High Stakes, Hard Lines Pose Threat to Peace in Udorn Thani

By Peter McCaslin

Potash, a coarse, reddish mineral used to make chemical fertilizers, is giving rise to more than just high crop yields in the province of Udorn Thani. Plans by Asia Pacific Potash Corporation (APPC) to build a “world-class” potash mine under private farmland has stirred up a storm of emotions over the past four years, and recent developments have only made things worse.

If concerns from local residents are not adequately addressed, Udorn Thani could be a ticking time bomb.

The volatility of the situation was glaringly apparent at a meeting in late November at Rajapat University between provincial government officials and representatives from the Environmental Conservation Club of Udorn Thani, a local NGO leading the movement against the mine. Like thunderclouds promising harsh rains, anyone observing this confrontation could sense the thick animosity hanging over the room. Literally minutes after talks began, the conservation club defiantly stormed out, infuriated that the meeting did not “allow villagers to have a real voice,” as club member Koy Arisara Ryan proclaimed.

According to Pah Prajaub Saenpong, club president and head of the TAO of Huaysanpad tambon administrative office, the conservation club deeply resented the fact that the meeting was not an open forum, that it did not take place in the villages, and that the government did not wait to have it after the rice season so that farmers could attend, as the club had expressly requested in a letter to the governor.

The government saw it differently. Since the meeting had been granted in response to a request by the conservation club, it was not part of the “real procedures” for the mining application process, and therefore villagers had no right to complain about its logistics or restrictions.

The issue remains unresolved.

Although common ground remains elusive, all parties certainly agree on one thing: the stakes in this case are very high. With a potential 6-billion dollar (US) profit to gain, as well as tens of millions of dollars already invested that would go to waste, APPC and the Thai government have worked tirelessly to get the project approved. On the other hand, home owners opposed to the project have fought with equal determination to prevent that from happening because they worry about the mine’s potential negative effects- such as land salination, water pollution, and land subsidence-which could ruin the villagers’ livelihoods.

For many, like local resident Mae Puah Pochalee, the thought of such a catastrophe is unbearable.

“I would have nowhere else to go,” she lamented, “nothing to hope for. We only know farming, how can we survive?”

The extent to which any negative effects will occur is debatable, but most villagers opposed to the project are more upset by the lack of participation they have had in the decision-making process.

As Saenpong recounts, frustrations began in 2001 when an independent Bangkok-based NGO informed villagers that the government had approved APPC’s Environmental Impact Assessment—the key document for evaluating and preventing potential negative impacts from a project. The government had neither informed villagers about the EIA, nor would release a copy of it for public scrutiny.

Pressured by protests from villagers and the National Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment eventually publicized the document, but only in English. A year and a half passed before villagers finally saw a copy in Thai. Soon after, a study by an independent team of scientists and academics found 26 major flaws in the document. As it stands now, the government has not asked APPC to submit a supplement for approval.

Another alarming incident took place only a few months ago and triggered the most recent wave of outrage from villagers, including the demand for the meeting.

According to conservation club vice-president Mae Manee, in early August of last year authorities apprehended two men illegally placing benchmarks and taking land measurements around the boundaries of the underground mining site. The men had neither consulted land owners before digging on their property, nor were accompanied by government officials as required by law. In the police report, the men stated that APPC hired them. Despite being a violation, the government has refused to remove any markers, and, in fact, has tried to finish the task while villagers are still busy with the harvest.

Regardless of whether the EIA will stand or the demarcations continue, most villagers are determined to fight this project.

A petition currently circulating has already accumulated over 10,000 signatures in opposition to the mine. If the government continues pushing forward without addressing the concerns of the villagers, says Mae Manee, the war of words could quickly deteriorate into something much more serious.

“If we try to oppose the mine the right way and it doesn’t work,” she warns, “we will try any way to keep it from happening. I think this issue will get closer to what the southern issues are facing. It may become rather violent.”