Thai Opposition to Potash Mine Becomes Community-Wide Fight

Source: The Dominion

ImageEntering the North-Eastern Thai village of Ban Nonsomboon, one could be fooled by the appearance of rural tranquility: Children, parents and elders chat amongst themselves, relaxing in hammocks and sharing baskets of freshly cooked sticky rice.

It doesn’t take long, however, to notice the banners, stickers and posters throughout the community declaring, “No to Potash Mining!” Green flags signifying a commitment to a toxic-chemical-free zone wave in the breeze.

In the midst of this fertile farmland a struggle is brewing. The community is fighting for the preservation of the land they depend on to live, and the fight has a strong Canadian connection.

Blindfolded Communities

Over 20 years ago, men who claimed they were looking for oil were seen wandering amid the rice paddies of Ban Nonsomboon, surveying the land and drilling boreholes. At the time, no one realized that these surveyors had been hired to locate potash for a Canadian company, the Asia Pacific Potash Corporation (APPC).

Without informing local residents, the APPC completed a study of potash deposits in the area with the help of Montreal based SNC-Lavalin, and by December 2000, had an environmental impact assessment quietly approved by the Thai government. The APPC’s plan consisted of a 25-km-squared underground mine to extract 300 million tonnes of potash reserves over the course of 22 years. A brine pond for wastewater, production mill and a tailings pile of salt waste would also be needed. In addition, plans included four-lane highways, a railroad extension and new electrical power grids.

The area that could be affected by this proposal includes over 45 densely populated villages, rice paddies and unique freshwater ecosystems.

From Planting Questions to Growing Resistance

As APPC began to drill exploratory mine boreholes, mineral samples were shipped to various Canadian labs, including Chemex Laboratories, Lakefield Research, Pioneer Laboratories Inc. and the Saskatchewan Research Council. Meanwhile, villagers realized that cattle grazing in the area were dying. Attracted to the salt deposits left by the drilling operations, the cattle were ingesting toxic quantities of minerals. Devastated by the loss of their livestock, community members began to ask questions, calling on the government to disclose information about the mining project and contacting local environmental NGOs for support.

Armed with a minimal amount of publicly disclosed information, community researchers from the Bangkok-based environmental organization Project for Ecological Recovery began to help raise awareness about APPC’s proposal amongst villagers in the demarcated mine concession zone. When local people realized that a Canadian company had proposed to conduct mining beneath their homes, and that the Thai government had already secretly approved the project, a popular opposition campaign quickly took shape.

[Photo: Two of the “Iron Women” discuss their protest strategies and their commitment to alternative community development initiatives. The proposed mine will run underneath their homes. Photo: Tanya Roberts-Davis]

In 2001, concerned residents who would be affected by APPC’s proposed mine formed the Udon Environmental Conservation Organization (UECO). In response to a complaint filed by UECO in 2002, the Thai National Human Rights Commission released a statement last year calling upon the company responsible for the mine to not only renew processes for public consultations and environmental impact assessments, but also to ensure all landholders provide informed consent for demarcation before the operation begins.

Locals are particularly concerned the mine will cause land subsidence, and contaminate the soil, air and water. Although exact consequences are impossible to predict, academic researchers have joined villagers to investigate how resulting land depressions could severely damage homes, and the potential negative effects of mine tailings on local water sources used for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

The salt tailings will result in “problems with salinity in our rice fields, especially during the rainy season," says Somyut Nikhau, a current leader of UECO. "If there is a drought, then the salt dust will still go into the water, the field and probably the communal fishing areas. This is sure to destroy our lives.”

High-school student Nattapong Ponsoongnean is also concerned about the negative consequences of the mine. “It will be my generation and future generations that will be most affected.” Canadian mining investors should “get out of this community," he says. "Don’t come here to violate our rights.”

Engendering Mobilization Strategies

Despite company offers of mining jobs, modernized amenities and discounted fertilizer, the majority of local people remain opposed to the mine. According to UECO member, Teaing Taammain, “The truth is that the company and the government are on the same side. But we villagers don’t accept the mine, so – at some point in the future, we will have to be prepared to fight for our lives against the mining operators… [We] villagers are proud of our lifestyles as farmers, we don’t want to be miners.”

Over the past six years, residents have made their concerns known by organizing marches, sending delegations to the Canadian embassy, as well as carrying out protest actions during corporate and government meetings.

Realizing that their activities were most effective when led by women, members of UECO formed an “Iron Women” Committee. According to one member, Boonmee Khunanan, “We made the decision to stand in the front row of protests… Now, after attending civil-disobedience trainings, we can assert our identity, our dignity and stand up together.”

“Authorities are afraid of confronting us older women," adds 69-year-old Lom Pongsa with a grin, "Because in Thai culture, you should always bow down and respect elder women!”

