Authorities in Laos’ Luang Prabang province arrested three rural villagers for trespassing after they tried to mine gold on land granted in a concession to a Chinese company, RFA has learned.
The villagers, from Phapon village in Luang Prabang’s Pak Ou district, were initially detained by Chinese employees of the Thian Chin Huakjan-Lao mining company. The Lao authorities arrived later to take them in. They were accused of illegally mining gold on the concession land.
“Three Hmong people stole gold from the cave,” an employee of the company, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA’s Lao Service Thursday, identifying the suspects as members of the large ethnic minority group.
“We don’t know if they will be released or just fined. It depends on the district authorities to make that decision,” the employee said.
A village official told RFA that while they were aware of the situation, the coronavirus emergency has made it difficult to assist the detained villagers.
“I heard about the [three] having done that, but I couldn’t do anything to help them right now because of the lockdown,” said the official.
Local media reports say that the three were fined five million kip (U.S. $557) each in exchange for their releases, but RFA was not able to confirm that they were released.
District officials, the military, and police officers declined to provide RFA with information about the case, but a resident of a nearby village told RFA that this was not the first incident involving people sneaking into the mines.
“Many of the villagers have gone to the area. Some are even from other provinces,” said the villager, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“The mine belongs to the Chinese, since they have the concession. Outsiders are not allowed to enter, so [those three] were trespassing. So that’s why the soldiers came in to arrest them,” the villager added.
Dozens of villagers entered a cave on the land in April last year, hoping to collect gold, when disaster struck. Three were trapped and killed by a landslide they caused by their own digging.
Another four were suffocated by exhaust from their own gasoline-powered equipment in a separate illegal mining incident in September.
After those incidents, the police and village authorities banned unauthorized entry onto the land. But despite the ban, poor jobless villagers still take the chance.
The Chinese-owned company began mining the cave on the concession in 2018 and built a gold processing plant there. Any gold found on the parcel is exported to China for as long as the 50-year concession is in effect.
Much of Laos’s recent economic growth is generated through land concessions to China, Thailand and Vietnam for natural resources, including timber, agricultural products, minerals, and energy, but the policies have sparked friction over land taken without proper compensation, environmental pollution.
Land grabs and the appropriation of public property to turn over to foreign and domestic companies are common in Laos, and villagers affected by them often refuse to speak out publicly because they fear retribution.