Two Perspectives of the Loei Mining Dispute

 
Since September 2013, the tension between villagers and Tungkum Co. Ltd., the mine operator, flared up when the villagers barricaded the mine entrance, blocking trucks, each of which normally carries 15 tons of cyanide waste, from passing through the villages.
 
The villagers from six villages of Khao Luang district of the northeastern province of Loei claims that throughout 12 years of mining operations, they have suffered numerous environmental problems allegedly caused by the mine. The most chronic is the contamination of water sources from cyanide waste on the mountain in Loei where the mine is situated. According to the group, about 3,700 villagers from 1,000 families have suffered from drinking the water. A former mine worker suffered cyanide poisoning and was paralyzed.
 
The villagers had established Khon Rak Baan Koed (People Who Love Their Home) (KRBK), consisting of villagers from six villages affected by the gold mining operations of Tungkum, the mining operator in the area, to stop the mining activities.
 
KRBK holds the mine operator, Tungkum Co. Ltd., responsible for social and environmental impacts caused by the mining activities and demands that the company compensate the villagers for recovery.  
 
In contrast to the villagers, the mine operators dismissed claims of the villagers. An outspoken Tungkam Co. Ltd., member of the board of director believe that the social and environmental impacts the villagers claimed are not caused by chemicals released from mining operations. He argued that the chemicals naturally exist in an area with rich mineral deposits.
 
Prachatai’s Thaweeporn Kummetha and Kongpob Areerat talked with Pornthip Hongchai, a village leader and active member of KRBK, and Wichai Cherdshewasart, a member of the board of director of Tungkum and Tungka Harbour Co. Ltd., about their opinions on the mining dispute and possible resolution.     
 

Pornthip Hongchai, a village leader and KRBG member (Photo curtesy of Thaipublica)

 

Wichai Cherdshewasart, a member of the board of directors of Tungkum and Tongkah Harbour plc. (Photo curtesy of Dr. Pueraly)

 

Do the mines benefit the nation? how?/why not?

Pornthip: Well, partly yes because the ore is valuable. However, the benefit the country receives from the ore should not exceed the negative impact upon the locals around the mine.

Wichai: Well, it is a kind of industry that can’t be operated in every country. Firstly, there must be the availability of the mineral resources. Secondly, this industry needs the society that understand. In developed countries in Europe, digging rocks and exploding mountains for mining can’t be done anymore. This is why it is booming in developing countries like African countries, Asian countries like China, and country with a big mining industry like Australia because it has a lot of empty lands.  

 

Are there any real negative/positive impacts of mining operations in the area/to the locals?

Pornthip: All governments around the world admit that mining negatively affected the environment. So do the mines in Thailand. The longer the mine is allowed to operate, the more environmental impact is created.  For the positive side, it create jobs for locals but still that could not be compared with the negative impacts upon the locals and the environment. The locals can do other jobs. The impact on the locals’ ways of life and quality of life and the environment is tremendous.   

Wichai: As you are informed by the discussions today, it’s more of a belief than fact. The state officials have been trying to explain to the villagers that it’s not true, but the villagers do not believe this. Some partial information was given to the villagers and they went on talking about it. Now, since the KRBG was formed, they are very uncompromising and not listening to different ideas. All the apparent social problems are also the result of their false belief. I used to go look at the collection of water samples and water aquifers and I found that it can be used for bathing and cleaning cloths, but the villagers do not use them because of the false beliefs that the water from these sources are contaminated. In another village close to the mine, the villagers just live normally with the water from the natural sources because they don’t believe water is contaminated. It just the false belief that things close to the mine will be polluted. It’s like when you are paranoid when you have a house close to the factory before something really happen. This false belief is difficult to change.

 

For villagers: How should the are be recovered? For company: How’s your plan to recover the area? what would you like to respond to the panelists’ saying that the budget for recovering the area is not enough?)

Pornthip: The mining company grew Vetiver Grass and banana trees hoping to help recovering the area, but the plant was not growing. We want to see the mine closing first before talking more about recovery. From the information we see today (during the seminar) it is almost impossible to recover the area to the condition before the mine.

Wichai: Well, the villagers  want us to first and foremost close the mine permanently, which is impossible. Then they want us to start recovering an area in full and pay compensation to those affected. The company has provided the recovering found for this the villagers know it. Like what was said in the discussion today, we will pay for the recovery and allow the villagers to manager the fund, but the villagers need to understand that the mine will be closed.

As for the insufficient budget for recovery, I mentioned before that the symptoms that the villagers have are not the results of the mining activity. From the discussion today, we know that both the mine and villages are situated on a place where there are a lot of arsenic compounds exist in nature. I think the solution would be that the mine and the villagers should discuss and find the solution how to live in an area with a lot of arsenic together. The villagers have to be careful not to release more arsenic from their farms and the mine should be careful as well. The state agency should frequently check the level of arsenic in an area. There is only one group of the villagers who is still not listening now. In reality, there is no cyanide exposure in an area, but arsenic.

