Posts from the ‘Na Nong Bong’ Category
By Rebecca Goncharoff
This Friday, two representatives of a village affected by a gold mine in Loei Province and two members of Dao Din – a student activist group at Khon Kaen University – will travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, to meet with communities from across North America and Oaxaca state that are also protesting large-scale mining projects.
The Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), a coalition of former study abroad students, raised the money to cover the Thai participants’ travel costs through an online crowdfunding campaign and several fundraising events in Khon Kaen City. It also received a grant from the Global Greengrants Fund, a charity that supports environmental actions around the world.
The exchange was organized by ENGAGE and Servicios Universitarios Y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca A.C. (SURCO), a Mexican community organizing network, after 300 masked men attacked Na Nong Bong, the gold mine-affected village in Loei, in May of last year.
“After learning about this blatant disregard for human rights in Thailand, ENGAGE felt it necessary to take action and support the villagers who have been fighting the mine for years,” says Rachel Karpelowitz, former ENGAGE Network Coordinator.
Na Nong Bong villagers have been fighting to close the gold mine located less than a kilometer from their homes for almost a decade. They say that the chemical waste produced by the mine has contaminated local streams and water sources used for farming and household purposes, leading to illness and reduced crop yields. In 2009, the Ministry of Public Health advised residents not to drink water from nearby sources or eat local vegetables.
Two students from the Dao Din human rights activist group will also join the exchange. Dao Din has been supporting the villagers in their efforts to close the gold mine for over seven years.
During the two-week exchange the Thai participants, joined by representatives of Canadian First Nations groups and an Appalachian community organizer, will travel to different indigenous communities in Oaxaca state in an effort to share strategies and experiences among mining resistance activists.
The participants argue that multinational mining companies threaten their local lands, communities, and cultures. Organizers hope the exchange will strengthen grassroots movements against the environmental contamination and violence brought about by extraction projects.
“It is critical that communities around the world, that people—who rarely are given choices about how the lands they live on are used—share experiences, explore strategies, and create coordinated action on a global level,” says Jonathan Treat, Director of Delegations for SURCO.
The two Na Nong Bong villagers traveling to Mexico – Phrattrapron Kaenjumpa, 35, and Surapan Rujichaiyavat, 44, were selected by fellow community members to represent the village in the delegation. Both were among those activist leaders hog-tied and beaten in the last year’s attack. Feeling unsafe ever since, the villagers are eager to learn new strategies to defend themselves against the mining company, Tungkum Ltd., and its allies.
“We need to learn how we can protect ourselves,” says Mr. Surapan, hopeful that he can learn from the experiences of Mexican anti-mining activists. “There might be times in the future when we will have to face similar situations [as the communities in Mexico].”
The Na Nong Bong villagers’ fear for safety resonates in San Jose del Progreso, a small town south of Oaxaca City. In March 2012, Bernardo Vazquez, a local activist, was assassinated after actively opposing a Canadian silver and gold mining project in his community.
The Dao Din students traveling to Mexico, Suttikiat Khotchaso, 27, and Jutamas Srihutthaphadungkit, 20, are hopeful that they will be able to share what they learned in Mexico by bringing back strategies for grassroots organizations in Northeastern Thailand.
“Sometimes old methods or strategies no longer apply,” Ms. Jutamas says. “We might not be using the best strategies because we don’t know how other people in other areas are doing things. It will be good to learn from other peoples’ experiences and then improve our own.”
Under the military government in Thailand, Na Nong Bong villagers and Dao Din activists have all faced threats. Villagers were ordered to stop organizing under martial law, and then under Article 44 of the Interim Constitution, which bans political activity in groups of five or more people. In June, seven Dao Din students were detained for 12 days after protesting the military regime.
Despite their continued struggle for human rights and against dictatorship, the delegates still fret over the details of international travel. “I’ve never been on an airplane before,” says Ms. Jutamas with a shrug, “what if I mess it up?”
Rebecca Goncharoff is a freelance writer living in Khon Kaen.
By Genevieve Glatsky, Jaime Webb, and Megan Brookens
A train roared past as Kovit Boonjear, a man with a long pony-tail and mischievous look in his eyes, smoked a cigarette behind his modest home in one of Khon Kaen’s slum communities. “I never give interviews,” he said with a smile and more than a hint of irony.
