Located in war-torn Shan State, the Burmese and Russian-backed Pinpet iron exploitation and processing project has transformed the area into the country’s largest iron mine. The mine and the iron processing factory have caused strong adverse impacts on local ethnic Pa-O and on the environment.
The development of the project was marked by secrecy and a lack of transparency [1,2]. Militarization of the area surrounding Mt. Pinpet (locally known as ‘Pine Tree Mountain’) increased since 1991, when first attempts were made to explore the mine. Several military camps were set up since then and two military universities were established in 2004. In the same year, five Russian, Burmese and reportedly also an Italian company started to develop the iron deposit and to build an ore processing plant and a cement factory. The subsequent years were marked by a growing influx of outside laborers and the arrival of high ranking military generals and Russian personnel. In 2006, the Russian state-owned company Tyazhpromexport Ltd. announced to provide 150 million USD in equipment for the project. In the same year, a road to the abandoned underground tunnels from previous exploitation attempts was constructed. The iron mine was reportedly near completion in 2010 [1,2 see also project details, below]. It took however until 2016 to start the iron ore processing at the Pinpet factory .
There has been persistent speculation that the mine exploits not only iron and limestone, but also uranium. These fears were fueled by the announcement of Rosatom (Russia’s atomic energy agency) in 2007 that Russia was to build a nuclear research center and reactor in Burma [1,2].
Concerns over devastating social impacts accompanied the construction work. No impact assessments were made available to the public and there was a complete lack of community consultation or participation during project planning and implementation, stated a report [see 1]. The report, published by the civil society group Pa-O Youth Organization (PYO) in 2009, estimated that about 7,000 villagers living in 25 villages next to Mt. Pinpet were to be displaced permanently from their homes and farmlands. Most of them were from the Pa-O ethnic minority - the second largest ethnic group in Shan State. Local military forces were deployed to relocate families, confiscate land and intimidate communities . About 11,000 acres (ca. 4,450 ha) of farmlands were confiscated with little or no compensation offered [1,2]. Once the construction work started, locals were furthermore denied access to Mt. Pinpet and the community forests located in the area were encroached by the companies. The mountain had been an important livelihood resource for hunting, medical herbs and collection of livelihood resources. It was deforested through the development of the open-pit mine .
Land and livelihood loss was followed by rising concerns over health problems from pollution, food shortages and a series of other issues. Pollution from toxic mine tailings endangered clean water sources of Hopone Valley and high levels of arsenic were found in soil samples surrounding the area. In total, about 35,000 people relying on the watershed of the Thabet Stream have been threatened by the pollution of the project, stated the civil society report [1,2]. Ancient pagodas were damaged due to explosions from the construction of the mine . While local people were promised employment, most of the jobs were given to migrant workers. The influx of male workers and soldiers from central Burma reportedly led to sexual harassment of local women . The working conditions for the migrant workers were dangerous and several fatal accidents were documented. In 2007, for instance, a rock crashing machine killed seven people at once, stated the report .
Villagers and local civil society groups began to oppose the project since its implementation started in 2004. They held prayer ceremonies to protect their natural resources and culture (see videos, below). The civil society group PYO, set up in 1998 by monks, women and youth, began a three-years investigation under difficult conditions, because available information remained scarce due to the secrecy of the Burmese authorities implementing the project . As a result, PYO published the report “Robbing the Future” in 2009, which exposed the abuses and impacts of the Pinpet iron mine and processing plant. The group and the villagers called on the involved companies and agencies to repair the damages caused and to stop all activities until a transparent social and environmental impact assessment would be conducted . Leaflets and videos documenting the situation followed and a campaign was launched to oppose the iron mine, based on the findings of the civil society research report . Despite the social mobilizations and opposition to the project, the iron mine started operations.
In 2016, the ministry of industry announced that also the Tyazhphrom PinPet steel factory (also known as No. 2 Steel Mill (Pang Pet) ) would open in June or July of the same year . Less than one year later, in March 2017, NLD lawmakers announced however the possible suspension of 44 state-owned factories, largely because of financial concerns. As stated by one party member [cited in 5] “they are not economically viable and may not do any good for the country and the people”. Among the factories that were subsequently suspended was the Steel Mill at Pinpet mountain. Further studies and an examination of individual projects were planned to be conducted to determine the future of the factories .