Guest commentary by Praveena Fernes and Molly Gurney

A new mining law comes into force this month. Many civil society groups worry that it will cutback people’s participation and expedite mining initiatives. Although mass extraction of resources might be beneficial to Thailand’s economy, the communities that are closest to the mines fear they will face health and environmental degradation.

Ranong Kongsaen, a mining activist, looks onto the aftermath of gold extraction on a mountain near her home in Na Nong Bong Village in Loei Province. Photo credit: Praveena Fernes

Thailand’s military government is in the midst of enacting new mining legislation. A new minerals act, which is set to be enacted on August 29, includes notable changes that will affect local villages and mining companies alike.

But civil society members and government officials describe the new law in drastically different ways echoing a lack of transparency and consultation with all stakeholders in the legislative process.

In the Northeast, activists, academics and representatives from communities affected by mining express strong concerns about the potentially negative effects of two specific aspects of the new mining act. First, the creation of mining committees at the national and provincial level, which is believed to curb people’s representation. Second, the lack of detailed regulations on restoration of mining affected areas

Government officials, in contrast, predict that the new law will increase people’s participation and environmental consciousness.

One-stop service

A key aspect of this new mining law is the creation of a mineral committee at the provincial and national levels. Provincial committees will be created in all provinces with mines and chaired by the provincial governors.

Dr. Santiparp Siriwattanaphaiboon, a lecturer at Udon Thani Rajabhat University, explains that the national mineral committee will mostly include members from the Ministry of Industry and representatives of mining companies. Representatives will be also chosen from the National Legislative Assembly, who will represent different parties.

The national mineral committee is expected to expediting the process of companies putting machines to soil.

Dr. Santiparp warns that people should be prepared for having less power as the provincial governors will appoint members of the provincial committee. Those members who will supposedly represent the village communities are predicted to be proponents of the mine, Dr. Santiparp says.

In addition, the new minerals bill transfers responsibilities of finding mining land, acquiring permits, and conducting environmental surveys to the government, streamlining the process while diminishing the voices of villagers in mining operations.

Suraphan Rujichaiwat, an NGO leader in a mine-affected area in Loei Province, points out that process of getting a mining license will be cut from one to five years to 60 days. Companies will able to ask the government for up to 600 rai of land (about 237 acres), instead of the previous limit of 300 rai.

Mr. Suraphan compares the new minerals bill to a “one-stop service,” where the government does all the paperwork and the mining companies have to do is hand them a check.

This “one-stop service” will leave little room for villagers directly affected by the mine to contest. Though the National Mineral Committee has yet to announce a specific policy regarding public hearings, academics and villagers are in agreement: people’s participation will be severely diminished in the new regulations.

But Pattong Kittiwat, Director of the Provincial Industry Office in Bueng Kan Province, says that “local people shouldn’t be worried about the new law, villagers will have more participation.” He believes there will be increased participation in the new act due to villager representation in the provincial committee.

In contrast, experts and activists in Northeast Thailand believe that the new minerals law is created in favor of industry and mining.

A mining company that operates in Thailand verifies that the new legislation is beneficial towards their company. In an online article, Metal Tiger PLC company states that they “have full confidence that they [Thai partners] will make the strongest possible case for the permitting of both Boh-Yai and Song-Toh historical mines.”

In the new law, the environmental impact assessment (EIA) processes will be conducted by the government, wherein the outcome of public hearings and public scopings will carry less weight.

Mr. Suraphan describes how in the current legislation, public hearings never go smoothly because people protest the mine. He says that public hearings are often manipulated by mining companies to silence villagers’ opposing opinions.

In other public hearings, villagers and NGOs resisted and raised havoc to delay the mining permit acquisition process, and hold off the opening of mines in certain cases.

The subtle diminution of people’s participation in the new law leaves Dr. Santiparp, community leader Mr. Suraphan, and others rightly concerned.

Cyanide, a highly toxic chemical, is commonly used to extract gold from ore. When a mining company entered the area in 2006, Na Nong Bong villagers observed negative changes in their personal and the community’s health. Photo credit: Praveena Fernes

Unclear restoration policies

Activists and community leaders are also skeptical of the restoration policies within in the new act. The mix of decreased people’s participation and inadequate restoration practices could potentially hurt communities. Summaries of the mining law include some restoration articles, but who will carry the plans out and how, is still unclear, says Kornchanok Saenprasert,Director of the Center for Human Rights Law for Society in Khon Kaen City.

In a summary by Chandler MHM law, the reference that underground mining requires companies to “provide a restoration plan, and place security for restoration of the mining area, and remedies for persons affected by the mining. (Sections 81(8) and 81(9))” There is no mention of necessary preoperative restoration plans for open-pit mining specifically, which includes the gold mining industry.

In a minerals act summary by Baker and Mackenzie, they declare the new law includes “obligations on operators, including requirements to provide guarantees for the rehabilitation of mining areas; help for people affected by mining operations.”

Specifics on what restoration mean are not included, which is troublesome considering mining companies, the government and local community members define restoration differently.

Mr. Pattong states that according to government policy restoration means restoring the environment to its original state. But often this was impossible in mining areas, so restoration can take the form of an exercise park, he says.

But to locals, restoration means more than environmental reconstruction and addressing health problems, but community healing as well. Mining operations in Northeast Thailand destroy the surrounding environment, create a multitude of health problems, and cause internal divides in communities.

For example, in Na Nong Bong Village in Loei Province that has been affected by a gold mine, there have been little to no efforts to restore the land and water quality to an acceptable standard of productive use. The government planted a few trees that later died, and attempted to level soil.

Mr. Pattong explains that even though they have verified that there is contaminated water in Na Nong Bong and villagers blood contains high levels of heavy metals, they have not confirmed that these health issues can be attributed to the gold mine.

Mr. Kittiwat goes on to explain that the Pollution Control Department has not confirmed the cause of contamination, despite the correlation between cyanide in the mining process and cyanide in the water. Sometimes mines accelerate the surfacing of dangerous metals, which is their justification for not fully dealing with the issue.

Even with the opening and closing of mines and shifting mining legislation, the truth is that mining companies will not cease efforts to extract valuable resources in Thailand.

Suvit Kulapwong, General-Secretary of NGO CORD Isan, thinks that this inevitability requires villagers to direct their protesting efforts on restoration of land and population health. “People still have to fight to for the mine to make sure that the mine does not reopen at the same time they push for restoration.”

It is possible that government is trying to keep up public opinion of mining operations, while still creating easier avenues for companies in order to gain more revenue for Thailand. Fragmentation of accurate information between industries, government officers, and local people lead to a lack of transparency regarding mining legislation. With this uncertainty, members of society need to closely watch the effects of the new minerals bill, in order to preserve the environment and avoid harm to communities.

Praveena Fernes is a Public Health student at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA.

Molly Gurney studies International Development and Social Change at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.