This edited article is from The Isaan Record, an independent news site in Thailand, and is reproduced on Global Voices as part of a collaboration agreement. This story is a joint production between The Isaan Record and China Dialogue.
The future of a planned Chinese-Thai potash mine in northeastern Thailand was paralyzed in uncertainty because the inhabitants strongly oppose, concerned about the safety of their way of life, health and the environment.
After a protest group led by citizens blocked access to drilling sites in 2018, the Chinese mining company initiated a wave of lawsuits against villagers for compensation of 3.6 million baht (about USD 116 800 ).
Meanwhile, the question remains whether the outgoing military government modified the legislation for the benefit of foreign mining companies while disregarding environmental protection and community rights.
With an eye on the treasure of the northeast
China's overall success in agricultural production is due, in part, to the supply of economic fertilizers. The country is the largest consumer in the world of potash, a natural mineral that stimulates the harvest and improves the ability of crops to retain water and resist disease.
Chinese farmers depend on potash imports that come mainly from Canada, Russia and Belarus. However, as a result of the fact that mineral prices remain high and with an increase of almost 25% in 2018, the country boosted the development of new and cheaper sources.
He looked back at the large potash reserves in northeastern Thailand.
That region, which has long exploded salt, lies on two important potash deposits, discovered in the 1970s, known as the Khorat basin and the Sakon Nakhon basin. Even so, in the following decades the natural resource was not exploited due to strong local resistance, environmental problems and legal restrictions.
However, after a military junta will take power in a coup in 2014, plans to increase the extraction of mineral resources in the country to boost the economy were announced.
That same year, the state-owned China Ming Ta Potash Corporation obtained authorization to explore 120,000 rai (about 47,500 acres) of land in the northeast Sakon Nakhon province. Apichat Sayasiyot, the manager of China Ming Ta, said:
China and Thailand are both looking for new potash supply sources to cut import and production costs. Thailand has potash but needs the help of the Chinese to extract it. It's a Thai-Chinese collaboration that will benefit both parties.
China and Thailand are looking for new sources of potash to reduce import and production costs. Thailand has potash but needs help from China to extract it. It is a Chinese-Thai collaboration that would benefit both parties.
Fear and local anger
In the rural district of Wanon Niwat in Sakon Nakhon province, people responded first with fear and then with anger to the news of the planned potash mine. Local authorities did not properly inform the inhabitants of 82 villages that their homes were now part of a mining area.
“The company had started exploring at two drilling sites but the people in the community were not given information about the project,” said Mali Saengbunsiri, a 50-year-old farmer and grandmother of four grandchildren.
Wanon Niwat farming communities depend on the fertile lands, rivers, lakes and wetlands in the area that form a delicate ecosystem that provides them with food and other resources.
Many residents of the district are concerned that the mining project will destroy farmland, harm the environment and poison water sources, and also affect people's health. Mali added:
Just imagine the impact of a huge industrial mining project here. The scary thing about salt is that it is capable of damaging just about everything.
Just imagine the impact that a large mining project would have here. The scary thing about salt is that it has the ability to damage almost absolutely everything.
Poison from below
The exploitation of potash leaves as a byproduct large amounts of salt that can threaten the soil, water and wildlife of the area. In a region that already suffers from soils affected by salt, the inhabitants fear that the project will turn the fields into infertile lands and end the crops.
If rain brings salt to rivers, lakes and wetlands, few freshwater organisms would survive. It could end lifestyles based on fishing in Lake Huay Thong in the district, a body of water that is also the main source of water for thousands of people. Mali said:
We worry that all the fish will die and the soil will be so salty that we can’t grow any crops on our land anymore.
We don't know how the company intends to protect us from the dust and salty water coming from the salt mountain in the mine. How effective is it going to be?
We are concerned that all fish die and that the soil is so salty that we can no longer grow in our land.
We do not know how the company intends to protect us from dust and salt water that emerges from the salt mountain in the mine. How effective will it be?
The risk of the wind taking the salt dust from the mine to nearby communities causes concern about the potential impact on people's health.
Inhabitants and experts are also concerned that large-scale mining leads to the emergence of dangerous undercuts. A rock salt project in a nearby district caused a well that grew to 15 meters deep and the size of a soccer field.
China Ming Ta wants to reassure citizens with safety plans to mitigate environmental and health risks. It promises to implement measures to prevent the emission of dust and salt water in the environment.
Farmers respond with anti-mining protests
However, the promises of the mining company are too late to calm the fears of the inhabitants of Wanon Niwat. Driven by the feeling that catastrophic decisions were made without taking them into account, the inhabitants of the district organized an anti-mining group in 2016.
Led by middle-aged and older women, the group joined with activists, academics and non-governmental organizations to oppose the potash mine. They raised protest flags, organized public forums and submitted petitions to the authorities and the company to stop the project.
In February 2018, the group intensified its protest and blocked the way to the fourth drilling well, where it effectively prevented the company from taking the drilling equipment to the area.
The company plans to install 60 drilling zones to assess potash quality before assembling the mine. Earlier, Protestants also successfully blocked the area of the third planned drilling well. That leaves the company with only two operational drilling zones.
Hit by the demands
In response to the persistent resistance of local activists, the mining company took the matter to court and initiated a total of 20 lawsuits against nine members of the protest group.
The company claims that each blockade of the drilling areas cost five million baht (about USD 157,500).
China Ming Ta accuses the inhabitants of illegal obstruction of its mining site, defamation and violation of the computer crime law for demanding an official investigation of the mining project in social networks. The company demands compensation of 3.6 million baht (around USD 116,800).
However, Sakkaphon Chaisaengrat, a lawyer for the protesters, argues that the inhabitants acted according to law and only exercised their rights.
“The law allows people to exercise their community rights to protect local resources, culture and ways of life,” he said.
A mining law drafted by the military
Activists and experts in the Northeast argued that local conflicts over natural resource management would worsen after the government enacted new mining legislation in August 2017 in favor of mining industry and activity.
Drafted and approved by legislators appointed by the military board, the new mineral law accelerates the approval process for mining concessions. The period of consideration for permits was reduced to less than half: from 310 days to between one hundred and 150 days.
Underestimation of local resistance
However, the board did not calculate well the level of resistance that the potash mining project would cause among the inhabitants of Wanon Niwat and elsewhere.
“We don't want industry here,” Mali said. “We will not allow this area, rich in natural resources, to become an industrialized zone.”
Moreover, throughout the region, local groups organized against mining projects, even in the provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima, Chaiyaphum, Loei and Udon Thani.