The villagers stood six feet apart as they read their declarations, holding up signs that read ‘Lockdown Mining’ and ‘Save Community Rights.’ Some bore flags or coordinated green T-shirts with emblazoned with the image of a tree. All wore masks as they stood in their socially distanced protest.
On April 28, these striking images were shared on Facebook as villagers from six communities protested continued mining activities under the Emergency Decree. The protests, coordinated by the Network of People Who Own Mineral Resources, were designed to highlight the hypocrisy of the state using its powers to persecute local environmental activists while continuing to approve mining survey and operations projects.
In the vastly imbalanced negotiation between business and activism, Covid-19 restrictions seemed to whittle the activist space down to nothing.
Soon after the images were uploaded, policemen appeared at activist Sunthorn Duangnarong’s house. Sunthorn is a trans activist from the Rak Bamnejnarong Conservation Group based in Bamnejnarong District, Chaiyaphum Province, where Potash mining is on the rise, driven by Chinese demand.
Villagers from the Bamnejnarong community have put up fierce resistance to these mining projects, on the basis that the mines affect their agricultural livelihood, health and the sustainability of their environments. They have been closely involved in the Network’s activities.
“I’m a farmer, and if the mining work continues, then we won’t be able to do our work and the villagers will not have a place to live,” says Sunthorn.
Potash mining has can have devastating environmental consequences. One of the key by-products of potash mining is salt – if produced in concentrated qualities, this can affect soil quality, turning rice fields barren in the largely agricultural Northeast. It can also contaminate water and cause respiratory diseases through salt dust. To the villagers of Bamnejnarong, these are long-term risks for short-term gain.
Environmental problems are exacerbated as Chinese companies have made an active push to explore land for Potash mining, especially in the Northeast. China Ming Ta Potash corporation gained permission to explore 120,000 rai of land in Sakhon Nakhon, which Sunthorn says are now facing similar problems to her own district.
“Potash deposits in the Northeast are like precious gold, and the government wants to exploit them for economic benefit,” mining industry expert Bamphen Chairak told The Isaan Record in a 2019 interview.
Protests against Potash exploration in Sakhon Nakhon have drawn media attention, but also the attention of the state. When China Ming Ta tried to drill its fourth Potash exploration well in 2018, protestors came out to block the test site. Two leading activists were charged with violating the Public Gatherings Act and were eventually ordered to pay 1.5 million baht in compensation to the Chinese company. Despite the pressure on both Chinese business and local activists, protests – and Potash exploration – have continued on through 2019 and 2020.
The gendered landscape of environmental activism
Sunthorn was working in the fields when three police cars pulled up to her house to take her to the police station. They didn’t have an arrest warrant, she claims. “But they came in such numbers, as if arresting me for murder, so I was very scared and went with them.” They confiscated her phone, took down the information of other local protestors and detained her at the police station for six hours before eventually letting her go with no charges.
“It felt like an intimidation tactic, to keep me there for so long.”
Sunthorn is not the first female, LGBT or trans activist to face such harassment for her activism.
According to Pranom “Bee” Somwong, a representative of Protection International who works closely the anti-mining Network, it is mostly women who lead environmental activism in their communities.
“Women are carers and know that these mines will affect the health of people in their family, in their communities. The people at the core of this anti-mining campaign, the key leaders, are predominantly female human rights defenders who bear multiple burdens.”
“They have to cook while they host their meetings, but they will make sure that these meetings get organized.”
Sunthorn echoes this vision of family and community care. In her capacity as a community leader, she works mostly with local youth to raise awareness about mining legislation and the importance of environmental activism.
At home, she’s the provider for her aging mother. When first asked about police harassment, her immediate response was: “My mother was alone in the house. She already has kidney disease, many other diseases – I couldn’t leave her behind.”
Ever since the military government came to power in 2014, nearly 450 female human rights defenders have been legally harassed for their environment-related activism.
While the Network’s current anti-mining campaign highlights the hypocrisy of the Emergency Decree’s enforcement, it speaks to broader issues of stakeholder management in the Thai mining industry.
“In the mining fight, one of the key problems is the unfair approval process for exploration licenses. The approval process is meant to be subject to a public hearing, but there is no actual community input,” said Pranom.
She cites the 2015 Ban Haeng case in Lampang, where a mining concession was granted to Green Yellow Co. Ltd. A similar cycle took place, of local protest met with state intimidation met with increased tension between business, state and community.
“Villagers are concerned, because every time they stand up to express their voices – even with Khun Sunthorn, just reading out her statement asking the government to rethink their approval process – state officials will intervene.”
The military government’s strong pro-business stance on mining is also expressed in legislation. In 2017, new mining laws cut the process of getting a mining license back from a number of years to sixty days, while doubling the limits on land that can be used for mining.
Pranom thinks differently – hence the subjunctive name of the Network of People Who Own Mineral Resources. It is not that the villagers she or Sunthorn works with have legal claim to the mineral resources procured in their respective communities – rather, it is an expression of the moral claim the community has to its own land.
“Minerals should be of the country, of the people, but the state thinks it belongs to them and come up with policies and laws that demonstrate that,” says Pranom.
“But people who live there should be able to play a part in deciding how the land should be used.”