World Rainforest Movement

No shining legacy: Women start organising against gold mining in Thailand

The lush green rice paddies, vegetable fields, forested mountains and quiet villages in the Wangsaphung district of the Loei province of North-Eastern Thailand could be an oasis of rural tranquility, with clean air to breathe, fresh vegetables and fruit to eat and spring water to drink. From the mountainous highlands to the lowlands along the banks of the Mekong River and its tributaries, the fertile lands provide seasonal harvests of macadamia nuts, bananas, lychees, longan, mangoes, passion fruit, tamarind, coffee beans, soybeans, maize, rice, sesame, and rubber. In the past, some small-scale gold panning was carried out along the riverbeds, as the area is rich in minerals, including gold, copper and iron. However, today the land and water upon which the Isaan People have depended for generations has become poisoned by cyanide, arsenic and other heavy metals. The source has been traced to a recently opened gold mining site operated by a Thai company with Australian origins, Tongah Harbour Plc.

In 1996, the Thai Department of Mineral Resources began a process of approval for granting gold mining licence applications in Wangsaphung submitted by Tungkam Ltd. (TKL), a subsidiary of Tongah Harbour that has Australian and German financial support. The Thai Ministry of Industry granted final authorization in 2003 for a lease the size of approximately two square kilometers over twenty-five years. By September 2006, TKL began its operations at the first open-pit gold mine on a mountaintop once designated by the Thai government as a conservation area. To date, only two sites have been opened, covering a total of two square kilometers, as well as an on-site plant for cyanidation and carbon treatment of the gold. As of early 2009, over one hundred mining applications by TKL are pending approval by the Thai government.

Local residents in the area remained unaware of the mining licences, until the TKL’s machinery had already arrived. Although TKL has claimed that they took proper steps to hold consultations with the community, there is no documentation available regarding where these consultations were held, who participated, or what was discussed. Local residents claim that these meetings were not publicly announced and that the company handpicked the few people who did attend.

According to local activists, there is no public access to the agreements made between the company and the government or the mining concession certificate that would indicate the type and time frame of the mining activities on the land surrounding their farms. Furthermore, it was not until 2008 that some information was publicly reported regarding the legally required environmental impact assessments (EIAs). These studies were quietly completed by two Australian firms in conjunction with a Thai company along with Thai faculty from Khon Kaen University, without any input or participation from villagers.

Although Tungkam claims to be committed to “environmental stewardship”, local residents report that some of the most devastating effects of the mining have been related to the loss of clean, local water sources. The mine site has interfered with the route of a natural spring, which originally brought fresh, pristine water from the mountain through Wangsaphung. As a mitigation measure, the company diverted the stream so that it now flows around the periphery of the mine. Residents allege that the spring water has become polluted by not only the mine tailings, but also improper disposal of on-site solid wastes. Since 2006, mass numbers of poisoned fish floating in local streams have been observed on numerous occasions. With elevated levels of cyanide and other heavy metals, this stream runs directly into Loei River, a tributary of the transboundary Mekong River. Furthermore, residents note that contaminated water from the mine flows down the mountain during the monsoons, and they worry that the heavy metals will leach into groundwater. Meanwhile, in the dry season, dust from the mine blows through residential areas, exacerbating respiratory illnesses amongst the local population.

For the first time in known history, farmers are reporting severe water shortages, resulting in dry rice paddies and patches of parched, cracked soil. With the mine tailings pond adjacent to their fields, the majority of residents express fear about the uncertain levels of contamination in the fruits, vegetables and rice they still attempt to cultivate. Given the level of contamination and acidification of the rainwater, residents can no longer rely on gathering drinking water naturally. Instead, they have had to begin buying water, placing a strain on already tight family budgets.

