The Threat to Burma's Environment

More than 20 mega-dams are being constructed or planned on Burma's major rivers, including the Salween and Irrawaddy, by multinationals without consulting local communities, a wide range of NGOs charged in a statement Friday. In addition, the group charged, mining, oil and gas projects are creating severe environmental and social problems.

Several papers are to be delivered on Sept. 18 in an all-day seminar in Bangkok on the impact and consequences of overseas investment in large-scale projects in Burma that say as many as 30 companies from China alone are investing in dam projects on the two rivers.

The NGOs include Towards Ecological Recovery; the Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma, the Shan Women Action Network; the Pa-O Youth Organization, Arakan Oil Watch, the Human Rights Foundation of Monland and the Burma Rivers Network.

On the Salween, according to the group, Thai, Burmese and Chinese investors are planning to build at least six dams, including the Ta Sang and Hutgyi dams, which will produce electricity to be sold to the Asean power grid.

"It has been well documented that dams in Burma exacerbate conflict, cause forced displacement and threaten biodiversity," the group said in a prepared release. "Several Asean actors, including from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, are involved in gas exploration and extraction in Burma. The Yadana and Yetagun gas projects, which provide fuel for 20 percent of Thailand's electricity, have been linked to forced relocation, forced labor, torture and extrajudicial killings."

In addition, the activists said, South Korean, Indian and Chinese companies are financing and constructing new trans-Burma oil and gas pipelines that have already led to the loss of peoples' livelihoods and various forms of violence.

Large-scale mining of coal, iron and other minerals and gems by foreign investors is devastating areas of agricultural importance and rich biodiversity. Thai companies are planning to import 1.5 million metric tons of lignite annually for 30 years from Mong Kok, an active conflict zone in eastern Shan State, while Russian and Italian companies are involved in a massive iron mining project that will displace thousands of people and pollute agricultural waterways near the Shan capital of Taunggyi.

Currently, the largest foreign investors in Burma are Thailand, Singapore, China and the UK, according to the release.

"As the largest investor, Thailand invested a total value of US$7.4 billion in 59 projects during the period 1989 to 2008, equivalent to 47 percent of the total foreign direct investment in Burma," the group said. "The UK and Singapore ranked as second and third largest investors, investing US$1.86 billion in 17 projects and US$1.5 billion in 71 projects respectively."

China is also emerging as major investor in Burma, with US$1.8 billion invested as of January 2009. Most of the benefits go to the Burmese military regime and investing companies, while the people of Burma gain little, the group argued. In Burma, they said, "there are no accountability or transparency mechanisms. "

"The social and environmental costs of these projects are borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable groups of people living near the projects, including women and indigenous peoples, and have caused increased flows of refugees and migrants to neighboring countries."

The group called on the international community, particularly Asean, to recognize the social and environmental threat from the development. "Asean needs to review its heavy focus on trade and investment, recognize the differing political and economic situations of Asean member countries," the group said, "and promote equal benefit-sharing and sustainable development, especially with regard to the region's shared natural resource base."

The group also called on Asean to develop an effective legal framework that requires full corporate social and environmental accountability to reduce the social and environmental consequences of their investments in natural resource extraction projects, including large-scale hydropower dams, and mining, oil and gas project as well as to develop an extractive industry framework to guide member countries; governance of their resources.