It’s a truly idyllic valley, thumbs of karst rising from rice fields, a glowing sunset tempered by cumulo nimbus. Women bend at the waist planting rice seedlings, their movements reflected in the water. The set for a painter or poet.
Instead it’s the stage for the violent suppression of popular protests in the northern Thai province of Loei. For eight years, the embattled villagers have been fighting the owners of an adjacent gold mine. This lovely valley and the determined villagers are at the intersection of human, physical and political geography writ small and very mean.
To the villagers, the environment itself has become the enemy. The water in which the women stand plunging seedlings into mud is contaminated with arsenic, manganese and chromium. Below the overburden dumps, the rice fields hold arsenic, cyanide, mercury and cadmium.
Under trees, an unusual number of people sit in wheelchairs. Changma, 65, suffering debilitating peripheral neuropathy in her legs and hands (‘stocking/glove syndrome’) sits in her basic kitchen, cleaning pots. She is barely able to walk. Her doctor diagnosed the cumulative effects of arsenic. Cham, 84, who lives 300 metres away, has worse symptoms. A bowl of water nearby soothes the pain and persistent tingling associated with damaged nerves. Her 86-year-old husband with degenerative spinal condition is unable to care for her. We see cases of skin rashes. All signs of chronic arsenic poisoning.
Earlier this year, a farmer died from cancer and muscle wasting put down to cumulative arsenic, lead and cadmium exposure. His rice fields were at the base of a 25 to 30-metre high overburden dump.
Four hundred and forty blood samples taken from villagers revealed heavy metals in every sample. Mercury concentrations exceeded exposure limits in 38 samples. Cyanide was identified in 348 blood samples, 84 exceeding acceptable limits. Every sample contained lead. Surface water is unsuitable according to Health authorities, for anything but washing clothes.
Edible vegetables show dangerously high concentrations of arsenic. The villagers blame the Phu Tap Fah gold mine, managed by Tungkum Mining Limited, a subsidiary of Tungkah Harbour Pcl. The mine blames the villagers. In essence they are both right and, in the spirit of Paracelsus, the issue here is the ‘dose’, and who is responsible for destabilising that dose.
The Lay of the Land
The wild karst country is an extension of ancient limestone and fossil beds extending across north-eastern Thailand and the Mekong River into Laos. The area known as Wangsaphung in Loei province, is one of the least populated areas of Thailand.
But there’s a lot of gold in them thar hills. The 1,290 rai of land bought in 1995 for about THB 2000 (£37) per rai (1,600 m2) was thought to contain 1.7 million tonnes of ore from which 251,917 ounces of gold could be extracted.
Until the Phu Tap Fah mine commenced operations in 2006, the villagers by all accounts lived a hard but prosperous life. While there is evidence contaminants exist in the soil, it’s reasonable to assume people did not choose to establish communities in lethal locations; that is, the concentrations of omnipresent contaminants did not produce symptoms, or produced subclinical symptoms. Professor of Environmental Science, Dr Doolgiderchaporn, at nearby Khon Khaen University said ‘Poisons are not seen and are slow to react.’
Gold is typically found in areas high in naturally occurring arsenates and similar toxic minerals. But 100 years is probably long enough for pathologies, based on background levels to emerge; the villagers independently reported the onset of accelerated symptoms of neurological and skin damage over the last six to eight years, along with death of riparian life forms, coinciding with mining operations. They fished, gathered edible crustaceans, lotus for temple offerings, irrigated crops and drank the water from the Phulek stream, which links all six affected villages, suffering little or no ill effects.
The mine sheared off the summit of a hill sacred to the people, releasing toxic components in the rocks and soil into the streams and surroundings as dust. In addition they added to the mix by importing cyanide to process the gold ore. Three recorded breaches in tailing ponds have been linked with death and disability. In 2011 Loei’s health authority admitted ‘This is really health-threatening,’ but the mine stays open and refuses to pay for health care.
The mine, run by Tungkum Mining Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tongkam Harbour PLC has some heavy backing. Wichai Cherdchivasart, Associate Professor of Biology at Bangkok’s esteemed Chulangkorn University is Managing Director. He is behind a medication, touted as the new Viagra. Mr. Ronald Ng Wai Choi and his two daughters are both shareholders and involved in management. Then there’s the Thai Royal family’s investment arm, the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) which owns a 7.88 per cent share holding. Board members of Tongkah Harbour consist of men linked to the CPB and Siam Cement, another Royal company. Hardly surprising that the Thai Royal family is the richest in the world, the King being 5.4 million times wealthier than his average ‘subject’.
Despite his background in biological science, Cherdchivasart dismisses villager’s claims and the findings of various national and academic bodies which confirm the presence of contaminants in food, plants and water. When challenged he asked his associates at the University to attest that the contaminants were naturally occurring, which is technically correct, but failed to point out these were released and potentiated as environmental hazards by the mine.
Management claims the villagers are panicking. ‘They don’t understand the land has always been toxic and that their complaints are just a way to reclaim the land to expand rubber plantations.’
American geologist J Peter Mills, associated to Tungkam Mining, asserts that ‘They should change their diet,’ stop using pesticides, insisting, ‘they eat food that is not washed properly’.