A 60-year-old Isaan transplant from the south of Thailand, Kovit is sparing with his words – not because he does not enjoy conversation, but as a matter of safety. He has been a community rights activist since 1983, a contentious career path in the eyes of the stringent Thai military regime. Freedom of speech and assembly are limited and many of Kovit’s allies and friends have been temporarily detained and fear arrest. With over 30 years of experience, he is well accustomed to the risks that come with the job he has dedicated his life to.
Despite his poor upbringing, Kovit and his siblings all attended school. His father worked tirelessly as a security guard and waiter so that he could send his children to live with their mother in Bangkok, where there were more educational opportunities. His older brother became involved in an activist group while in law school and inspired Kovit to follow a similar path.
During the 1960s and 1970s, when Kovit was starting his law degree, Thai student activism was gaining strong momentum. Several universities had programs that sent students to work with marginalized rural communities so that they could better understand the challenges faced by Thailand’s poor.
As a freshman at Ramkhamhaeng University School of Law, Kovit stayed with a construction worker who was building a school in Bangkok. Because his host’s family didn’t have national identification cards his children were unable to attend the school their father spent so many hours building. The irony resonated with Kovit. “It made me think that if people invest their time in something, they should also profit from the value,” he said.
According to Kovit, his passion for supporting marginalized people stems from this early experience. Seeing first-hand the injustices faced by the urban poor, particularly regarding their lack of access to education, he felt compelled to leverage his own educational opportunities to fight for their rights.
He took his first job after college at the International Foster Care Organization Khon Kaen and he has called the Northeast home ever since. Kovit’s work now revolves around supporting marginalized communities, such as Khon Kaen’s slum residents and villagers resisting a mining company in Loei Province. Kovit uses his experience as a lawyer to navigate the complex legal system to ensure communities’ rights are upheld.
“The law is changing for the benefit of government officers, politicians, and businessmen,” said Kovit, shaking his head in dismay, “not for the poor.” Even with a law degree, he still spends vast amounts of time studying to keep up with ever-changing Thai policy.
Kovit values his high level of formal education, but believes that he can learn the most from personal exchange with people. Understanding the lives of everyday people has always been at the crux of his organizing strategy.
“When the villagers are wet, I am wet. When the villagers are hungry, I am hungry. I never consider myself an outsider. I consider myself a part of the community,” he said as he shared a meal with his neighbor, made from vegetables grown in his own garden.
“I listen. I talk with people,” he said. “The best way to make change happen is by casually stopping by.” Whether working in the rice fields with villagers or laughing over a glass of whiskey, Kovit can often be found discussing social justice issues with those around him.
He has worked closely with the community leaders in Wang Saphung subdistrict of Loei Province in their decade-long struggle to close a gold mine located less than a kilometer from their village. Villagers claim that the mine’s chemical discharge has caused illness and environmental contamination, and that the mining company’s henchmen initiated an attack on the village last May. In response to the tense situation following the attack, Kovit lived in the community for a year to help the villagers create mining-resistance strategies.
“Kovit helped us organize and provided critical information. He was especially helpful after our village was attacked and decisions were being made rapidly,” said Surapan Rujichaiwat, the leader of Khon Rak Ban Koed (People Who Love Their Home), an organization of concerned villagers that has been advocating for the closure of the gold mine.
It is one of Kovit’s primary goals to ensure that communities can sustain their movement without his assistance by identifying leaders and developing a long-term strategy. “I try to accomplish two things in the communities I work with: education and organization. This gets them to think on their own,” Kovit said.
His nonviolent resistance tactics help villagers’ mobilizing efforts to gain momentum. However, as Kovit draws increased attention to communities’ struggles, he too faces heightened risk. He claims his name often appears at the top of the military’s list of people to monitor.
In 2013, he learned that fighting against resource development projects garners the attention of more than just the military. A military officer began following Kovit under the pretense of protecting him from a $10,000 bounty on his head, Kovit claimed. While this could just have been an intimidation tactic, Kovit suspects that the bounty was issued by the mining company.
