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Mining and Conservation in Laos

According to The Wall Street Journal (September 16, 2004; "Laos Is Looking Like a Gold Mine To Foreigners" by Patrick Barta), foreign investors are looking to capitalize on Laos' underdeveloped mineral resources. With gold prices steady over $400 and few new deposits turning up in the usual places, mining companies are flocking to this poor, land-locked country bordered by China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Laos, which holds the dubious record of being the most bombed country in the world despite never officially being involved in the Vietnam war, may become an importance source of revenue for mining companies will to take on the extra risk associated with operating in a country with large amounts of unexploded ordinance and poor infrastructure.
Mining Companies Operating in Laos
  • Oxiana Ltd. (Australia): $330 million into a gold and copper mine along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
  • Pan Australian Resources NL (Australia): $165 million into gold and copper project near the "Plain of Jars."

  • With the prospect of expanded mining operations in Laos there is considerable concern over the environmental impact. Clear-cutting and the use of chemicals, especially mercury and cyanide, can cause severe ecological damage. Mining also exposes previously buried metal sulfides to atmospheric oxygen causing their conversion to sulfuric acid and metal oxides, which run off into local waterways. Oxides tend to more soluble in water and contaminate local rivers with heavy metals, affecting human populations and wildlife.

    In the short-term, the financial opportunities presented by mining overwhelm the potential ecological effects. For example, at peak production, Oxiana's operation should yield as much as $15 million in royalties and taxes for Laos -- a significant sum for a country where the per capid GDP is around $1,700 per year.

    Conservation in Laos

    Dr. Clive Marsh
    Conservation in Laos lost a major asset with the passing of Dr. Clive Marsh in 2000. Dr. Marsh worked with International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and was instrumental in the establishment of new protected areas both in the country and in other parts of Southeast Asia. Dr. Marsh was killed by encephalitis contracted during field work in Laos.

    Conservation in Laos faces considerable obstacles not only from increased interest in mining but also due to rampant deforestation from slash-and-burn agriculture, uncontrolled fires, illegal logging, and fuelwood collection. The strongly-centralized approach to conservation -- Laos is a communist country -- may may spawn animosity at toward conservation efforts at a local level if initiatives fail to account for local needs.

    Despite these hurdles, there is hope for conservation in Laos. In an effort to protect the country's species richness, Laos recently established 18 National Biodiversity Conservation Areas including one known as Nakai Nam Theum National Biodiversity Area in the mountainous border area near Vietnam. During the 1990s researchers in this protected area discovered a new genus of cattle-like mammal along with two deer-like species.

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