Shifting Corporate Profiles

In 2006, as UECO’s campaign against the mine was gaining momentum, Thai company Italian-Thai Development Plc. acquired APPC as a subsidiary. Corporate public-relations strategies were shifted to appeal to Thai nationalist sentiments. However, despite the complex web of corporate ownership and investment, local researchers have documented significant Canadian financial backing. Until 2006, Vancouver-based Crew Group and an east coast company (based in Fredericton), 623827 NB Ltd., were directly involved in financing this venture. After a number of corporate amalgamations took place two years ago, Canadian capital has taken a less prominent role in the project. Yet, Canadian banks, insurance companies and pension funds – including the Canadian Pension Plan – continue to invest in corporations implicated in the proposed Udon Thani Potash project.

Indeed, there is a strong sense amongst community activists that the project initiated by a Canadian company is still connected to the "country with destructive mining companies." This understanding is reinforced by the knowledge that both Toronto-based Mining Industry Consultants International and Montreal’s SNC-Lavalin have received contracts from APPC to complete studies of the area, while Vancouver-based SandWell Corporation continues to work with APPC to develop overland transport plans for the potash. In addition, APPC Vice-President and Director of Exploration and Development, Keith S. Crosby, is Canadian, with strong connections to the mining industry in Saskatchewan. Indeed, company public-relations documents and feasibility studies rely heavily on data from mine sites located in the prairies. “Given the completely different climatic and geophysical conditions of the potash mines in Saskatchewan compared to the planned project in Udon Thani,” said Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada, “this is simply the latest in a long history of attempts by the company to pull the wool over the eyes of the local people.”

Community members readily admit that divisive tactics employed by company employees have been difficult to confront – in particular, the company’s involvement in the school system. APPC Children’s Days, clothes-donation projects, school sports tournaments, scholarships, extra-curricular celebrations, “distinguished father” awards, poetry competitions on the theme of “community mining,” and mobile medical clinics, as well as family house visits by company representatives are all meant to support a corporate image of compassion and harmlessness.

Despite the APPC’s attempt to maintain a positive image in the community, many villagers remain vocally opposed to the mine and have been named on company ‘blacklists.’ Others, including 29-year-old community activist Nowarat Doarueang, have received death threats and been targeted by a corporate defamation lawsuit. Many residents, including Khunanan, note, “The mining issue has broken the heart of this community. Even the children at school are divided.”

Although 12-year-old Kyiattisak Theangreong says there is no conflict amongst his peers, he expresses a sense of anxiety and distress. “I feel unsure about my future because maybe by then, everything will have already changed.” He continues emphatically, “If a company wants to open a mine here, I think they must first consider our lives, our rights, our future and our community before they come and destroy everything.”

Grounding the Future, From the Fields to the Streets

According to Suwit Gulabwong, coordinator of the local community organization Ecological and Cultural Study Group on Salinity and Mining Resource Management, “We need to keep our eyes on the fact that our fight is with the company and capital… [Therefore,] it is important to build a strong and sustainable movement from the ground up.”

Community members assert they are gradually building alternatives respectful of human as well as ecological relationships. With a collective rice paddy, they are extending a sense of cross-generational solidarity between families, while creating a source of income for their campaign. On an ongoing basis, organic farming techniques are shared amongst villagers. Rice farmer Nuentang Taamain exclaims, “As long as we are all organic farmers, we don’t need the company’s fertilizer anyway!”

UECO launched a community radio station to promote open communication about their campaign and mining-related news, as well as a public platform for local debate. For local electoral candidate Angkana Khamringe, the radio is a source of “critical information, about what is real and what is not. From this, we have learned more about our own rights, especially the rights to life, land, participation, health, and natural resources.”

Radio coordinator Panya Kotrphet emphasizes that villagers are not merely trying to preserve their past, “We need to find alternative models of development – Is the meaning of development bigger roads, bigger houses? No. The question is whether the quality of all of our lives is improved.”

While local youth have a tree-planting project, school children attend workshops to learn about banner making, poster and leaflet production, as well as local and global environmental issues. Community health researcher Tipawan Kiangkai hopes the younger generation will understand “there are other ways for our village to have ‘development’ without potash mining and the use of potash-based chemical fertilizers.”

To promote reliance on local resources, women coordinate clothing, soap, shampoo and soymilk production co-operatives. According to Khunanan, these initiatives allow families to “build the potential to maintain our activities as a community and keep fighting together.”

The multifaceted approach and villagers’ continued tenacity may in the end defeat Ital-Thai and APPC. However, villagers continually reiterate that such a shift is impossible if their cause is not internationalized.

Nuentang Taamain declares, “People in Canada need to know – the company is only concerned about profit and is taking advantage of our land, imposing on our lives and violating our rights… Canadians, please tell your investors to get out of here!”

Many local residents raise questions not only about Canadian economic interests, but also about proposed, current and closed mines on Canadian soil. Upon learning about First Nations struggles against mining, they immediately recognize a common struggle across continental divides. Without hesitation, they respond, "Please let them know: they must keep fighting, and never give up! They are not alone. Together, we will win!”

Tanya Roberts-Davis is an activist organizing with communities affected by mining and oil & gas operations. She is currently based in Thailand.