Sweetness & Power (9) – Sweet but risky: Sugarcane and the biochemical industry in Isaan


Cover photo by Bo Jayatilaka / CC BY 2.0

SPECIAL SERIES: SWEETNESS & POWER

Last week, in three public hearings on the proposed sugar mill in Khon Kaen province, the participants voted for the project. However, many local community organizations said those opposed to the project were barred from participating. At one, locals clashed with security forces leaving two people injured. Critics say that “public hearings” have become orchestrated, perfunctory events designed to win approval for projects and silence opponents.

In this Part IX of our special series on Sweetness & Power, we present a guest opinion piece by Maenwat Kunchon na Ayuthaya who is a researcher following the issue. She writes that according to the government’s plan, Isaan can expect a lot more such public hearings as these controversial projects are imposed on local communities without proper health and environmental assessments.

PART IX: Sweet but risky: Sugarcane and the biochemical industry in the Northeast

Guest contribution by Maenwat Kunchon na Ayutthaya

In 2015, the Office of the Cane and Sugar Board (OCSB) issued permits for the expansion of sugar production and the construction of 29 sugar mills in 13 northeastern provinces. All of them come equipped with biomass power plants.

The issuing of these licenses means there will be no less than seven million rai (about 2.76 million acres or 112,000 hectares) of additional sugarcane cultivation area, up from the current plantation area of 5.54 million rai (886,400 hectares).

The expansion of sugarcane cultivation and sugar mills leads to significant changes in the landscape and there has been no studies about the potential and appropriateness of areas that may instead be used for producing food, organic farming, or livestock raising. It might also affect areas with ecosystems of high biodiversity and water sources. Some areas could become potential tourism spots that can raise local incomes in a more sustainable manner than growing sugarcane.

It is significant to point out that sugarcane growing uses five times more of the controversial pesticide, paraquat, than rice farming. That doesn’t include the common intensive use of molasses mixed with termite killers, chemical fertilizers, and other chemicals that unavoidably destroy the soil, water, the surrounding environment, and public health.

Looking at the promotion of sugar cane growing over the past ten years, the failure of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives becomes visible. Even though the ministry has come up with agricultural zoning measures to determine appropriate areas for sugarcane cultivation, in practice, it has favored agro-industry and monocropping without taking into account that sugarcane prices have never been reflective of the real costs that growers have to bear.

Sugarcane farmers are pushed into debt while they have to work as free laborers on their own land. They forego the opportunity to add value to their land and risk becoming landless. They face this problem again and again but are then blamed for having chosen this fate themselves.

After 2015, opposition to sugar mills and biomass power plants has grown in many provinces in Isaan. Almost all of the protests started as soon as locals learned about business operators requesting permits.

The companies held public hearings prior to health and environmental impact assessments (HIAs and EIAs) for the construction of sugar mills and biomass power plants in the area. Prior to that, locals were not informed about the projects.

During the whole process, information was withheld and the villagers were kept in the dark about the project. In several provinces, locals did not even know the exact location of the planned factories.

Meanwhile, the public hearings did not disclose the pros and cons of the project and locals were deprived of an adequate and comprehensive understanding. Instead, the events were promotional in nature and increased disunity in the villages by buying the support of village leaders, academics, and locals.

This was meant to create the impression of legitimacy in the media and provide an official record that, although some opposition exists, there are nonetheless people who support the project. But they also used tactics such as suing opposing villagers for defamation. These shameful and cowardly acts have been expanding to all areas where factories are being built.

What is worse is that the sugar mills in the 13 provinces in Isaan will not only produce sugar–they will come with biomass power plants.

On January 29 of this year, the cabinet approved a draft of an industry ministerial regulation that approves the nationwide construction of factories that use sugarcane as raw material.

In summary, the regulation amended the definition of “factories using sugarcane as raw material” to cover factories producing ethyl alcohol and plastic, as well as those related to chemical businesses. It also allows for the construction of factories using sugarcane as raw material in areas that are located within 50 kilometers of another sugar mill without having to gain approval from that sugar mill.

This has allowed for factories that use cane as a raw material to produce biochemical substances such as bioplastic, biogas, chemicals, or substances used in the production of medicine and cosmetics to be built in the same area as sugar mills.

This development was initiated after the 2014 coup when the military’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) appointed a joint public and private sector committee to drive the country’s economy. It was later called the “Pracharat” project. It pushed for the implementation of policies such as the 2018 Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) Act, the development of petrochemical super clusters, a bioeconomy, and bioindustry. The prime minister, government officials, and investors gave media interviews in an attempt to drive investment for these policies.

The true face of the bioindustry is becoming visible with the plans for sugar mills in the “bio hub” of Isaan, a 4,000-rai area (640 hectares) in Khon Kaen’s Ban Phai district, under the Mitr Phol Group, Asia’s biggest sugar and bio-energy producer. The government is currently rushing to remove obstacles to investment and amend various laws, as well as create measures that promote investment in the second phase of Mitr Phol’s investment. This model will be a pilot area for land development in other areas nationwide by providing considerable support to investors under the EEC policy.

The government set a goal for Thailand to become the bio hub of ASEAN by 2027, and the northeastern region will play a role with its own bio hub in Ban Phai district. The cabinet approved measures to develop Thailand’s biomass industry from 2018-2027 on July 17 last year.

Meanwhile, Mitr Phol conducted a public hearing for the project on March 29 this year. Another three were held last week in the province even without any HIA or EIA, and one in Chonnabot district, only five kilometers from Ban Phai, resulted in injuries.

It is a bad joke that the Khon Kaen governor, provincial industrial officials, the district chief, and other local authorities responsible have denied that they had any information about the project.

If that is true, it means that decentralisation efforts are not only empty words, but that the government of Prayuth Chan-ocha does not care about these principles and has joined hands with investors to exercise absolute power. Curiously, the 2018-2021 Khon Kaen development plan does not even include a single project related to the bioindustry.

The government’s top-down policies completely lack public participation and will exploit land, forest, water, and other resources. The affected areas will be flooded with chemicals and overrun by machinery, vehicles, and outside laborers. This will significantly change the society and environment of Ban Phai district and at least 13 other areas in Isaan.

Three local environmental groups, the People Who Love Their Home Ban Phia, the Lawa Wetlands Preservation Network, and the Khok Nong Muang Forest Preservationists, submitted a letter to the Khon Kaen governor to set up a joint government and local committee to conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the bio hub project in Ban Phai district. That is precisely what the government should have done before announcing the policy.

When the SEA is completed and locals have been informed about the pros and cons of the project, the project should only go ahead if the government, provincial officials, and business operators are confident that the biomass industry will be the answer for a clean industrial future without pollution and negative impacts on the environment, natural resources, and people’s health. It also must be economically beneficial and improve people’s quality of living.

But first, locals of Ban Phai district must be the ones to determine their own future and the direction they want to take to development in their own area without any interference or attempts to limit their participation as in the hearings last week. There should be direct democracy where all people who might be affected by the project are allowed to make a majority-based decision about their own future.

This is the direct democracy that has been much talked about in Thai society. It’s up to the government and the business sector to show whether they are sincere and brave enough to take this approach.


Maenwat Kunchon na Ayutthaya is former journalist and a farmer in Isaan. She has been studying development issues and their impact on natural resources and the environment.