen Huu Thanh, 27, who lives five kilometers from the mine, says his house had been expected to be taken over in 2017.

But four years have passed and the 120-sq-m place continues to be occupied by his family of 12. But he too does not dare build anything on his 500 sq.m plot of land.

He says: "Daily life is really inconvenient. Many times there have been conflicts in the family just because of the small space."

He and his wife have discussed moving out, but they do not have enough money for that.

There are around 1,000 families in the same situation as his. Since 2019 many have decided to renovate and even build new homes despite not getting a license from authorities.

"I want authorities to tell us if the Thach Khe iron ore mine will continue so that we can carry on with our lives," Thanh says.

Nguyen Quoc Huong, deputy chairman of the Thach Ha District people’s committee, says since 2015 authorities have allowed people to build houses, but they would have to move out when the mine restarts operations.

However, since no one knows when exactly that will happen, many do not dare build, he says.

"We still have not been told about any new plans for relocation of people in affected areas.

"We hope the government will call off the mining project altogether so that the district could revamp development work and people’s lives could improve."

Thach Khe, where iron ore was discovered in 1960, is the biggest in Southeast Asia with estimated reserves of 544 million tons.

In 2008, the Thach Khe Iron JSC (TIC) started an excavation project with total investment capital of VND14.5 trillion ($627.61 million as per current exchange rate) over 50 years. But in 2011 the government suspended the project to reassess it, pending a restructure of the company’s shareholding.

Ha Tinh wants to close the mine at least until 2070 to prioritize ecotourism, urban centers, hi-tech agricultural zones, and others.

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