Despite the threats, Kovit remains undeterred. He has already recruited 18,000 signatures for a petition he is circulating against current Thai mining policy. His goal is to garner 20,000 supporters.
“We have to be careful all the time. One thing I really believe is that the villagers will protect me,” he said.
Moving forward, Kovit seeks to expand his impact outside of Thailand. He is currently working on a website that will spotlight mining-affected communities throughout all ASEAN countries. The effort is one more step in the direction of increasing public understanding of marginalized peoples’ experiences.
Genevieve Glatsky studies International Relations and Megan Brookens majors in Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Jaime Webb studies Music and Philosophy at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
LOEI – In the past month, the walls of a gold mine’s tailings pond in Na Nong Bong, Loei have collapsed not once but three times. The tailings pond, which holds the waste water used to dissolve the gold from the ore, contains extremely high levels of cyanide and other chemicals used in the extraction process. As such, the community members from the neighboring village, located just one kilometer from the Tungkum Limited mine, are channeling their fear of the effects into their ongoing fight to close the mine.
People Who Love Their Hometown (PWLTH), a community organization comprised of concerned villagers, has been fighting to close the mine since 2006 in attempts to mitigate the contamination of their food and water. Since the gold mine began its operations, the villagers have experienced lower crop yields, skin rashes, and high levels of cyanide and arsenic in their blood which they attribute to contamination from mining operations. As such, the leak from the tailings pond, which contains cyanide and other dangerous chemicals, has given them greater cause for concern.
“On the 28th of October, the day the wall collapsed for the second time,” explained one of the leaders of PWLTH, “We found that that the water leaked out into some of the farms that were growing yard long beans. The farmers couldn’t harvest because there was water in their fields. We didn’t know whether or not the water was dangerous or not.”
The villagers were the first to report the leak to the government offices after a member of PWLTH found unexpected water in his field. The villagers sent a report to the Provincial Industry Office (PIO) as well as the Department of Primary Industry and Mining (DPIM) and then contacted the Tambon Administration Organization (TAO) to survey the area.
On October 30th, the TAO sent a committee to investigate the broken wall as well as the quality of the water that leaked from the pond. The TAO reported, “TKL has admitted the wall did collapse and that they have been continuously repairing the damage to the wall of the tailings pond.”
The community, however, is still not fully convinced that there will be no lasting effects from the leak.
“It is necessary for the company to warn the people,” said one of the leaders from PWLTH. “We don’t know whether or not this water is dangerous, because no tests have been done on the water. But we are scared of what the effects might be.”
In response to the villagers’ report, the DPIM issued an order to the company to shut down operations until the situation was resolved. The company appealed to the PIO, however, claiming that they were working in accordance with Article 58 of the Mineral Act and, furthermore, that they needed to continue mining in order to acquire specific rocks needed to repair the break that can only come through the crushing process. At present, the mining company, which has assured the government they are working to fortify the tailings pond wall, is still operating.
The leak comes at a particularly pivotal moment for PWLTH, as Tungkum Limited will be holding a public scoping forum on the 22nd of this month. The forum, which has been postponed four times already due to protests staged by the community organization, is one step in the process of obtaining concessions for opening a new mining site near the existing one. The members of PWLTH, however, hope that the news of the tailings pond leak will strengthen their case for the decommissioning of the current mine as well as halting concessions for the newly proposed mine.
Tungkum Limited, which has been in hot water with its shareholders and the Stock Exchange of Thailand over the past year for alleged financial mismanagement, now has more to worry about.
LOEI – Last February, the farmers of Na Nong Bong village won a small victory in their battle against the gold mine in their backyard. After years of organizing and petitioning for health tests, these bean and rice farmers had prepared their case against Tungkum Limited mining company. And, on February 8, the cabinet of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva voted to stop the company from opening new mines, pending further research on the causes of villagers’ health problems.
Tungkum Limited began constructing two gold mines in Wang Saphung District of Loei in 2006. When the mining company began digging, the villagers began to notice changes. They reported rashes and stinging eyes, plummeting crop yields, and higher cases of illness.
It was not until 2009, however, that news of the village made its first waves. To appease the protesting villagers, the Ministry of Health tested local water sources. They found high levels of contaminants and ordered villagers not to use the local water or eat affected vegetables and fish. Farmers who had traditionally relied on their land for nourishment were now asked to buy food and water from city markets.
