MAC: Mines and Communities

Karen win first stage in lengthy battle

Published by MAC on 2006-08-17

Karen win first stage in lengthy battle

17th August 2006

Were Karen villagers from Klity really "all smiles" (as reported by the Bangkok Post) when they left court last week, after receiving minimal compensation for the lead poisoning their community has suffered for nearly a decade? [see:]

In any event, their struggle is far from over.

Karen Villagers Compensated in Lead Poisoning Case

By Sai Silp

16th August 2006

A Thai court on Tuesday ordered a lead mining company in the country's Kanchanaburi province, bordering Burma, to pay 4 million baht (US $105,000) to eight inhabitants of a Karen village poisoned by contaminated water from a local stream.

More than 100 Karen people living in lower Klity village were said during the court proceedings to be suffering the ill effects of drinking water from the stream, which was found to be contaminated by lead waste from the mine, owned by Thailand's Lead Concentrate Company. A provincial medical team found earlier this year that blood samples from 70 village children had levels of lead above the acceptable standard. A number of children were reported to have been born in recent years with lead-related disabilities.

The eight villagers awarded compensation, in a Kanchanaburi provincial court ruling, were singled out as having suffered the most from the lead contamination. One of their lawyers, Surapong Kongjantuek, of the Thai Lawyer Council, said the villagers were unhappy with the settlement and were considering whether to lodge an appeal. Surapong said the villagers regarded 4 million baht insufficient compensation for "the long-term sickness and paralyzation of many people, including their children." The money didn't even cover medical treatment, they complained.

The villagers had also demanded compensation for the environmental damage, but the court ruled against them on technical grounds. Nevertheless, 22 Klity villagers are proceeding with a case before Thailand's Administrative Court against the country's Pollution Control Department, claiming the department failed in its responsibility to clean up the local environment. Surapong said the case wasn't expected to be decided until next year.

The department's Management Bureau said it is monitoring the Klity water quality and ruled recently that it's safe to drink provided it is filtered.

Villagers first drew attention to the quality of their water in 1998 in a letter of complaint to the Pollution Control Department. Tests that year found high levels of lead in the water, the mine was shut down and the Lead Concentrate Company was fined 2,000 baht ($52). No criminal charges were brought. Woralak Sriyai, an environmentalist with the Sueb Nakasatien Foundation, said that although the problem had existed for several years government action had been slow.

Battle far from over for Klity folk

Bangkok Post

17th August 2006

It was raining heavily when the Klity villagers left their forest homes for their historic day in court. The dirt road became a wretched muddy trail full of potholes. The long, bumpy ride left them soaking wet, demoralised, not knowing when the skies would clear up again.

The rickety pickup truck finally broke down, forcing them to hire another van to take them to Kanchanaburi Court.

Their trying trip to the court house symbolised the Klity peasants' long, trying journey to prove that there is justice for little people.

When the powerful Kleebbua family in Kanchanaburi set up a lead processing mine near their Klity village a few decades ago, the ethnic Karen forest dwellers thought nothing of it. Then the creek started to turn murky and putrid. Soon the cattle, which drank from the creek, began dropping dead.

Then it was their turn

The creek was their main source for drinking water, fish and riverine food. While the adults suffered a myriad of illnesses, the number of babies born with mental and physical disabilities increased shockingly.

When their misery hit the headlines eight years ago, Klity became a theatre for state authorities to stage news events for themselves, to show they had done their part to solve the problem.

Ask the villagers and you will get a different story. The lead mine may be closed now, but more than 10,000 tonnes of lead residue still remain in the creek while the villagers still suffer from lead poisoning.

Meanwhile, the Pollution Control Department refuses to clean up the creek. The Public Health Ministry also refuses to rule that the villagers suffer from lead poisoning, or to treat them accordingly.

Worse, the villagers' attempt to seek justice has subjected them to eviction threats. Both public health and environment authorities insist the only way to solve the problem is to move the villagers out of the forest.

Three years ago, eight Klity villagers _ with help from the Lawyers Council of Thailand and rights groups _ decided to take the mine to court.

On Tuesday, they found reason to smile again.

In a historic verdict, the Kanchanaburi Court used the 1992 Environmental Quality Act to rule that the polluters must pay, as well as to give the affected people 10 years' time, instead of one as required by civil law, to take the matter to court.

The court also ruled that even when the polluters die, their inheritors must still be responsible for the damage done.

While rights and environment groups praise the Klity verdict, the villagers' journey for justice is far from over.

To start with, it is unclear who will pay the compensation _ and when, since the Kleebbua family is in a deep legal wrangle about inheritance, which may take years to settle.

The court also ruled that as individual plaintiffs, they cannot demand for the creek's clean-up, which means that they have to file a community lawsuit to make Klity creek safe again for their children.

It also means they must pursue their case with the Administrative Court to force the Pollution Control Department to clean up the creek, since the Klity court verdict clearly states it is the government's job.

There is also the compensation issue. Out of the 119 million baht demanded, the eight villagers have been granted a mere 4 million baht combined. Two children who were born mentally handicapped from lead poisoning, for example, have been awarded 820,000 baht for their life-long misery.

Obviously, the Klity folk face an uphill battle ahead to convince the court to consider new compensation criteria, so that the polluting industries realise they cannot treat the poor and the environment cheaply.

After the court ruling, the villagers boarded the van to head back home, all smiles. They might be in for another long and bumpy journey, but the skies were already clear and sunny. And hope was in the air.

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