• Sagaing

In the Shadow of Letpadaung:

Anger and Fear Marks Lives Near Controversial Copper Mine

Images by
Lauren DeCicca
Text by
Lauren DeCicca and Paul Vrieze
JULY 2015, SALINGYI TOWNSHIP, Sagaing Region — The scale of the Letpadaung copper mine is overwhelming, even from a distance. Looking down on the site from the outskirts of a nearby village I could see strips of copper lining the walls of the pit while trucks, appearing ant-sized from where I stood, steadily made their way across the vast open mine in northwestern Myanmar.

Much of this company land once belonged to farmers, and locals who lost their agricultural livelihoods said the Chinese-backed mine had changed their lives. Lingering tensions over the project continue to weigh heavily on local communities.

Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
The Letpadaung mine is located about an hour away from Monywa, a town in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region, and I arrived in a nearby village in July to meet Daw Thawe Thawe Win, a 31-year-old woman who has been organizing a protest movement against the project.

Her confidence and tenacity were instantly visible as she barreled into the yard on a motorbike, grinning widely and speaking emphatically into her cell phone. She quickly instructed my translator and I to follow her down a small path to the edge of the village, which provided a panoramic view of the mine.

Looking out over the vast expanse being stripped of mineral deposits she explained how some eight out of a total ten acres of farmland she owned had been seized for the mine. Her family, she said, received no compensation and their finances - like that of many others here - have been strained by the loss of their land and their old way of life.
Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
Chinese mega projects anger publicIn 2011, Chinese company Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd., a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer Norinco, entered into a deal with Myanmar army-owned conglomerate Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. to begin exploitation of copper deposits. It rapidly began expanding the project site and authorities seized vast swathes of land from thousands of farmers, while run off and tailings from the mine increased and began to pollute water resources and farms.

Recurrent protest by local communities followed, as did repressive measures by local authorities, who put the area under Criminal Code of Procedure’s Article 144, which bans unlawful assemblies and can be used to impose a curfew. 

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The mine is one of several mega projects involving Chinese state-owned investors that were approved by the former junta shortly before it initiated a democratic transition to a quasi-civilian government in 2011. The Letpadaung mine, much like the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River, is deeply unpopular with the Myanmar public who view it as benefitting only the army and Chinese firms.

There has been widespread support for local communities and there was nationwide outrage when, in November 2012, a camp of protesting villagers and Buddhist monks was attacked by police forces who fired phosphorous-containing grenades at them, causing severe burns among dozens of protestors.

I went with Daw Thawe Thawe Win to visit U Aung Myint Htwe, 37, a monk who leads a monastery in Shwe Hlay village. He described the incident and explained that protesters set up camp at the facility’s gates, but were told at 2:45 AM to go home. He described how at 3:15 AM, when the protesters had not vacated the entryway, police cornered them and sprayed a water cannon then lobbed burning white phosphorous grenades among them. The clash injured more than 100, he said. Daw Thawe Thawe Win’s younger sister, Phyu Phyu Win was left with permanent facial scars.
Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
The incident was later investigated by a high-level government inquiry commission chaired by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. There were no legal repercussions for officers who ordered the violence, but the mining deal was amended and a greater share of project revenues was reserved for state coffers. The Chinese firm promised to work to resolve local complaints and improve compensation, but villagers have continued to protest. Authorities have continued to use heavy force to repress dissent.  
Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
No rule of law

In December 2014, a group of women protesting against the mine were met by armed police, who opened fire. Daw Khin Win, a 56-year-old widow, was fatally shot in the head.

Daw Thawe Thawe Win brought me to the police hearing to meet the family members who were seeking justice for Daw Khin Win. Upon entering the police station I was thoroughly questioned and had to provide passport and visa information to authorities at every turn; the special branch police kept their camera phones pointed in my direction.

Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
Relatives of the victim have filed a murder complaint with the police who opened an investigation earlier this year, but little has happened in the case since. The situation underlines the absence of rule of law in Myanmar in cases where well-connected companies operate with support of authorities to exploit natural resources at the expense of local communities. 
 Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
Since taking up activism against the project, Daw Thawe Thawe Win has had the opportunity to attend international conferences in Thailand and Indonesia on land rights, which have emboldened her in leading and educating her community. She now helps negotiate fair rates for private land purchases in her village and examines court cases and police hearings regarding attacks on citizens by security forces.

It is not only the farmers who have been left worse off because of the mine. Groups of artisanal miners who used to scour the edges of the site for copper have also seen their livelihoods decline after their access was blocked when the Chinese company took control of the project site.

Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
Lauren DeCicca/NRGI
Artisanal miners lose income

About 30 minutes outside of Monywa, at Kankone village, small-scale miners who once numbered more than 1,000 must now illegally enter the Letpadaung property in order to collect copper-rich soil. Fear is ever-present in the village - fear of not earning enough money to survive the coming months or fear of being arrested for trespassing. Currently, miners say they can make up to $100 per family every 20 days.

Several residents of Kankone took me on a hike up to the top of a nearby mountain which they visit to gather stones. Young children held my hands, helping me to navigate the unclear path. Suddenly, I was pushed into a cluster of bushes and told to hide while my translator and other companions hurried down the mountain. A truck full of Wanbao mining personnel drove past to survey the area. Had my translator or I been caught the entire community may have faced the consequences, they told me later.

With farms lost and productivity of the lands surrounding Letpadaung diminishing due to pollution the livelihoods of the villagers have become increasingly unstable. For example, the number of artisanal miners in Kankone – who used to enjoy unrestricted access to nearby mineral deposits – has dwindled to a mere 40 in recent years. What lies in store for the communities living near the mine remains uncertain, while injustice, insecurity, and poverty continues to mark their lives.

Lauren DeCicca/NRGI

The UNEARTH project is supported by the Natural Resource Governance Institute and was initiated as part of its Extractive Industries Photo Documentary Project.