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Local Voices Silenced by Economic Development, Katie Mathieson

The wall stands as a larger symbol of the struggles between the natural beauty and tradition of Thailand and the promise economic development and industry. 

Thailand sits on gold reserves valued at 180 billion US dollars with the potential to solve current debt problems and make Thailand an economic leader in the region.  The question remains, but at what cost?

Local residents don’t feel it’s worth it.

Tongkum Limited Company (TKL) has been in operation since 2003. Six communities live within two and a half kilometers of the open-pit mine. They claim the mine has contaminated the local food and water sources.  Both the company and the government acknowledge occurrences when poisons leaked from the mine, but neither institution will recognize the mine as the source for the contaminated local streams.

After years of struggle the only way local residents could participate was to build a wall. On September 7th they constructed a wall preventing TKL mining trucks from entering or exiting the mine, thus halting any production of the mine.

The first wall stood for 11 days before being destroyed. A new wall stood in its place the following morning.

The wall has become the center of a struggle between local residents and the international gold industry. In the pursuit of development, lax implementation of mining regulations has left local residents frustrated with the government’s response to impacts they feel the mine has caused. The protests of local residents focuses on their rights to participate in the management and exploitation of natural resources as outlined in Article 66 of the Thai Constitution.

On October 11th we arrived in the community of Na Nong Bong to find local women and children sitting in the middle of the road. At the request of the local government, 100 police officers had demolished the second wall just hours earlier. In the absence of a wall, local residents were blocking the road themselves.

In a matter of hours construction of a third wall began. The power and significance of the wall extends beyond its material purpose as a blockade. The wall stands as a symbol of the inherent division in Thailand’s development, separating the struggle of local residents in this area and the potential for Thailand’s growth in the global gold market. 

 Alain Kilajian and I spent the afternoon at the sight of the wall where roughly 300 community members took the day off from their farming to support construction of a new wall. Children played on the rubble of the previous walls, women gathered in the shade and arranged large spreads of food, and men took shifts digging the foundation for the new wall. The passion and strength of the community radiated from every individual in attendance.

In an effort to incriminate local residents building the wall, TLK staff ventured down from the mine to the site of the wall. Determined to protect their rights women and children assembled in front of the wall chanting “Tongkum augh bei! Muan-leh mai augh! Poo cow cun ma!” literally, “Tongkum, get out! Mining, not want! Mountain, want back!”

Eventually TKL mineworkers and staff retreated back up to the mine, met by delighted cheering of the local residents. 

Construction of the wall continued late into the night. A local monk designed the wall incorporating a steel framework to connect the meter in diameter cement cylinders now lining both sides of the road.

The struggle of local residents is not unique to the six communities fighting TKL.  The wall represents a larger struggle present throughout Northeastern Thailand. The value of the way of life of traditional farming communities is sacrificed to the greater worth of the land local residents have inhabited for centuries. Thailand is putting its minerals and inherent natural beauty up for sale to join the ranks of newly developed countries.

*** CIEE DG Fall 2013, Unit 4: Mining ***


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