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04/17/2014

Mining A Universal Conflict, Alice Chen

For Unit 4, we delved into the topic of mining and natural resources. We drove up north to Loei Province and visited two mountain communities right near the Laos border. The two villages, Na Nong Bong and U-moong are both being threatened by gold and iron mining respectively. In Na Nong Bong, their movement is in full-fledge with leaders, support, and programs. For example, when we went, they were one month into their “Kids Singing for Peace” project, and we were fortunate enough to sing with them in downtown Chiang Khan. U-Moong, however, is a much different story. This village is very much in the infant stages of their movement. Because, this community has not received any widespread impacts from the iron mine (unlike Na Nong Bong who have experienced water contamination and major health problems), they seemed to be having trouble getting villagers on the anti-mining side. The other groups, neutral and pro-mining, have yet to be directly impacted by the mines. As a result, U-Moong’s movement has been considerably slowed down as they try to establish a powerful following among the villagers.

The whole time we were on this unit learning about the issues and social movements of these two communities I just could not help but think how similar the situation was for these two communities and the mining communities back in America. Most people affected by mining tend to be poorer or are in rural areas. You could even argue that the marginalized groups in society always seem to get the brunt of it. Many mining communities also have issues with groundwater contamination, waste-dam breaks, and air pollution. At the same time, these same communities might depend on the mine for jobs as other opportunities are few and far between. Thus, a lot of times, communities run into conflicts on what they think would be best or they are already in such a low state that they do not know what to do.

In U-Moong, Doungta Nakrayrai, a papaya farmer, explains some of the issues that have arisen since PTK constructed the iron mine in 2006. She says that crop production has decreased by 30%, which she attributes to the contaminated water. The water pollution has also impacted their personal eating habits. “We can’t even find enough food to eat. We don’t dare eat the fish and frogs from the stream; we don’t dare eat those things.” Furthermore, the explosion from the mines can blast rocks into the village, putting holes into their rooftops.

Another issues, the anti-mining villagers currently face is money and trying to get other villagers (neutral and pro-mining) to join their movement. Some people do actually benefit; the mine gives them jobs, constructs temples, and fixes roads. The trouble is trying to get villagers to listen to their side, especially when the mining company, PTK, has money.  As Surat Kumraitong, another villager impacted by the mining, explains, “Other groups will not listen to us, they are more wealthy. If you are a rich person and a poor person came up to tell you things would you listen? The answer is no.”

I think this is very indicative of miming movements in America as well.  One example that immediately comes to mind is the battle for Coal River Mountain in West Virginia (documentary The Last Mountain). Some community members and environmental activists have teamed up to fight Massey Energy on mountaintop coal removal. Mountaintop removal is essentially using explosives to flatten mountains for easier access to coal. The downsides to this method are the destruction of the ecosystem, the filling of nearby streams and valleys with rubble from the blast, and altering water resource pathways and pollution. But on the flip side (I cannot remember the name, but another documentary from CNN) showed how some community members really needed the jobs that the coalmine would potentially give.

So the communities near Coal River Mountain are to an extent facing very similar challenges to Na Nong Bong and U-Moong. I think we are getting this wonderful opportunity to see first hand these issues and to learn so much about the villager’s struggles and fights. But I also think it is time for us to put it on a global scale, and see how these issues that we are studying, like mining, occurs universally. It is going to be hard for us, after seeing all these issues in Thailand, to just leave these people and go home, but we do not necessarily have to leave the issues. What we are doing here, we can do in America. We can and need to join these fights. 

Comments

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The trade-offs of development projects are such an interesting and complicated issues! There is so much to consider in development: the greatest good for the greatest number, poor people, rich people, livelihoods, displaced communities, environmental welfare, among other considerations. Mining is destructive to the environment and the health and welfare of certain people and communities, but provides social and economic benefits to other communities. How do we balance the trade-offs of development projects? Who should decide what is the best approach to development and the best type of development project? It is also interesting how you noted the trade-offs of development can also be compared to the U.S. The U.S. also has issues with the displacement of marginalized communities and people. Mining removes mountaintops and contaminates water. But it also provides jobs and a valuable resource used worldwide. Is there such thing as sustainable mining? How can we mitigate the negative impacts and amplify the positive ones?

I completely agree with you Lizzy, and I think you've raised some great questions. Determining trade-offs is difficult even just for myself in my everyday life - let alone for an entire nation! It has been interesting to learn about the increase in community participation in development projects, with the TAO organizing public hearings, etc. It is a dramatic shift from how most development plans got started in the 1950s-60s. However, it seems these efforts still are not very successful, but maybe just a facade.
I am interested to see how people can participate or give input in development projects back in America, and compare the success of this input. Does Thailand just not have the right design for community participation still? or is the system in place designed well, just not implemented successfully? Are the situations around community participation comparable in the US and Thailand because of the social differences (if any)?

I think the situation in U-Moong is very complicated. As we learned from exchanges, the villagers claim that the iron mine is ruining their crops and contaminating their water supplies. However, when we went to speak to the mining company, they stated that they don’t use chemicals in their mining process, and that the villagers are ruining their own crops and water supply with chemicals they use on their farmland. It’s really difficult to determine who is telling the truth in this situation, especially when you have two strong, opposing statements. I think this adds to the divide between the U-Moong villagers. Those who oppose the mine are people who strongly rely on their farmland. Those who are neutral or for the mines either do not own farmland or do not rely on it as much. Perhaps those who are neutral (those who do not rely on their farmland as much) are having difficulty figuring out who is telling the truth- the village farmers or the mining company.

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