Concerned about the health effects of the contaminated water, the villagers petitioned the Ministry of Health for blood tests. On February 2 of this year, the ministry published that 124 of 725 villagers had high levels of cyanide in their blood and 50 of 708 villagers had high levels of mercury. In just one week’s time, the cabinet had paused Tungkum’s expansion.
The mining company, however, takes no responsibility for local contamination. They comply with government regulations, their drainage does not interfere with village water, their tailings pond is not leaking, and their operational area, they claim, complies with international standards. But relevant government agencies do not do research of their own and instead rely on Tungkum’s contracted researchers to confirm that operations are safe.
Though they have succeeded in slowing down Tungkum’s expansion, Na Nong Bong and its five neighboring villages are not celebrating. They are still fighting for the day when Tungkum’s mine, just 500 meters away, shuts down.
For the full story, watch the video above.
[Correction: October 7, 2011 – Tungkum Mining Company, a subisidiary of Tongkah Harbor, was founded by Australians but the company is now publicly traded in the Thai stock exchange. We apologize for this confusion. The article and video have been edited to reflect this change.]
LOEI – Over nine hundred villagers thwarted a local company’s attempt on April 7th to hold a public hearing regarding the establishment of a nearby copper mine. Flooding the open-air lobby of the Loei Palace Hotel in the Muang district, Huay Muang villagers and their supporters waved flags and chanted into bullhorns as they barricaded the doors to the proposed meeting room.
Demonstrators came together to express their concerns that the Puthep Company’s mine could have adverse environmental effects on the Hin Lek Fai Mountain, which provides for the livelihood of many people in the region.
Villagers from Huay Muang grew concerned about mining’s potential dangers when they learned about their neighbors in Na Nong Bong, a village caught between two gold mines just 30 kilometers away. There, villagers have complained of contaminated water destroying their crops and causing skin ailments.
In addition, a 2010 study conducted by the Loei Provincial Office of Public Health and Wang Saphung Hospital found that almost 500 villagers who live near the mines have mercury and cyanide levels that exceed safety standards. These numbers seem to confirm concerns of even those in Bangkok. It has been reported that the Cabinet recently asked the Industry Ministry to refrain from granting mining concessions before further researching the potential effects of mines.
Sukan Boonkerd, a Huay Muang native and activist, held fast to the lessons of Na Nong Bong when his organization, The Loei Province Nework, organized Thursday morning’s event. “We are 100% against this mine” he told reporters.
Not all of those in attendance, however, were as strongly opposed as Mr. Sukan. “I didn’t come to support the mine, but I still wanted to hear what the company had to say,” a villager said as she picked at a box lunch provided by the mining company.
Nevertheless, Mr. Sukan insisted that this event was not a protest against a public hearing. “We want the hearing to be accessible to all the 2,000 people who would be directly affected by this mine,” the village leader said.
He added that if the company had made the meeting more accommodating, people would have attended. Mr. Sukan was referring to the 250-seat meeting room that Puthep Co. reserved for the hearing, a space far too small to allow for the participation of thousands of villagers that could be impacted.
Puthep Co., a subsidiary of Australia’s PanAust Ltd. and Thailands’ Padeang Industry Ltd., had organized the public hearing to serve as an early step in the drafting of an environmental impact assessment (EIA). The 2007 Thai constitution mandates the implementation of EIAs to analyze the potential risks of large-scale development projects.
Of the more than 20 mineral extraction projects in Isaan, many are located on mountains, in forests, and near wetlands. Rural villagers, 90% of whom are farmers, seek to maintain access to these intact environments not only for their livelihood, but also for their sustenance and culture.
In the face of these challenges, communities from across the Northeast have banded together in a show of solidarity against mining. Just two days before the Huay Muang demonstration, Udon Thani citizens fighting against the construction of a potash mine drew over 700 participants, some of whom hailed from Huay Muang and Na Nong Bong.
Mr. Wit, a community leader from Na Nong Bong, explained why he attended Thursday’s event at the Loei Palace Hotel. “We support villagers in Huay Muang and Udon Thani because we all face the same struggles. We hope they will help us fight as well.”