It’s been almost three years since Pornchita Fahpathanpai first saw the sign, which announced that her village, Kabue Din – a lush, pristine indigenous Karen village tucked away in the sleepy mountains of Omkoi District, Chiang Mai Province – was soon due to become a coal mine. Since then, life has been utterly different.
Pornchita used to simply go to school, hang out with friends after school and help her parents tend their tomato fields on the weekends. Today, the 21-year-old spends most of her days trying to understand land rights, Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), and anything that can help her save her hometown in northern Thailand.
Pornchita was just in her last year of high school in 2019 when she heard the news: a private company had gone through almost every process they’ve had to acquire land around her village and the permits to build a coal mine – decades ago, having threatened community members into selling their ancestral lands – and the last step was to get the community’s consent.
Within months, she and her friends became young activists who led protests against a mining company and governmental departments. Having seen how public consultations have been misconducted in other places, where companies and government departments have misrepresented communities’ true opinions, they knew not to let it happen. At first, they didn’t know how to organise rallies or speak to journalists, but they sure have had to learn very quickly.
“The world is getting hotter everyday. If there’s more coal, the world will get even hotter. I think we should stop coal for our earth.”
It’s been a long, strenuous battle, but in April 2022, she will finally march with her community to the administrative court to fight for the land she and her ancestors have long called home. She’s unsure of what the court will rule out and where the future of her community lies. Will we win the case? Is there a point to all of this? She wonders. It makes her think of others in the same boat and what they’ve done to determine their fate. She recalls their words, stories of how they’ve fought and fallen, and how they’ve taught her to fly in the face of injustice and adversity.
The trip to Mae Moh
In October 2019, with support from local NGOs, Pornchita and around 20 other people from Omkoi visited two other coal-affected communities in Lampang Province to hear their experiences. After about five hours on four pickup trucks, the group arrived in Mae Moh, coming to a halt at an expanse park lined with rows of vibrant flowers and a viewpoint overlooking the region’s rolling plains. Visiting, you wouldn’t be able to tell that this place was, in fact, the biggest open-pit lignite mine in Southeast Asia and holds 90% of Thailand’s entire coal reserve. Today, the scars the mine left on the land and its people were covered up and turned into a tourist attraction and golf course by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT).
Opened in 1978, the mine produces 16 million tons of coal a year. Beside it stood 13 coal-fired power plants operating since 1999 — some of which have now retired and replaced — which, according to Greenpeace, contribute more than four million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere each year. Thousands have developed severe respiratory issues from the sulphur dioxide and other toxic substances they’ve been inhaling, and more than 30,000 people were displaced.
“They’d made chilli paste in the morning, and it’d go bad by the afternoon because of the air pollution.”
“They’d made chilli paste in the morning, and it’d go bad by the afternoon because of the air pollution. All the herbs and vegetables they grow around the house are inedible because they’re covered in dust and soot. Many people are now hooked up to oxygen tanks 24/7,” Pornchita recalls the stories Mae Moh locals have shared, a clear picture of a future that would take shape if she and her community stopped protesting against the coal mine.
For six years, Mae Moh community members fought hard for their justice. Finally in 2009, the court ordered the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand to compensate villagers accordingly and put forth measures to reduce pollution levels. But for many, it had been too late — 20 plaintiffs had already died from the health conditions they faced. Whenever she wants to give up, Pornchita recalls these stories, and they keep her standing her ground.
Lessons from Baan Haeng
After another two-hour drive north, Pornchita and her group arrive at Baan Haeng. Here, in April 2020, the community won a crucial court case to ban lignite mining in their area. Of course though, they told Pornchita, it wasn’t an easy battle.
“They’ve filed complaints to the local government office. They’ve created petitions and protested and raised their hands in objection at public hearings,” Pornchita said. “They’ve collected data about social and ecological impacts to show as evidence. They’ve slept by the city hall and spent nights on the streets.”
Throughout the decade, the Baan Haeng community members did everything in their power to fight the coal mine. Some were intimidated, surveilled, harassed, and threatened with enforced disappearance. They faced roadblocks and even conflicts and divisions among themselves. But despite it all, they kept fighting.
Back to Kabue Din
So when Pornchita wonders whether all her effort is worth it, these stories come back to her.
“The uncles and aunties who began protesting when they were my age told me, ‘You have to fight, baby’. If you don’t fight, you won’t be able to live.”
The battle is long but the light is near. And what Pornchita learned from all the people she’s met is to harness the power of the people. You can’t possibly revoke a mine concession by yourself — after all, corporations and governments will use laws in their favour to get what they want, regardless of whether it is fair or liked by you. But when hundreds find the injustice just as you do and bide to stand with you, it becomes much harder to ignore.
Pornchita knows she is not alone. Despite its approved status, Omkoi communities believe the EIA for the proposed coal mine had, by no means, sought their Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Information about negative impacts was left mainly undisclosed. Public hearings were often inaccessible by most community members. Signatures and photos in the assessment were even falsified. Together, Pornchita and her community have strengthened each other, from the old to the young and the young to the old, and stand in solidarity to speak truth to power.
With their lawsuit against the Office Of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning and the EIA Expert Committee, Pornchita and her community will be calling for a reassessment of the EIA, aiming to put the project to a halt. Very close to the date of her march to the court, Pornchita feels anxious and nervous and sick and tired. But with that, she also feels hopeful and confident.
Reminded of these stories from other activists, she believes that they will win, and whether they win or not, she knows they will fight.