Contact: Roland Watson, roland@dictatorwatch.org


September 16, 2012

Please forward and post this statement.

A large protest movement in Burma is now underway, against the joint regime/Chinese Monywa copper mining project in Sagaing Division. The motivation for the protest is the confiscation of 8,000 acres of villager land in Letpadaung, for mine expansion.

This demonstration highlights an underlying issue that should be addressed, now that Burma is taking steps towards economic liberalization: What standards should be applied to new resource exploitation projects?

As an environmentalist, I would of course prefer that there be no new mines, as they are inherently destructive of nature. No matter how you do it, mines destroy natural habitats, and this is generally accompanied with widespread pollution, in the land, watercourses, and atmosphere. However, I recognize that Burma has extensive mineral deposits, and that at least some of them will be mined. This therefore should occur in a way that minimizes the destruction, and communicates the benefits directly to the villagers whose land is mined, and to the country as a whole.

Any new mines, and mine expansion, should only be done following the strictest international standards, which activists around the world have struggled for decades to achieve. The first of these is protection of the property rights of the villagers on whose land such deposits are located.

Since the villagers own the land, they further own the mineral rights (and also the air rights above). This is a fundamental tenet of property ownership, in any society that has a functioning rule of law. This means it is their decision if the land should be mined or not. For example, they may decide to sell the mineral rights at this time, and vacate the land; or hold onto the land for sale at a future date (and hopefully a higher price); or not to sell at all. They should never be coerced to sell, or suffer an outright theft, as occurred at Letpadaung through confiscation.

Landowners who do sell may also receive not only a one-time payment, but a residual participation from the sale of the minerals. This way they profit if the deposit proves to be larger than expected, and also if commodity prices increase over time. Again, under a functioning rule of law, all such terms are negotiated and then included in the contract that actually transfers the land title and mineral rights.

Other standards are as follows:

There should be an independently-prepared environmental impact assessment, before approval for the mine is even given. Indeed, such an assessment may make it clear that the project should not proceed.

This approval (and licensing) by the government, should also be contingent on the development of strong environmental safeguards for the mine's operations, including the treatment and disposal of tailings, water and smokestack effluent, etc.

There must also be appropriate safety equipment and precautions for workers. Mining is an exceedingly hazardous occupation. Miners in Burma should never have to risk their lives unnecessarily, as, for example, is now the norm in China.

Furthermore, the miners must have the ability to unionize, and to strike if such safeguards are not in place.

Finally, and also as part of the project's initial review and approval, a land reclamation plan must be prepared for when the mine runs out. Importantly, this requires that an escrow account be established, to which regular deposits are made during the mine's operation, to fund the reclamation.

No new mine or mine expansion should proceed in Burma until this development model can be followed, including the expansion at Monywa. Also, once the model is established it will set a precedent that should be applied to any new mine in the country, of whatever mineral, and more generally any large-scale development (agricultural, industrial, etc.).

To repeat a point that I have made before, the fact that Burma has extremely limited economic development is not a weakness; rather, it is one of its greatest strengths. With patience and care, the country can be developed in a way that preserves its character, and cultural diversity, and environment. This type of development will yield benefits for decades if not centuries to come.

An additional issue is taxation of the business' profits. It is through these taxes that all the people of Burma will benefit, since the funds can be used for essential infrastructure and programs.

The open questions are: (1) Overall, can this type of development model now be implemented; and (2) specifically, can such projects be organized without corruption so they are properly regulated and taxed, so the regime and its cronies are not enriched, and so the taxes are used for programs like education and health care, not just more military expenditures for the Tatmadaw? I understand that this is asking a lot, but frankly, no new projects should be built until all of these conditions can be satisfied. This in turn means that any new project should proceed at a snail's pace, to give the country time to learn how to manage developments in this way, and to put in place both the personnel and the systems that are required for it, including for project approval and licensing procedures; taxation; other regulatory structures; new law and legal systems, especially for property transfers; and for all of these, related computer systems.

The protests in Monywa should be expanded into a national movement, if the government refuses to follow this development paradigm.