Realizing the need to augment cash incomes in order to afford purchases of food and water, some women are travelling more frequently to the provincial capital to take on temporary day jobs. Ultimately, local residents’ abilities to retain their practices of food sovereignty and self-sufficient livelihoods have been lost, while their rights to food, water, and health have all been stolen. As the ones responsible for cooking, cleaning and water provision for drinking as well as other daily needs, women testify that the household pressures they experience have accordingly increased.

Over the past two years, local residents have begun to report rashes, breathing problems, severely irritated eyes, chronic headaches, dizziness, and weak sensations in their limbs. In addition, the regular and frequent blasting coming from the mine causes not only cracks in housing structures and the shattering of glass windows, but also heart palpitations amongst elders, and chronic levels of distress among children.

After working in their fields and rice paddies, women and men suffer from skin irritations that result in their skin peeling off and opening into festering wounds. Men who work in the mine have experienced distressing health problems, including skin diseases, severe eye and lung problems, insomnia and neurological degeneration. Meanwhile, women report that after washing clothes worn in the mine and the fields, they suffer from rashes on their hands and arms, breathing difficulties and eye pain. Blood tests conducted on children provide solid evidence of elevated levels of cyanide and other heavy metallic contaminants. A recent report, released in February 2009 by Thai government officials also warned residents to refrain from drinking the local water or using it to cook, due to elevated levels of cyanide, arsenic, cadmium and manganese.

Police and armed security guards have been working with Tungkam to monitor the mine site and the community, reporting on all who enter the site and surrounding vicinity. In general, local people are too intimidated to speak out publicly about the impacts of the mining, and as a result, the voices of social and environmental justice advocates remain muted. The lack of opportunities to participate in decisions affecting the future of their land and means of survival, as well as the silencing of dissent can be understood as nothing less than serious breaches of political and social rights, guaranteed under national and international laws.

Initially, local residents were frustrated by Tungkam’s lack of communication, consultation and openness about their plans for Isaan ancestral lands. After documents about the mining licence were leaked to a local biologist, the information was disseminated amongst the community in 2006. Since then, a small team of concerned residents —the majority of whom are women— formed an ad hoc committee that has been organizing community meetings to discuss the impacts of gold mining on the local water sources, the soil and local vegetables, air quality and people’s health. They have held public forums and open discussions, photo exhibitions and workshops. According to committee members, it is mostly local women —and in particular, those from younger generations— who attend discussions about the impacts of the mining, and strategies for changing their situation. In November 2006, an exchange with activists from Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines was hosted in Wangsaphung as part of an international mobilization against large-scale commercial gold mining. According to local women, after this initial international exposure, security was tightened at the mining site. Those trying to investigate Tungkam’s operations began —and continue— to be subjected to severe intimidation tactics.

Throughout 2008, local residents helped document the health impacts of the cyanide poisoning. They then proceeded to file complaints with the national human rights and health commissions. A report issued by the Human Rights Commission called on Tungkam to clean up the contaminated areas. However, despite the fact that the commissioners validated community concerns and condemned the company’s operations, no remedial action has been taken. Instead, Tungkam has begun publicizing their commitment to “positive corporate ethics”, and is sponsoring school festivities, sports tournaments and youth scholarships. For the villagers of Wangsaphung, these initiatives appear disingenuous, detracting from their serious concerns about the lasting legacies of cyanide and arsenic poisoning.

As of late 2009, the Wangsaphung community committee was seeking to halt Tungkam’s expansion plans for their gold processing and cyanidation plant. Protests were staged at the local government district office demanding that documents detailing the site expansion be made public. Further demonstrations by civil society networks are planned. Simultaneously, women are organizing weaving and food collectives, which allow them to retain a sense of identity, follow ecologically sensitive principles, and practise self-sufficiency. This groundwork is intended to form a basis of collective solidarity from which to launch into a campaign calling for the closure of the mine, and the prohibition of new mines on Isaan land.

By Tanya Roberts-Davis with the Thai Network for Mining Affected Communities/ Eco-Culture Study Group, email: troberts@alumni.upeace.org