Fighting the Elements
The amount of overburden, rock removed to access the ore, can be alarming. In most instances, such rock isn’t toxic, but where gold is found, it often is. A Thai Professor of Geo-engineering told Geographical, ‘typically Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and ongoing monitoring don’t account for ‘passive’ components such as tailings ponds, or overburden dump sites (top soil and rocks like arsenopyrite that contain no gold), [nor] the pit which is active and constantly changing [while] in operation. Both can be a major sources of contamination if not properly designed, constructed, or executed.’
He continued: ‘The passive components are quite straight forward... and the EIA regulates [them] strictly. Good construction with adequate lining, and a precautionary monitoring system usually does the job.’
Looking at the film clip above reveals the tailings ponds are not sealed or lined. Armed security disallowed us from climbing the hill to find the breaches in one tailings dam, which has been improbably placed at the head of the Phulek sub-watershed. The stream’s sediment, oily and yellow, typical of acid mine leachate, contains little or no life. Only resistant plant species survive.
‘The active components... are not well monitored and regulated,’ continues the Professor. ‘This is quite disturbing especially in the case of gold deposits associated with arsenopyrite. Arsenic leaches into the environment naturally due to weathering and erosion. With open-pit mining, an enormous amount of arsenopyrite becomes exposed to the elements when the overburden is excavated. This unwanted overburden is soon removed to the dump site where linings and coverings are available to prevent leachate.
‘The exposed rocks within the pit are not screened from wind and rain. Therefore, arsenic would eventually enter the water that seeps into the pit slopes and bottom. It should be properly disposed in a contained waste pond, but mostly I have seen it disposed anywhere that is convenient. So, we have arsenic seeping into the top soil, groundwater, or surface water, both directly from the pit opening and from the relocated run-off water. This I imagine, must increase the rate of arsenic leachate into the environment at least hundreds, if not thousands, of times higher than it would have naturally.’
Therefore it impossible to say that no arsenic enters the environment from an active open mine.
Power and the Glory
‘The company just dumps the waste anywhere.’ said 67-year-old Mae Rot one of the protest leaders. We stand at the base of a dump only 500 metres from her house. No lining or drainage ditches to contain contaminated water were visible.
Mae’s bright eyes belie the stress she feels. She loses her composure only once, when describing a hit list that includes her name. Assassins, she asserted, had been sent to get rid of protest leaders. But without up-front money, the thugs didn’t arrive. Even if fanciful, the allegations are symptomatic of pervasive fear.
The communities, organised themselves into a group called Khon Rak Ban Kerd (People Love their Hometown – KRBK) probably accept the mine will not close but demand changes to the mining law and proliferating mining concessions. Villagers stood for local government aiming at structural reforms and changes to local development policies. All of which rankles with the elite quasi-feudal politics of Thailand, now defended by the military junta.
In 2012 the mine’s permit to operate was temporarily suspended due to allegations of embezzlement. In 2014 Lt Gen Poramet Pomnak and his son Poramin led an attack on the village. ‘They hit us with bars and held our faces in the mud.’ said one of the villagers, Bhan, 72. Three hundred men wearing balaclavas and armed with iron bars stormed the villages. Lt Gen Pramet, linked with a fake guard scam in Pattaya and named as heading the Loei violence, was never tried or disciplined
After the violent confrontations with the villagers, the company, agreed to again suspend operations, at least intermittently. Colourfully decorated cement blocks lie forlornly in the deep grass, symbols of resistance.
Instead of investing in mitigation measures and environmental clean ups, as promised in financial documents (p.8), the company accused the KBRK of obstruction and took them to court. The company eventually retracted the charges, but refuses liability. Nor did it explain why such force is being used to suppress concern.
With the declaration of martial law in 2014, meetings of more than four people were disallowed. Despite this, the six villages meet every two days. When things are difficult and urgent, they meet daily. The struggle is led largely by women. From press photographs I recognise some with whom I shared green mango and chilli, their faces showing the hyper-pigmentation typical of arsenic intoxication.
They pay for their impudence. ‘Three months ago I was riding home and a masked man put a gun against my head. He dragged me get off my bike, pushed me down on the road, telling me I could go no further.’ said Bhai, a 27-year-old villager. ‘They sometimes ride through the village at night firing guns and shouting. The military is threatening a curfew to stop us meeting.’
‘Two years ago we had consultations as the company was wanting permission to drill in additional locations. The police and army set up road blocks so we couldn’t access the hearings. Our banners were confiscated and destroyed.’ Bhai told me. What she didn’t say was that two years ago the wall of one of the large ponds collapsed sending cyanide contaminated water into land not yet secured by the mine.
A young man on a motorbike stops next to us. A load of pumpkin leaves rides pillion. ‘You shouldn’t eat those leaves ‘ says Mae. ‘It’s all I have.’ he shrugs. And there’s the rub. The farmers are poor and have little or no choice. Their riches are social, based on rao rak kan/hak peng kun (helping, loving and admiring each other). Life is intense and laden with trust and cooperation; more an interdependent system than groups of individuals.
‘We have nowhere else to go,’ she says. ‘This is our land and we have been here for a hundred years. We have a right to live peacefully. We can’t eat the food we grow, we can’t drink the water. All we can do is keep fighting for justice. We pray to our ancestors in the mountains for help. Recently the miners drilled but found nothing. Maybe our ancestors are listening.’