SPECIAL SERIES: SWEETNESS & POWER
The Thai government’s 10-year sugar plan foresees 29 new sugar mills, each with an accompanying power plant, to be built in Isaan before 2024. Communities that might be affected are responding, fearful that the new mills/power plants will negatively affect the environment and local livelihoods.
Earlier this month, a public hearing about the proposed mill plan in Khon Kaen ended with injuries and accusations from locals that the hearing was rigged. But opposition to the proposed sugar mill did not just begin. In March this year, locals mounted a protest in Khon Kaen city. Guest contributor Priya Vaikuntapathi recounts that period.
PART XIV: Picking a fight with Big Sugar
Guest contribution by Priya Vaikuntapathi
In the village of Mueang Phia in Khon Kaen’s Ban Phai district, locals are protesting against the plans of Asia’s biggest sugar and bio-energy producer Mitr Phol to build a sugarcane factory and biomass power plant near the community. Over the past two years, the village has been calling on the company and the government to respect their community rights and protect the environment.
Many villagers are concerned that the project might pollute the air, increase traffic, and contaminate the water of nearby Lawa Lake. Apart from farming, one of the community’s main sources of income is picking wild plants, like herbs and mushrooms, to sell at the market. The villagers are worried that the company might buy parts of the forest land and restrict their access.
Sudarat “Tik” Timayom is one of the leaders of the local protest group, “Love My Hometown.” She used to work in a cotton swab factory in the Central region before moving back to her hometown to take care of her eight-year-old son, Lotus.
Like many villagers in Muang Phia, Tik is proud of her weaving skills, a craft that provides an important source of income for her family.
The Love My Hometown group often meets at a local Buddhist temple to plan their strategies to oppose the sugarcane company and educate themselves about the bio-energy industry and its potential hazards to the environment. Here they plan a protest at Khon Kaen’s Provincial Hall on March 1 to demand more information about the project.
Tik prepares food with her family and neighbors the night before the protest. Many of the protesters are older men and women. The group is determined to stay and protest for as long as necessary, taking all precautions possible.
Tik and other protest leaders sit down with activists of the Dao Din, a group of primarily Law Faculty students at Khon Kaen University, to plan their role in the protest, including the protest chants to rally the community, compose speeches, and summarize concerns they want to raise with the governor.
On March 1, almost 200 villagers march in the streets of Khon Kaen to the Provincial Hall. Protestors wear face masks to symbolize the fear of pollution by the sugarcane factory. Their green shirts read “Love My Hometown Group” and “We don’t want bio-energy industry.” Many families with children participate in the protest. The protesters demand an audience with the governor to discuss their concerns.
Tik rallies the crowd through speakers of a pick-up truck: “We haven’t been surviving on sugar; we’ve been surviving on rice. So no factory!” and “We don’t want to wear masks like this all of our lives, so keep the factory away!” they chant.
Tik speaks to Khon Kaen’s governor, Somsak Jungtrakoon, appealing to him to meet with all of the villagers and hear their stories and concerns.
The crowd shouts at the governor’s suggestion to meet with only a few leaders of the movement at a later date. Blocking the entrance to the building, they continue to demand a meeting with all of the villagers as police and authorities watch on.
Protesters finally enter the meeting room to negotiate with the governor after a long, hot day of chanting. Many police and military officers enter the room with the protestors.
In the meeting room, the villagers voice their concerns and make three main demands: more information on the project, formation of a committee to research environmental and health impacts, and postponing the scheduled public hearing until the first and second demands are met.
At the end of the meeting, the villagers successfully come to an agreement with the governor, signing an official letter.
After a long day of protest, Tik and her family, and their fellow protesters. get back into their trucks and leave for home.
Two months after the protest, the villagers of the Love My Hometown movement continue to fight for their rights. A protest banner at Tik’s family home speaks of the community’s determination.
“Everything I’ve done is not meant to disrupt the [area’s] development,” Tik says, reflecting on her activism. “But I want them to know that we have the right to protect our beautiful land, our beautiful nature, and to live without dust and pollution.”
Editor’s Note: The Mitr Phol Group’s sugar mill and accompanying biomass power plant is to be set up on an area of 4,000 rai (640 hectares) that touches on three districts in Khon Kaen province: Ban Phai, Chonnabot, and Non Sila. The operation will form part of the Ban Phai Bio-Hub Industrial Estate and is linked to the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC).
The first public hearing, part of the Environmental Impact Assessment report (EIA) process, has already been passed. Next, the working team will propose the EIA report to an expert committee at the Office of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) for consideration.
At the same time, the People’s Committee Opposing Industrial Sugar Mills and Biomass Power Plants in the Northeast presented a letter on September 8 to eight opposition political parties calling for cancellation of the public hearings that have been held, arguing that the process was not carried out legally.
Priya Vaikuntapathi is a student of Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the United States. In the spring 2019 semester, she studied human rights issues and development in Khon Kaen.