Poisoned villagers vow to fight on

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2009, 12:00am

Residents of Hunan villages beset by metal poisoning that has killed at least five people have vowed to take to the streets again despite threats of a crackdown.

Officials were sent to three villages under the jurisdiction of Liuyang city yesterday to soothe the anger of the thousands who claim to have been poisoned by the discharge of two heavy metals, cadmium and indium, into the soil of their fields for five years.

'Officials were divided into small groups to warn us not to participate in protests [today],' said Luo Jinzhi, of Shuangqiao village, site of the Xianghe Chemical plant.

Provincial authorities appealed for calm at a meeting with village representatives. They repeated a promise that people would get compensation as soon as possible and said their requests for free check-ups and treatment were being considered.

But villagers accused the officials of trying to stall protests with lies and said they were fed up with such empty talk.

'Most of us have been poisoned by these heavy metals and the poisoning is incurable,' said another Shuangqiao villager, who refused to be named for fear of reprisals.

'We are so disappointed at local officials who turned deaf ears to our grievances over the years. We have to stand up this time to defend ourselves.'

Local officials were quoted by Xinhua yesterday as vowing to clamp down on further protests, saying that maintaining stability was paramount.

Although authorities announced on Saturday they had suspended Chen Wenbo, the head of Liuyang's environmental protection bureau, and his deputy, and Xinhua reported the detention of plant owner Luo Xiangping, villagers say the government has yet to offer real solutions to their suffering.

They say no one will buy the timber, rice and vegetables they grow, and that they have no future in Zhentou. They have demanded officials find them new land, homes and jobs.

The villagers began complaining three years ago about pollution from the factory, which started producing zinc sulphate in 2004. The factory, which discharged waste water containing cadmium and indium and heaped untreated solid waste in the open air, was not closed until last month.

The nearly 4,000 residents of Shuangqiao have been told they cannot farm their land for 60 years, and food and water has been trucked in for them since May.

Villagers staged a protest last Wednesday calling for free medical checks and treatment, and compensation for ruined crops and land - which led to six being detained. This prompted 1,000 to besiege the government office and a police station in Zhentou township the next day. Zhentou administers the villages.

The government only gave free checks to the 2,888 people who lived within a 1.2-kilometre radius of the plant. These showed 509 had cadmium and indium poisoning.

The local government has been paying daily subsidies of 8 yuan (HK$9) to 12 yuan to some of the 12,000 affected, but has said the payments will stop today.

'Officials said they have transferred part of the compensation to our bank accounts but it turned out to be just another lie,' said a villager who took part in the meeting yesterday. 'What else can we do but protest?'