VINH-O COMMUNE, QUANG TRI PROVINCE, VIETNAM – The Ben Hai river running through this small mountain village in central Vietnam marks the 17th parallel — what was the dividing line between North and South Vietnam prior to the exit of US troops and the communist victory in 1975. It is a historic but neglected part of Vietnam – a world apart from the bustling capital Hanoi, with cell phone coverage disappearing on the snaking road up to the village, as the early morning drizzle falls over the steep, foliage-laden slopes on either side. Most of the people living along the rural river area are Van Kieu, one of 54 officially-recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam, a country where rising income levels for urban Vietnamese have not been matched by improved living standards in some isolated rural areas where minorities live. Despite Vietnam’s “tiger” economy years, “upland farmers [including and in particular the minority ethnic groups of the Central Highlands] have been left behind,” says Roger Montgomery of the London School of Economics.
BANGKOK – With Western countries and Japan seeking to get around China’s domination of the crucial but mis-named “rare earths” sector, a potentially game-changing processing site slated for Malaysia looks set to become a major election issue as that country gears up to vote. Opposition politicians and local activists from Kuantan – where Australia’s Lynas Corp hopes to build a processing plant for rare earth minerals mined in Australia – are protesting against the project. The plant will provide “a crucial link in developing a non-Chinese supply of rare earth metals,” according to Yaron Voronas of the Technology and Rare Earths Center, an online forum for the industry. The 17 materials, which are not in fact “rare”, but difficult to mine in commercially viable amounts, are growing in economic and strategic importance because they are a key component in high-tech devices such as mobile phones and computers, as well as military hardware such as night-vision goggles and guided missiles. Despite having only around 35% of estimated global rare earth deposits, China currently supplies approximately 95% of the global market – as mining and processing in western countries has been largely mothballed over environmental worries. Green concerns have animated protests against the proposed Malaysian site, which awaits the granting of a Temporary Operating Licence from the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, initially approved in February but postponed pending an appeal by locals and activists who have come out against the project