Mewang Gewog is one of the most mined gewogs in Bhutan with multiple quarries in Bjemina and the expanding Namseling quarry.
However, in a sign of increasing awareness and concern over environmental destruction, the public of Bjemina and nearby Khariphu both under Mewang gewog recently turned down three major stone quarry proposals.
The quarries that have been turned down for now are those of the Speaker of the National Assembly, Jigme Tshultim, and Singye Group of Companies at Kariphu, and the proprietor of Hotel River View, Kinley Wangchuk at Siluna ,Bjemina.
Members of the community The Bhutanese talked to said that their decision not to allow any more quarries was an outcome of ‘bitter lessons’ they had learnt from ongoing stone quarries in the Gewog, namely the quarries in Bjemina, one quarry in Namseling and another one in Kariphu run by Kinzang Gyeltshen and a closed down quarry in Dalukha. Villagers in Kariphu said that dust from the quarry in Kariphu and Dalukha affected their crops and apples posing an environmental problem. They also said that several promises made to them with regard to the Kariphu and Dalukha quarries were not kept.
In Bjemina, local villagers complained that the multiple quarries and mines existing and coming up in the area affected their crops, quality of life and the local environment.
In Namseling the villagers The Bhutanese talked to claimed that, The Bhutan Stones and Aggregate Factory, (owned by a Royal Family member) was the reason for some floods that occurred in the valley. Villagers also alleged that the quarry affected the drinking and irrigation water source of around 300 villagers.
“The issue of clearances for mines first came up when gewog received a letter from the Speaker asking for a public zomdue to be called to get public clearance on a stone quarry,” said a local Tshogpa.
Later, the Speaker sent his representatives who were his son and also former Drangpon Kunzang Tobgye who requested for clearance promised to open a special account for the village and also to tend to the other social needs of the community.
The community decided to meet separately and come upon a decision.
“In the second meeting, mainly younger and educated people came from 39 households. The educated ones came saying that the older members would not understand the issues and would be easily influenced by influential people,” said a local community leader. In the meeting, out of the total 39 only eight voted in favor for the quarry, with the majority turning it down.
The same community in another Zomdue, had a majority of members saying that they would also not approve a proposed quarry by the Singye Group of companies.
The quarry proposed in Siluna, Bjemina by Kinley Wangchuk of Hotel Riverview saw a more extreme reaction. “When the issue of public clearance was brought up, the villagers walked out of the meeting saying that they would not be able to agree,” said a local community leader.
The main issue here was fear that the proposed quarry would affect the water source of Siluna which comes as a small stream near the proposed quarry site.
A retired civil servant who lives in Siluna said, “It cannot be said that there is no advantage, there are advantages, but the water source for the village would die,” he said.
A 70-year-old villager said, “Since the clearance for the existing mines were given earlier, we do not have much say over them. However, we have realized that the mines destroy our environment and so we cannot give clearances.”
Local villagers of Mewang Gewog say that in the past some quarry owners to get quick local clearances, went house to house with influential local people to pressure people into signing agreements without calling for a public meeting.
The villagers now are trying to fight this unhealthy and untransparent trend.
The public of three villages under Mewang Gewog Khariphu, Khariji and Khajagang have signed a joint agreement to take action against villagers who use such tactics and collude with quarry owners to get them easy clearances.
The letter, a copy of which is with ‘The Bhutanese’, signed by around 40 representatives on November 20, 2011 says that henceforth for any mining and timber activity public clearance must be sought as per the law only after a proper public meeting.
The letter alleges that a lot of the current mining problems have cropped up as earlier the public was not consulted and signatures were obtained by collusion and coercion.
The locals of Mewang are also becoming increasingly aware of their commercial rights too. In 2010, villagers had asked for shares in a stone quarry that NRDCL wanted to set up in Bjemina. Later the idea was dropped in favor of community service to be given by NRDCL like allowing collection of stones by locals and contribution to community activities.
No clear laws
People have the right to claim for shares as per the draft Mineral Development Policy of 2012 that states that 10% of the business ownership of a mining company must be given to the local community and the villagers should be given preference in terms of employment.
The policy also outlines that money should be channeled back to the community development fund at the rate of Nu 3 per ton for listed companies and Nu 5 per ton for non-listed companies.
However the failure of the government to finalize and enact the policy has negatively impact local communities.
The government far from coming up with the mining policy to benefit local communities is looking at ways in which it can make it easier for quarry owners to get clearances.
The Depar tment of Local Government is coming up with ‘The Public Consultation rules’ whereby just a majority of two thirds is required to get mining clearances. Currently even if a small and affected minority objects the clearance is not given.
The cabinet also reduced the mining process system to a maximum of 40 weeks or 9 months meaning the pressure is to issue mining leases more quickly. No more quarries in Tading Geog, Samtse
What Mining companies say
The Chairman of Singye Group of Companies, Ugen Tsechup agreed that people have a right to demand some part of the profits as they are the ones who are actually affected.
“But the problem is that there is no standard, rule or law so it is left to the people,” he said. “However, if they are not offered enough or certain people in the community don’t like the person who wants to open quarries, then they say no,” he added.
A project manager of Hotel Riverview’s mine proposed at Siluna said that obtaining clearance is the most difficult part and so far nothing has been done.
Record number of quarries since 2008
Between the years 2008 to 2012, a record total of 96 mines and quarries were leased by the Department of Mining of which 25 mines and 38 quarries are active.
Of this Thimphu has two mines and 25 quarry leases that are active.