MAC: Mines and Communities

Fighting a giant enemy

Published by MAC on 2007-02-09

Fighting a giant enemy

9th Feburary 2007

By Terri Bennet and David Ferris

Common Language Project magazine

22nd January 2007

"I said, 'Let's go!'" says Mae Manee, energetically raising her voice over the monsoon rain as it hits the tin roof. She tells a story of a pack of green shirts and green flags charging toward 300 of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's guards. Flagpoles became weapons as seventy women aimed the poles at the groins of policemen blocking the road, threatening to do more than aim if not permitted to see the prime minister. The police finally made way, and the Iron Ladies delivered their letter to Thaksin.

Listening to Manee, it's hard to separate excitement from concern. Surely it shocked and frightened police to have a mob of angry women threatening them with waist-high flag poles with nails sticking out the bottom. Then again, it sounds just as frightening to charge, outnumbered, through the prime minister's security force in a country where, from time to time, environmental and social justice activists are murdered or mysteriously disappear. It's difficult to understand what motivates these women, mostly rice farmers and weavers, mothers and grandmothers, to take such risks.

"There were 70 Iron Ladies all together," says Manee, "and 300 police officers." The women known as the Iron Ladies are unlikely leaders of a small but sophisticated movement against a transnational corporate giant and its government allies. Together, these women made a three-hour trip to deliver a letter to Thaksin.

According to Manee, the letter outlined the villagers' concerns about a proposed potash mine in Udon Thani province. The villagers' homes and rice fields sit atop one of the world's largest deposits of potash ore. Many residents fear the mine will mean the decimation of their rice fields, and as a result, the loss of their livelihoods, their culture, and their way of life. Villagers who oppose the mine comprise the Udon Thani Conservation Club, a tight knit group dedicated to preventing the mine's construction. "If we don't fight, who will?" Manee asks. "We realized if no one fights, none of us will survive."

There is something a little insane about 70 women charging through a police blockade to hand letters to the prime minister. There is also something a little disturbing about the desperation that moved these women to use such drastic measures. There are village leaders, local sub-district administrators, and provincial government officers to hear their concerns. Why aren't these women using conventional tactics to get the government's attention? They've tried. And it didn't work.

A shiny red rock

At the Thai headquarters of Canada's Asia Pacific Potash Corporation (APPC), located amidst rural villages and within a few kilometers of the proposed mine site, a red-faced man stands in front of a projector screen, pointing to a powerpoint slide with a picture of a shiny red rock. He explains that this sunset colored rock called potash has many industrial uses, but is used primarily to make chemical fertilizers.

"You're not going to feed billions of people without KCl [potash]," says an animated Keith Crosby, APPC's Vice President of Exploration and Development. "You like to eat and so do a few billion Asians."

Crosby has worked with Canadian potash mines for 30 years. "Thailand's lucky," he says. "There are no other potash mines in all of Asia. The Thai people are sitting on a unique deposit here."

He goes on to explain that in 1993 the Thai government agreed to allow APPC access to the potash in Udorn. But the company was legally unable to access the mineral because the Thai Mineral Act guaranteed landowners' property rights down to 350 meters beneath their homes. In 2002, amendments to the Act gave APPC the right to mine the mineral without consent of the landowners on the surface. Crosby explains with both frustration and excitement that the company has been trying to access the mineral for the past 22 years.

Having been stalled in part by public skepticism of foreign-owned companies, APPC sold to a Thai corporation. Italian Thai Development, Pcl. bought the shares of the company that owned APPC and created its own indirect subsidiary to control APPC's shares, creating what appears to be a Thai-owned company. Yes, it's complicated. It's meant to be. But the new company's PR department boasts that APPC, soon to be called Thai Mining Company, is "now 100 percent owned by a Thai corporation."

Guinea pigs

About five years ago, when the proposed amendments were making their way through the legislature, the Conservation Club was formed with the help of a local NGO, the Salt Study Group of Isaan. Villagers questioned the constitutionality of (and the motives behind) the Mineral Act changes. "This law was not made with us in mind," says Mae Nee, one of the Iron Ladies. "No one has the right to take our rights away."

Villagers also feared that if the amendments passed, Thailand's first attempt at underground mining could mean environmental effects that would destroy their farmland and with it their way of life. "We are not ready to sell our land and our resources," says Jim, an activist in the Conservation Club. "We are being used as guinea pigs."

