The Province of Loei in Northeast Thailand is blessed with many mineral deposits. However, beneath the beauty of jagged mountains and famous national parks, chemicals course quietly through rivers and streams, killing many local species and poisoning the villagers.
Loei Province is the center of Thailand’s mining industry. According to the Loei Provincial Office, mining will bring development to Loei and make it’s central town a “city of tourists and investors under sustainable development.” However, mining seems to be anything but sustainable. In fact, it robs villagers of the self-sufficiency they have had for generations.
According to Earthworks and Oxfam America, mining uses up 10 percent of the world energy consumption while only employing 0.09 percent of the global workforce. Not only does the harvesting of minerals and metals entail boring giant holes in the earth’s surface, but it also requires tremendous amounts of chemicals to ultimately extract these minerals and metals from the rocks. For example, gold, copper, and silver are often found in rocks rich in sulfur minerals. Mining exposes these rocks to the atmosphere for the first time since they were formed. When exposed to oxygen and water, a chemical reaction results producing sulfuric acid. This seeps into the local watershed, decreasing the pH of rivers, streams and groundwater as well as freeing other toxic metals from the rocks it contacts. As these chemicals flow downstream they can kill virtually all aquatic life and badly degrade downstream environments.
Chemicals most commonly associated with mining are arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead. Arsenic has been linked to skin cancers and tumors, cadmium to liver disease, mercury to nerve damage and lead to mental and growth retardation in children.
The village of Na Nong Bong, a farming community of 220 households located in the Khao Luang district of Loei province, has been fighting against a local gold mine for the past six years. In 2006, Tongkum Ltd (TKL) constructed the mine only one kilometer away from the village. While Thailand’s law requires that villages be included in the construction process and that their opinions be considered before construction begins, companies manage to find loopholes in the system. For example, at the public hearing with Na Nong Bong villagers, TKL paid off the former village headman to change the votes of the community members in order for the result to be in favor of the mine’s construction. Such bribery is a common occurrence.
Chemicals released from the process described above, as well as cyanide leakage from the mine’s unlined tailings ponds have caused major health and environmental impacts in Na Nong Bong. Villagers have reported health problems including eye pain, headaches, vertigo, and skin rashes. A series of health and water tests conducted by the Ministry of Public Health have revealed high levels of cyanide in villagers blood, as well and unsafe levels of arsenic, manganese, cadmium, and lead in the drinking water. In addition, rice yields have fallen two-thirds since the construction of the dam and white spots are present on the villagers rubber trees, indicating harmful chemical exposure. Snails, fish and other wildlife are no longer able to survive in ponds and rivers.
Paw Samai Pakmee, a sub-district administrative officer and the president of the local NGO, People Who Conserve Their Hometown stated, “Since 2008, many people over the age of 50 have been dying. Some people can’t use their hands and legs. Their bodies are paralyzed…I’m afraid of the chemicals that are in my body.” Paw Samai is currently channeling his efforts into preventing the expansion of the mine onto neighboring “Phu Lek” mountain, as to ensure that further degradation of the environmental as well as the villagers health is stopped.
Not only has the TKL gold mine caused health and environmental impacts, but is has also stripped the villagers of the self-sufficiency they once had. Before the construction of the mine, villagers collected resources from the forest and drank water from the rivers. Minus the small amount of cash crops they grew, the village largely lived independently. However, with the introduction of the mine in the area, villagers can no longer drink from the river or collect food from the forest. For this reason, they are forced to grow more cash crops and rely on the greater economic system of Thailand rather than providing for themselves.
According to Khon Kaen University Professor Dr. Kritika Trakoolngan, Thailand’s mineral deposits are not substantial enough to make it a significant part of the country’s GDP. For this reason, she believes that in the future, mining in Thailand will become obsolete and the country will instead switch to smelting. The extraction process will shift to neighboring countries like Laos and Burma, which have less governmental regulations on mining.
The issue of mining is complicated because we all use minerals and metals every day. In fact, as a US citizen my annual consumption of “newly-mined” minerals is approximately 21 metric tons, that is about 57 kilos per day. However, minerals are a finite resource and the toll taken on the environment and local people to extract them is completely neither acceptable nor sustainable.
It is critical that the Thai government prevents mining companies from finding loopholes in legislation. Communities must be included in all decisions surrounding mine construction and operation. In addition, the government must ensure that mining corporations uphold commitments made in their Environmental Impact Assessment to ensure that minimal damage is done to the surrounding environment. Finally, the government must realize that it is in the best interest of the villagers as well as the nation to allow villagers to continue their sustainable way of life. By forcing them into the greater economic system, there is an increased demand for resources that cannot be sustainably supplied.
Thailand is not the only nation facing this problem. All over the world, developing nations seeks to use their resources to spur them into the realm of “more prosperous” developed nations. However, the key to future economic success is self-sustainability. If the government of Thailand can realize this now, it just may be able to become a forerunner in the economies of the future.