 

Are you satisfied with the roles of the military/state authorities (after the coup) in intervening into the conflict?

Pornthip: The locals have been pin down since the intervention of the military. The military bar us from organizing any activity. We feel disappointed and neglected. What we have faced for the past eight years are really bad. The military, however, aggravated what’s bad. The state authorities have never cared for us. They accused us of having hidden agendas. We feel that we have to fight all of this alone.  

Wichai: The state officials have been listening and try to communicate with the villagers, but the process to find the solution is slow. There is also a group of villagers that do not want to listen. Previously, the villagers closed to road to the mine and installed checkpoint to prevent the mine’s workers to go in, but the military have now intervened and took over the check point from the villagers. The military only allow less than 20 people to enter the mine. It’s quiet and peaceful, but we can’t do anything and our business has come to a halt. We have given 17 names of out personnel to the military and they are the only group allowed to go in.

The military intervened after there was a fight between the villagers and people who wanted to go into the mine to transport the ores at night in May this year. When we organized a public scoping forum at the district hall we told the villagers that they can participate peacefully with no weapons and speakers, but the villagers wanted to use force and came with flags on wooden sticks to try to prevent the forum to take place. This is why we had to use 1,200 police and soldiers to prevent them to come.   

When we organized it for a second time, the villagers still came with their speakers, announcing that they do not except the public scoping forum. I think they wanted to prevent the forum because they know that the talk can’t stop the mine completely. Later the villagers changed the strategy and try to get attention from the media by setting up a scene, where the students were confronting with the officers.

Anyhow, there are also villagers who are not against public scoping forum, in the latest forum we organized in Na Pong, there were perhaps a thousand villagers who attended the talk.

 

What do you think is the most serious misconception about the mine or that the media report wrongly about the conflict?

Pornthip: The company and state authorities think that we’re stubborn and having no reasons. They also accuse us of having someone masterminding us. We don’t care much. People who came to our villages now the truth.

Wichai: I think the problem occur is social problem because the mine and the villagers wanted to use the same area. Hundred of thousands of rai that have left in Wang Saphung are valuable virgin lands. The villagers have already cultivated other areas with rubber plantations. They have invaded the conservation area and use it for rubber plantation because recently rubber yielded high price. The villagers wanted more land for plating rubber trees. They offered last year that they want the mine to be closed and divide the land among themselves. During the discussion organized by the military this year, the villagers pushed forward the same offer, which is to stop the mine and establish an area as community forest will be taken care of by themselves.

In the past, the villagers invaded the conservation areas for cultivation without title deeds and divide the lands among themselves. Some of them have become prosperous due to the high price of rubber they cultivated on these lands. This is the heart of the problem.

 

What’s your strategy in cooperating with the villagers/company in solving the conflict?

Pornthip: We wish to sort this conflict out with them. The company is kind of arrogant. They think that we are less. We don’t have plan to talk with them. We used to join the talks held by the military but the talks went nowhere. I have no hope in talking with them.

Wichai: We have been trying to discuss with them to find the solution to this peacefully. If they believe that the problem they face really comes from the mine then we need to help them. We need to explain to them that the mine can’t be close because we have already invested a big sum of money on it and there are also 4,000 people holding the shares of the company. Including, the ministry of finance. Therefore, we have to discuss and solve the problem with all parties.

 

What would you like to say to the KRBK/company?

Pornthip: You’ve said that you will withdraw the cases against the villagers, but you haven’t done that. You have said you’d withdraw cases against some of the villagers who are “ordinary” and not the “leaders,” or in short “obedient”. Why do you want to rupture our group? We’re all ordinary. No matter you try to break us, we’re strongly united. We’re human beings like you guys. I want them to be able to think that causing others trouble is a sin.

Wichai: I want them to be more reasonable and listen to the facts because the solution needs to be inclusive to all parties. I have been trying to explain to them, but they don’t want to engage in a dialogue.

In the past, there were some mistakes that the company has done as well. The company was not listening to the villagers in those years and did not deliver what it promised. This has destroyed the trust, which is much needed to solve the problem  

How would you like this conflict to resolved?

Pornthip: The best way is to permanently close the mine. Do not increase the number of the cyanide dam. We only hope for the only thing -- closing the mine permanently.

Wichai: I want the company and the villagers to coexist. The process to find solution needs to be participated by the villagers, public officer, and the mining company.

Read related news: Lesson from Loei ore mine: How Thai junta uses martial law to end conflict by silencing people