Concerned about the effects, villagers contacted the Ministry of Public Health. Somporn Pengkam explains, "We received a letter from the Conservation Club asking us to do a Health Impact Assessment (HIA)." Pengkam's HIA highlights that the most harmful anticipated effect of the mining is the contamination of groundwater. Chemicals from mineral processing and huge amounts of salt byproduct (the pile is expected to be 40 meters tall and a kilometer long) are to be stored on a hill between two watersheds directly above the area's shallow underground reservoir, the region's primary water source. Pengkam says, with a look of concern, and possibly anger, "The mine processing site would be located in the exact worst spot."

Whether the risks outlined in the HIA are taken seriously remains to be seen. It is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), not the HIA, which must be accepted before mining can begin. In Thailand, as in the US and most countries, the company is in charge of conducting its own EIA, lacking oversight from uninterested parties, or even governmental offices such as the Ministries of Public Health or Environment. In a tone that betrays her soft-spoken demeanor, Pengkam says, "As doctors and nurses, we cannot keep letting people suffer from development. Can't we develop this country without people suffering from diseases? We are trying to attach an HIA to every development project."

Villagers feel the effects outlined in the HIA will threaten their ability to farm rice. "Our soil, our streams, our air, our rain are good," P'Nupien explains. "Why make them polluted?" Villagers also question the prevailing concept of development. The local government and the company claim anti-mine villagers are uneducated about economics, uninformed about development, and unnecessarily skeptical of modernization. P'Nupian refutes, "Development means you have enough food to eat and have a good life. We can say that this place is developed. In all their projects, they never look at how people live. This potash mine will offer no benefits for anyone here."

A perfect mine

Back in APPC's boardroom, those in favor of the mine make clear that they do understand how people live, and that the mine offers many benefits. Udon Thani is a poor province, they explain. Crop yields are the lowest in the nation. Villages here have disproportionately low young adult populations because many migrate to find wage-based work to supplement their families' incomes. APPC's Crosby reminds us the mine will create 900 jobs, and that thousands more will follow from the introduction of the industry. "These people in Isaan are the poorest people [in Thailand]. Don't tell me they don't want jobs; 99.9% of them do."

Company representatives and pro-mine villagers trust the potential environmental effects can be easily avoided. "Italian Thai is a good company with good people," says Crosby, standing next to a detailed model of the mining site. "It's technology that solves environmental problems."

A win-win situation

At the Ministry of Industry (MoI) in Udon Thani, guests sit in swivel chairs at Formica tables, uncomfortably poised before microphones, complimentary instant coffee, and deceptively appealing meat desserts (Thai bureaucrats clearly have no concept of what actually comprises a good snack). Bureaucrats here echo APPC's optimism about the project's economic benefits. The MoI in Udon is in charge of walking companies like APPC through the process of obtaining a mining license. They say the fifteen-step process of the license application explicitly involves public participation at two stages. They say if the people don't want the mine at those stages, it won't happen.

"The benefits of the mine will go to the majority," Wichai Nattarungsri says, "The country and its people will gain. As for the impacts, the effects-there must be mention of solutions to these things in the EIA."

"We would like the two sides to have a win-win situation-to be satisfied with what happens when the mine is built," says Pattchara Ratsuwan, head of the Primary Mining Industry Department. Showing less tact and more partiality, he adds, "Some groups will have to sacrifice for the greater good."

These government officials see themselves as something other than representatives of citizens. "We are the state's people," Wichai says, "We have to follow the state's regulations. We have to be able to offer wider availability of jobs, to import less, to export more, and to increase the GDP of the country. It is our duty."

With Iron Lady Nupien in mind ("The more the GDP goes up, the more villagers like us get hurt"), we ask Wichai what would happen if the interests of the state were incompatible with the needs and desires of its people, if people were to demand the mine never be built. "If the mine was not built," he says, "it would not be a win-win situation. If this project doesn't happen. we wouldn't be able to use our natural resources."

An imperfect industry

A discussion of the potash mine isn't on the photocopied agenda they hand us at "Gold doesn't always glitter," an international forum on mining policy organized by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD). Still, potential potash-affected villagers are there, listening with attentive, worried stares as women from Indonesia, Mongolia, and the Phillippines sit in front of the room and describe how the mines near their homes have destoyed their lives.

Surtini, a fisherwoman from Sulawesi, Indonesia, tells us that her entire village moved from Buyat Bay in search of a way to make an living after discharge of mining wastes into the ocean where they fished began killing fish died destroying villagers' health. As she tells her story, she shows pictures of babies born with skin so dry and rough it looks burned, children with mouths so dry they cannot eat, and women with rotting tumors on their breasts. She also describes a thwarted attempt to tell her story, "I called the media and asked them to video the sick people. Newmont (the American mining company in charge of the mine) came and asked the other women why they were letting themselves be provoked by me. So Newmont gave them a big boat and the people stayed silent again."

