RANGOON — Two companies have been hired to conduct an environmental assessment on the second phase of the Thilawa special economic zone located southeast of Rangoon, after the first stage of the project was beset by complaints about its social and environmental impacts.
The Japanese firm Environmental Resources Management Japan, together with Burmese company EGuard Environmental Services, held their first stakeholder meeting on a planned Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) with villagers living in the 2,000-hectare plot designated for development.
More than 100 people attended the meeting on Monday at the Thilawa SEZ’s department of human settlement and housing development office in Rangoon Division’s Thanlyin Township.
“This is one of the stakeholder meetings that we are holding for the SEA, and from now on, in the next months, we will be conducting EIA [Environmental] Impact Assessments, so scoping stakeholder meetings,” Kyle DuPont, a consultant from Environmental Resources Management Japan told The Irrawaddy after the meeting.
“We definitely want everybody’s input there. I think monitoring us through those stakeholders meeting will be a very important part of reassuring people of our work and of course, we have to publish the documents in a public manner.
“The EIA is the forum for where the villagers need to really express their opinions, and we are probably going to have several of these scoping meetings,” DuPont added. “I know it’s very difficult to have a big group like this and very difficult to have your voice heard. So in the EIA process, not the SEA, we are planning to have smaller individual meetings around the individual villages themselves instead of having a big group meeting like this.”
Aye Thiha, managing director from EGuard Environmental Services, said the two consultancies hoped to finish the study by the end of the year.
Despite the companies’ assurances, local residents turned out on Monday to express concern about potential impacts of the 4,000 hectare, “Class B” development. Work on the Class A zone is ongoing, with that initial phase of the project covering 400 hectares.
“We, the country folk, use the well, reservoir and ponds for drinking water. Due to waste from factories, our water resources could be affected and our health could be harmed. So, we want to know if there is any plan if our health is affected,” said Aye Htay, a member of the Thilawa Social Development Group, which has fought for the rights of residents in the affected area.
“Though we have heard lots of talk about natural preservation lately in Myanmar, can we really maintain it? Because we are really worried about the 2,000 hectares. We want to know if the talk will match up to practical implementation,” Aye Htay said at the meeting. He added that Thilawa residents expected the project to comply with international standards—standards that many villagers displaced by the 400-hectare first phase of the project say were not met.
An EIA was also conducted on the first phase of the Thilawa development. That assessment found that out of 28 social and environmental factors assessed, the vast majority of impacts due to the project would be negative or required further study. Despite the fact that only seven factors evaluated were considered to have a neutral or positive impact on the affected area, the project went ahead as planned.
Aye Thiha of EGuard Environmental Services sought to assure Thilawa residents—some 4,500 of whom are expected to be displaced by the phase two development—that the evaluation was being carried out thoroughly.
“We have taken water samples from groundwater, wells, ponds and streams,” he said.
“On our Thilawa SEZ Management Committee, we have academics to study the environment. If needed, we will also be hiring international consultants,” said Than Than Thwe, joint secretary of the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee. “We will always monitor the environmental management plans at each of the factories. Later, we will see [construction of] a water purifying plant and wastewater filtration plant. Then, it will be discharged into the stream.”
Mya Hlaing, a member of the Thilawa Social Development Group, said they would welcome environmental assessments and monitoring throughout the project’s implementation.
The two companies together will be drawing up an Environmental Management Plan to assess impacts resulting from daily industrial activities in the SEZ, and measures that can be taken to mitigate negative effects. Each factory operating in the zone will be required to submit EMP reports on a monthly or quarterly basis to a yet-to-be-determined monitoring body, Aye Thiha said.
Kyaw Myint, a resident of Rangoon who said he has taken a personal interest in the Thilawa project, told the audience that it would be important that equal, comprehendible and unfiltered information was made available to all parties once the environmental assessments were completed.
“Will we get a revised edition of the report after the government has screened it? Will we get it explained to us in terms we ordinary citizen can understand?” he asked.
“I will not be trading my reputation just to make money,” Aye Thiha said. “We will be choosing ‘option zero’ in cases where we find that the project should not proceed. We will just suggest that it should not continue. Whether they [the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee] proceed or not is their call.
“Once our draft report is done, we will accept public input for three months,” Aye Thiha explained. We will finalize it after we get feedback from the public. Then, it will be submitted to the Environmental Conservation Department for approval.”
Since work began late last year on the first phase of the project, local resident displaced by the SEZ have lodged numerous complaints, ranging from inadequate compensation for seized land to contaminated water at relocation sites. Sixty-eight families were displaced by the first phase.