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03/11/2014

Koh Saen Community, Apisra Srivanichraper

February 27, 2014 The temple was packed: Bespectacled adults in traditional white jackets with local designs, mothers with their babies, a tiny grandma or two, a man in his dusty work gear were there to exchange with we unconventional American study abroad students.

By exchange, this meant a back and forth mixture of introductions, speeches, and two way questions and answers posed by students and villagers alike, via translator. 

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Three different villagers introduce themselves to exchange with American CIEE students

What were we doing there? We CIEE students based out of Khon Kaen, the Northeast hub of Thailand, were studying land rights in the nearby province of Chaiyaphum. For this particular exchange, we were at this temple to hear about the Kon Saen villagers’ fight to prevent the construction of a rubber processing factory.

It wasn’t the factory itself they were protesting, but the location. Their main concern was that where the factory was going to be built would contaminate the ground water.

Unknown to the company, the villagers had taken it into their own hands to visit three other rubber factories, such as ones in next door provinces Udon Thani and Nongkai. They saw firsthand how the water was contaminated, smelled the bad odor permeating through the air, and listened to the locals talk about the increase of acid rain and how they wished they could change their current situation.

The Kon Saen villagers had not always been against the rubber factory.

Initially, most of the Kon Saen villagers wanted it- the company pitched itself as something that would bring development to Kon Saen, make Kon Saen a tourist destination, increase the rubber prices, and contribute to the community through Corporate Social Responsibility to events such as local temple festivals.

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Khon Saen loves Khon Saen group

However, the rubber company failed to mention any negative effects, or what they would do to address them. Incorrect information was also perpetuated about how a rubber factory would increase the rubber prices: As recent problems in Thailand’s South indicate, in how rubber farmers demanded that the government pay them more than the low world market price, like how the government did with the rice scheme, the company’s marketing was misleading. (For more information, see http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324463604579040673367795400). 

An investigation by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand in 2013 has halted, for now, the rubber company’s process to build in Kon Saen because of this failure to disclose information about potentially harmful effects.

This isn’t the first time that the yet-to-be-built factory has had its location protested.

The factory was actually supposed to be built in Loei province, where Chaiyaphum’s current governor had been governor previously. But when the people in that area protested, the factory’s location changed to where its potential location is set on now: Kon Saen, Chaiyapum.

Kon Saen villagers worry this halt won’t last forever, though. Chaiyapum’s governor has expressed that he wants the rubber factory in Kon Saen. Word is that he owns thousands of rai, with rubber trees on it (1 acre is about 2.5 rai). Other political influences reportedly want to see this happen as well.

For the rubber factory to be built, it must be approved at 3 levels: The Head of the Industrial Department must sign a permit, the Governor of Chaiyaphum province has to initiate contact with all the villagers to register their opinions, and the TAO (Tambon Administration Organization, the subdistrict government level) should register their opinions. Right now, one more step needs to be approved by the Ministry. But given the current political instability, many processes are up in the air.

Despite this, what have the villagers done, and what are they doing now, are to halt the construction of the rubber factory?  

When people in the community realized that the negative effects outweighed the potential benefits, they arranged a meeting with the TAO to cancel the villagers’ previous approval. But with no acknowledgement from the TAO, the villagers set out to educate everyone themselves, through meetings, protests, the newspaper, and Facebook.

These meetings included seeing the headperson of different villages and getting them to gather the community together to spread the word about the negative effects. The protests have happened at every level: Local, provincial, and national. They have connected with NGOs to help them fight the construction of this factory, like “P’ Pramote,” a local expert who helps navigate the uncertainty of laws and helps people know their rights. The youth are also actively involved, helping in the protests, to spread the word by mouth and on Facebook. One of the middle-school aged girls spoke about how she had contributed to her community’s fight in such ways.

What do they protest? On the basis that it is an inappropriate use of land. Most Kon-Saen-ians at the exchange seemed to advocate that the government set up rubber zone areas, and let villagers know in these areas how they can be involved in what is going on.

The exchange closed with a local elder who surprised us with a speech in English, who was also a teacher from the University of Life. This is a system created for people who wanted to continue their education at a higher level, as an alternative classroom in the community that shares not only lots of local knowledge, but gives you the tools to be able to have enough to eat within your own hometown.

This exchange left me humbled and amazed at how actively involved and passionate this community was about not having the rubber processing factory. It also made me reflect on how lucky I was to live in a country where things like a Health, Environment, Social, and Air Impact Assessments must be done when a factory wants to build somewhere. While the United States’ laws are far from perfect, and there have been injustices from things such as fracking or other companies, I wished the Kon Saen community the best of luck in their fight. But I’m glad that at the end of this program, I can fly home where I don’t have to worry about my governor having a secret agenda that could poison my resources. 

Comments

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The exchange with Khon Saen villagers was one our most unique experiences of Unit 2, because it illustrated how a community can have amazing depth, unity and power. As one of the smaller units of society, communities have the crucial ability to influence democratic decisions and protect the welfare of citizens overall. Often, however, communities are oppressed and/or divided by outside forces, if their members do not have strong bonds. Khon Saen is a notable exception to this trend. With pride in their traditions, occupations, and long history, the village stands firm against adversity. After seeing the quantity, diversity and eagerness of the people present at our exchange, I was not surprised to hear how proactive and passionate their movement is against the proposed rubber factory. Annie provides important details on the situation—for example how village leaders investigated other rubber factories and educated the public with transparency. It is unfortunate, however, that the government has its own agendas, and is pushing for the factory anyway. Is Khon Saen really the best location for this factory? I like how the Khon Saen villagers, along with many others facing the same conflicts with industrialization, feel that these factories should be placed in “industrial” zones and not near homes. Lastly, like Annie, I appreciate how for the most part the United States have safety standards and public forums when an equivalent factory is being built.

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