Rupina Batiel Moyaen comes to the microphone. She is well-spoken and poetic as she explains her community, in a mineral rich region called the Cordillera and primarily inhabited by indigenous people, was "one day faced with a giant enemy. We had no one to help represent the people and their interests." Lepanto Consolidated Company , the owner of the copper mine near Rupina's village, discharged acid mine waste, including cyanide, lead, cadmium, and arsenic into a nearby river. However, Lepanto assured villagers that the water discharged was the same quality as drinking water, higher quality than the water that went in. Blood tests proved otherwise.

Not governments, but gods

Villagers from Udon's Conservation Club nod in agreement as Judy Pasimio from APWLD, explains that governments sometimes address the environmental effects of mining, "It's also about power shifts. Government and local leaders hand their power over to transnational corporations. The company becomes like a government in the area. These companies have become like gods, not just governments, but gods."

This shift in power is most evident in places like the Philippines, where instead of defending the people against outside invasion, the military is commandeered on behalf of corporations to silence any resistance. Still, the Iron Ladies and other villagers in the Conservation Club have been hasseled by hired thugs, have received multiple death threats, and have been questioned repeatedly by nosy soldiers. They know what they are up against.

In 1995, in a move similar to the Thai governments amending of its own mineral act, the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime finalized efforts to open Philippine mineral deposits to foreign companies. The new act guarantees mining companies full ownership of mining areas, rights to water sources, tax holidays and exemptions, and even easement rights, which entail state-sponsored eviction of communities within areas of mining operations. Rupina's government insists foreign investment in mining is a solution to underdevelopment issues and the Philippines' economic crises, but Rupina fears the policy changes will invite more global mining giants to plunder the land, leaving behind little benefits.

"It would be helpful if government could represent the people," says Sewit, from the Salt Study Group. "The mineral act amendments didn't come from representatives, but from international capital and businesses looking to create a new law so they can easily access these resources. There is nothing in the law to say if the company makes mistakes how the project would stop. This is a fight between those who protect rights and those who take them away."

In each of these countries, whatever formal avenues exist to allow for public grievance fail to allow for meaningful input from villagers-often only assenting voices are heard. From every villager, from every country represented at the conference, we hear the same story: "The government and bureaucrats are agents of corporations," as Sewit says. "You must fight against the agency as well."

"We had no choice but to resist," says Moyaen, explaining her experience opposing the mine. But being part of the struggle was as dangerous as the mine's health effects (or something). "Many who struggled were killed or they are missing. There are unidentified armed men. It's getting worse. The military is there to protect the company, not the people." Military checkpoints were installed. Women and children fled the region to safety. Rupina herself was summoned to the military barracks three times for interrogation.

The poor have to help themselves

Back in Udon, back in the village, members from the Conservation Club in Non Samboon village give us a tour of their community. They show us the temple where they meet, the community radio station they use to broadcast information about the mine, the large lake where many villages get their water, the streams where their buffalo graze and bathe, and their rice fields. "Overall, we can say that Thai law is not sacred," Jim says. "Most of the law is on the side of the capitalist, not the people."

The women that we've spoken to, regardless of where they were from, all speak of the ineffectiveness of the available avenues for formal public participation. They feel they have no other choice than to take matters into their own hand, to take more direct action. "The poor have to help themselves," says Mae Manee. "Nobody paid us to go to Bangkok, it was our own initiative. This is people's politics." Mae Manee, Surtini, Rupina, Jim, and the other Iron Ladies have all been described as ignorant and fearful of development. Some have been called terrorists.

But these women know they are involved in a fight for their lives. "This is the hardest work we've ever done," says Iron Lady Mae Noi. "Winning this fight would be the greatest happiness our families have ever known." The villagers are indeed fighting against the companies, their governments, and the mines affecting them, but they are also challenging the kind of democracy that exists when government structures supposedly serving people serve the interests of corporations instead. The villagers are challenging a world where the importance of way of life, community ties, and the ability to make meaningful choices about one's own livelihood are disregarded as irrational and backwards.

We come back to Cogsee village for dinner. We sit on a bamboo mat we watched Mae Nee weave the day before. The battle seems unending, she tells us, but the villagers' resolve is strong. "They say we cannot fight against the power of money," she says, "but we will fight anyway. We will fight for our well being and for our lives. We will fight until we die."


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