In Search of Aluminum

In Search of Aluminum

Heinrich Böll Stiftung, WWF and International Institute for Sustainable Development
Place of Publication: Berlin
Date of Publication: July 19, 2013
Number of Pages: 44

Introduction

In Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, bauxite mining has been identified as an emerging area of exploration, and investment is being promoted by the national governments. The triangle area of northeastern Cambodia, southern Laos and the Central Highlands of Vietnam has emerged as a strategically important area for cross border bauxite mining. It is also an area undergoing significant development, including road building to facilitate trade, hydropower development within the ‘3S’ – the Sekong, Sesan and Srepok – river basins for electricity and various large scale crop production projects.

Bauxite mining has the potential to become a large-scale mining operation in all three countries, providing much needed income for the host country and important mineral resources for markets, mainly in China. In Vietnam, bauxite mining is a national priority of the government and cooperating with China is seen as an important avenue towards achieving success in this sector. In Laos, the Bolaven plateau has the potential to become one of the largest bauxite deposits in the world, and China is expected to bring the technological knowhow and resources to assist in the government’s national priority of expanding and improving the mining sector. Finally, Cambodia’s northeastern region also provides important bauxite mining resources, with Australian investors dominating the area, while the Chinese are playing an important role in improving road infrastructure that may facilitate the transportation of resources to markets.

While bauxite mining can bring significant economic benefits for enterprises and the state, such as rural infrastructure, the formation of new local industry and the generation of jobs, among others, the negative impacts on the environment and society could seriously undermine these economic potentials. For example, in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the geographic area where bauxite deposits have been located lies on important agricultural and forest lands. In future, there could be conflicts among local communities using the land for their subsistence needs and large-scale mining operators supported by local and national governments. Bauxite mining is accompanied by hydropower development, the damming of reservoirs, pollution, runoff and coal-fired power plants, all leading to significant changes in land, water and livelihoods. Loss of vegetation will reduce forested areas, impact biodiversity (some areas contain rare or endangered animals and plants) and decrease the availability of water resources. Finding suitable environmentally friendly technology is essential if bauxite mining and alumina and aluminum processing are to progress.

This study aims to provide a brief overview of bauxite mining in three key locations in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. It takes a deeper look into the role that China is playing in investing in bauxite mining and regional infrastructure to strategically position the country as the main market for bauxite, alumina and aluminum from these three countries. Understanding the regional linkages behind bauxite mining decision-making in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is key to recognising the extent of both positive and negative impacts. The study also unpacks the degree to which environmental and social considerations have been taken into account in the decision-making process around bauxite mining projects.

Three national studies, including field visit reports from Mondulkiri province in Cambodia, Champassak and Attapeu provinces in Laos, and Dak Nong province in Vietnam, were analysed and integrated into this regional report. The subject matter of this report is considered sensitive by officials, researchers and civil society actors in the region and much of the information provided was generated through interviews with sources who requested anonymity, and who are thus not cited. Furthermore, business and governance systems in the three countries, despite many improvements, remain opaque. Knowledge about investment actors and investment processes is blurry, and lack of access to relevant documents such as environmental impact assessments (EIAs) has made the conduct of this study extremely difficult.

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