The Loei region of Northeast Thailand is not a place that one often hears of – far away from the beach parties and tourist hubs of southern Thailand, this mountainous region is still largely dependent on agriculture and is only starting to begin ecotourism ventures for travellers who prefer a quieter sort of holiday.
It is also home to a huge open-pit gold mine that employs many locals but has also been at the centre of many controversies, including threatening to sue a child protesting against environmental degradation, and the alleged use of thugs to break up any protests against the threats posed by open-pit mining.
A history of contamination
On a recent trip to the Na Nong Bong village in Loei, I came into contact with a community organisation called Khon Rak Baan Koed (KRBK), translated to People Who Love Their Hometown, who have been protesting against Tungum Ltd's mining operations since 2008. Made up of villagers from Na Nong Bong as well as six other villages, they have spent a decade trying to preserve their way of life and protesting against health and environmental issues, including contamination of local water sources. This contamination has created health issues due to farming and fishing in polluted waters as well.
Na Nong Bong is no easy place to get to, and we spent a night driving through the countryside, swerving through curves bordering the hills and forests until we reached the village just after sunrise. But at the very first village meeting, one thing became immediately clear to us – it was women who were leading the fight against the mining company and local authorities who support them. Over 200 women were part of KRBK, many of whom were in leadership roles.
The landscape surrounding the village was enough to tell its story - we saw dried up rice fields that could no longer be cultivated, and contaminated waters just below the gold mine where plants were dying. At the top, we saw the actual mine. The only thing left was remnants of a mountain that once was forested, now left completely bare.
The mine, even though it has stopped operations, left the village in distress, not only in terms of destroying the land but also through the health issues that continue to plague the villagers. According to analysis by the Loei Provincial Office of Public Health and Wang Saphung Hospital, about 100 people living around the mines have levels of cyanide, arsenic and mercury in their blood that exceed safety standards. Unfortunately, this contamination, the government claims, cannot be linked to the mining operation. The villagers, however, vehemently disagree with this conclusion.
Severe health issues for elderly villagers
Pa Pun Khangchampa, aged 85, rolled out of her house in a makeshift wheelchair. She is completely unable to walk. Her house is in the village of Bang Kok Sathon or the 'city of canals', just down the hill from what used to be the mine’s holding pond, where it has been documented to contain contaminated water which is still seeping chemicals into the communities’ water sources. This village has 36 houses with around 120 inhabitants. Pa Pun Khangchampa talked about how she has lost most of her muscle strength in her legs and has recurring rashes. This all started four years after the gold mining operations commenced, and many villagers have experienced similar health issues.
But the environmental and health impacts of the destructive gold mining don't end there – the social cost of the subsequent care work such health issues create need to be taken into account too. In this, women share a double burden – they suffer from their own health issues, but also act as caregivers to others who suffer from them as well.
One thing became immediately clear to us – it was women who were leading the fight against the mining company and local authorities who support them. Over 200 women were part of KRBK, many of whom were in leadership roles
Mae Boon Ma, 52 years old, spends her days taking care of her husband Kenchaporn, who is 57 years old. Kenchaporn's kidneys are failing, and Mae Boon Ma has to perform a home style dialysis five times a day because there is no healthcare facility in the village. She also suffers from her own ailments - she has high levels of arsenic in her blood.
However, these impacts on the locals have not only been ignored by the authorities, but there have been efforts to actively stop protests against the company, since the contract given to them is sponsored by the state itself.
Lawsuits against women who protested
One of the local village leaders and activists, Hongchai, was brought to tears as she recounted how in 2014, a large group of men in black masks attacked her and the other villagers, blocking access to the mine by building a wall and setting up human shields. This incident occurred right after the KRBK was excluded from a public hearing event regarding the mining company, and decided to retaliate by installing checkpoints and monitoring the operations at the mining site themselves.
According to the Environmental Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH) activist group, at least 20 people were injured in this attack. However, what these masked assailants and their employers didn't realise was how this incident only built solidarity and gave strength to those fighting against the mine.
After the villagers fought off the attackers, the media picked up their story for a while, but it was soon forgotten. However, the trouble started again in 2015, when Wanphen Khunna, a grade 10 student at the time, reported on the environmental effects of the mine while participating in a youth camp. This was organised by the Thai Volunteer Service, a Thai NGO, which was then broadcast on the Thai Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
Military officers in Loei had, in the past, attempted to prevent such youth camps from taking place, according to reports by local newspapers, claiming that it might affect national security and violate Thailand's public assembly laws. However, Wanphen went ahead and reported on how Thung Kham Ltd had polluted the Huai River in her community, and the mining company threatened to file a criminal defamation against her.
Wanphen, now an active youth leader in her community, is not alone in this - Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) have been filed against other villagers and activists all over Thailand as an intimidation tactic to make them cease their protests against controversial development projects.
“I still remember how it all happened,” said Wanphen. “My mother was crying because no one in our family had ever been in trouble with the law before. She asked me not to join any more extracurricular activities. But in the end, their scare tactics did not work and the lawsuits were dropped.”
At 17 years old, Wanphen was nominated by Amnesty International Thailand for the Child’s Rights 2017 International Children’s Peace prize to recognize her activism in protecting her village. Needless to say, Wanpen did not take her mother’s advice and along with other villagers, continues her struggle to build a movement for the right to freedom of expression and protest.
In a largely agragarian society that is still reeling under the impacts of severe environmental degradation, and faced with the Goliath of a state-sponsored corporation with no regard for the rights of the impoverished locals – it was amazing to see these brave women giving voices to the voiceless, and bringing the community together in the process of healing. The long struggles of the KRBK and the tenacity of the women of Na Nong Bong is an inspiration to people fighting injustice, not just in Thailand, but all over the world.
The author is along tome activist, and student of Human Rights at Mahidol University, Thailand