Protests at the Letpadaung mountain range copper mine have been steadily growing over the past two months.
What began as a few dozen farmers in Sagaing Region demonstrating over land grabs and inadequate compensation has quickly escalated into a mass uprising against extractive industries which decimate the environment featuring students and activists from Rangoon and Mandalay.
On Wednesday, the 88 Generation Students arrived in town to mediate between the protesters and local authorities. Specifically, they were calling for the release of three female activists who were still being detained at Monywa Police Station after a dozen were arrested at the town’s Sutaungpyae Pagoda on Monday.
88 Generation Students member Jimmy managed to gain some assurances after meeting Sagaing Region Chief Minister Thar Aye on Wednesday evening. Yet the underlining issue of seized farmland and ecological damage remains unresolved and must be dealt with by Union-level government, according to Thar Aye.
The Chindwin River is a major tributary of Irrawaddy River and runs by misty-blue mountains and charming villages while passing through a region of abundant natural resources and fertile meadows.
“The river runs through intact forests in both the Tamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary and the Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve, the largest tiger reserve in the world. It sustains vital habitats for a wide array of wildlife, including globally endangered species, tigers, elephants and the endemic Burmese Roof Turtle,” says the Burma Rivers Network NGO.
Yet local people say that waste products from the copper mining plant—occupying around 8,000 acres including 26 villages and several mountains 15 miles west of Monywa—have tainted local wells and will eventually prove disastrous for those living downstream.
“According to our research, some wells in the area are no longer drinkable or usable as the water has a sour and salty flavor,” Han Win Aung, of the Political Prisoners Families Network, told The Irrawaddy this week.
“People have to buy bottled drinking water from Monywa, while others who cannot afford have no choice but to drink the contaminated supply. We’re afraid that if all this waste goes into the Chindwin River it would get worse and the people downstream will be the ones who suffer in the future.”
More villagers joined the farmers’ protests in August after it began to focus on nearby Sabae and Kyay Sin mountains which have been devastated by copper mining with farmland polluted by waste products from the worksite.
The project—a joint venture between Chinese Wan Bao Mining Company and military-owned Union of Myanmar Economics Holding Ltd—has seen growing action including villagers standing in front of company bulldozers to prevent construction.
Wan Bao Mining, a subsidiary of China North Industrial Corporation, an arms manufacturer, bought its 50 percent stake from the Canadian mining company Ivanhoe.