An accident last Tuesday that killed four gold miners in the south-central province of Quang Nam has once again given rise to public disquiet over illegal gold mining in central Vietnam.
Despite nearly 40 people having been killed in nine separate gold mine accidents in Quang Nam alone since 2009, thousands continue to put their lives at risk while digging up ranges of mountains in the unlawful pursuit of the precious metal.
Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters made their way to Phu Ninh District in Quang Nam to report on illegal gold mining activities in Sim Hill and Kem Mountain, two of seven hot spots for the illegitimate practice.
Mixed with the sound of the convoys of trucks transporting legally mined ores for Bong Mieu Gold Company, that of motors from several campsites erected downhill by unlicensed groups of gold miners emerged.
Bong Mieu Gold Company is one of the few authorized gold mining units in the province, operating among numerous illicit gold mines bulldozing the mountains.
Dozens of hectares of land on Sim Hill has been plowed up to resemble a battlefield, with parched soil and dead trees baking under the scorching sun.
On one side of the hill, entrances to mine shafts can be seen from the road, while streams of blood-red water from ore sorting troughs flow along the natural slope of the hill into the main trench before being poured into Phu Ninh Lake.
On one particular hillside, three middle-aged men could be seen tirelessly shoveling soil onto the trough. The workers stopped and parted ways upon seeing a stranger approaching, and moments later other groups of gold miners followed suit.
Meanwhile on Kem Mountain, gold mining activities took place deep inside the mountain, searching for veins of gold ore unlike in opencast mines like the ones observable on Sim Hill.
Notably, all of these activities are happening in broad daylight, without much intervention from authorities.
“The police and civil defense only come up here once in a blue moon, and even then we will have left before they arrive,” Thanh, a gold miner in the area, said.
Even more frenetic activities could be observed in several other districts in Quang Nam such as Nam Giang, Phuoc Son, Tay Giang, and others.
According to Lt. Col. Ha The Xuyen, deputy chief of Nam Giang Police, from 400 to 500 workers are known to be working in illegal gold mines in the district.
However, local gold miners insist that a much higher number, some say 800, are working in unlawful gold mines in one part of the district alone.
Responding to the Tuoi Tre reporters’ question on why local authorities have been unsuccessful in eradicating these ‘gold thieves,’ Chairman of Nam Giang People’s Committee Alang Mai said that there have been directive documents on the issue, but that “their implementation has met with many difficulties in the administrative process.”
According to Mai, mine owners often collude with locals to bring gold miners deep into patches of forest close to the border between Vietnam and Laos to conduct illegal gold mining.
“Law enforcement officers have destroyed their equipment and camps many times, but they unfailingly came back only a few days later to resume their work as if nothing had happened. All they have to do is set a high remuneration for the job and locals will be more than willing to carry mining machines into the forest for them. They cannot be administered,” Mai said.
Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Xuyen said current laws fine violators in the mining industry from VND800 million (US$35,700) to VND1 billion ($44,600), without criminal charges.
Most of the time, Xuyen said, owners simply drop their equipment behind and leave, as the value of confiscated properties is lower than the fine they would have to pay if arrested.
The policeman added that law enforcers can only force miners away from the mines because they are merely paid workers, but “they keep coming back one way or another after only a few days."
Nguyen Van Len, deputy chief of the Song Thanh forest protection unit, said his unit had even resorted to using explosives to demolish illegal gold mines without much success.
“We have tried everything possible but it is of no use,” Len said.
Aid and abetting?
“Illegal gold mines in Dung Village have been receiving help from the authorities. This is a case of deliberate ignorance,” Sr. Col. Le Van Hong, head of the Division for Economic and Duty Crimes Investigation under Quang Nam Police, said of the illegal mine shaft where four workers were killed in an asphyxiation accident last Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Xuyen said there was no ruling out the possibility that rangers, civil defense, border defense, and even local police have been 'bought' by mine owners, which would explain how they got wind of police raids before the officers even set out.
Speaking with Tuoi Tre, Chairman of the Quang Nam People’s Committee Dinh Van Thu said the province would establish specialized teams to work on the case.
“I have talked with the chief of Quang Nam Police to get this done once and for all. There will be no covering up for anybody,” Thu stressed.