By Vanna Sean, Pirun Anusuriya, and Chanisara Samphantha
KHON KAEN – On June 17, diplomats from three foreign missions to Thailand joined a public forum in Khon Kaen city to share their perspectives on addressing issues of environmental justice in their countries with academics, students, activists, and community representatives from all across the Northeast.
The event included diplomats from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the United States, and was organized by the Faculty of Political Science of Ubon Ratchathani University, The Isaan Record, and the NGO Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD). Primary funders of the forum were Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom.
In the morning session, three foreign representatives discussed their countries’ journeys in solving problems of environmental justice and shared experiences in managing natural resource extraction fairly and on the basis of public participation. They stressed government responsibility in protecting basic human rights principles and giving support to those negatively impacted.
Shannon Austin, the Department Head of Mission from the New Zealand Embassy, raised the example of the coal mining industry in New Zealand, which adversely affected the environment and indigenous Maori communities.
“New Zealand’s economic development has brought about environmental problems concerning the country’s natural resources e.g. land, water, and air,” said Ms. Austin. “Our government had failed in its obligation to protect the rights of the Maori people, but has since attempted to find a solution by signing an agreement to return the land to the original owners.”
Daniel Fieller, Second Secretary Political from the British Embassy, said that the use of basic human rights principles in the private sector is of great importance. The British government views that the best suited solutions are amendments in the labor law and labor rights protection act, which ascribe responsibility to the businesses involved in practices that might impact local communities.
“Our government hopes that businesses would change their way of operating by prioritizing human rights, aside from their own business goals and the law. The British government has a policy to follow up on the private sector in order to see if human rights are incorporated into their business goals,” Mr. Fieller said.
Another important issue that businesses should pay attention to is public participation in the design of projects in local communities. Businesses are supposed to empower citizen by letting them exercise their rights and enabling human rights defenders to support affected communities.
Eric M. Frater, First Secretary of the Economic Section from the U.S. Embassy, said that in the past the U.S. government’s actions had adverse effects on the environment. There were protests calling for the punishment of businesses that destroyed the environment. In 1982, for example, there were successful lawsuits filed against the U.S. government in the case where a hazardous waste landfill was to be set up in a poor black community.
Eventually the U.S. government created channels for the public’s voice to be heard. In the case of the landfill in the black community, the government let the public participate in waste avoidance and recycling practices. In 1994, President Bill Clinton made it clear that environmental justice had to be part of the national development plan.
Mr. Frater suggests that the public should also be proactive in taking part in the management of environmental impacts on the community level, on questions of how to protect the environment and manage resources in ways beneficial to the communities.
He quoted the book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, an American author who wrote about the impact of insecticide use which made such knowledge available to the public. The research focused on the adverse effects that insecticides have on birds and other animals, making the spring season a silent one. This book has widely influenced Americans and provoked the public to take issues of the environment more seriously.
After the seminar, Thavorn Thanasingha, a member of the Isaan Land Reform Network, spoke to the audience saying that Thailand still lags behind in these matters; not only does the government not pay enough attention to the environment, the public is also not interested.
“Abroad they have might’ve found a remedy to these problems but in Thailand the law is being used to oppress the people. The people are weak and don’t dare to stand up for their rights because they are in fear of the law,” Ms. Thavorn said.