SAKON NAKHON – Local opposition is growing in the Northeast as mining companies are rushing to dig up what might be one of the world’s largest potash deposits. A new minerals act, enacted in August, makes it easier for the government to grant mining licenses while curbing public participation, activists say.

Across the Northeast, local groups are organizing against potash mining projects, including the provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima, Chaiyaphum, Udon Thani and Sakon Nakhon.

Local residents are concerned the mining projects will damage their farm lands, poison water sources, and make people sick. But the government sees its new push for potash mining as a way to make the country less dependent on fertilizer imports and stimulate the sluggish economy.

“I still don’t know what will happen to my village if there’s a potash mine,” says Mali Saengbunsiri, a 50-year-old resident in Sakon Nakhon Province’s Wanon Niwat District. “The government never provided any information about the project.”

Residents of the district recently stepped up their protest efforts after a Chinese state-owned company began surveying the area earlier this year to set up a potash mine. Locals say government agencies have provided far too little information about the exploration project.

Human rights groups meanwhile warn local anti-mining activists in the region are under surveillance by the authorities, and face increasing legal pressure to stop their activism.

Sitting on a risky treasure

Wanon Niwat District has become the latest site of public conflict over a development project in the Northeast. Since potash deposits were discovered in the area in the late 1970s, residents have been concerned about the potential environmental impacts of mining projects.

But it took more than 35 years before the first company, Chinese state-owned China Ming Ta Potash Corporation, gained permission to explore 120,000 rai of land in the district in 2015.

“Since the potash mining company has come into the area two years ago, people here have become very worried about the potential consequences,” said Sifong Chantawon, leader of a local anti-mining group, at a public forum in Sakon Nakhon in September.

In recent years, international mining companies have increased efforts to push into the Northeast, which is believed to host the world’s third-largest, unexploited potash reserves. The largest known potash reserves are located in Canada and Russia.

The region is sitting on two major potash deposits, known as the Khorat Basin and the Sakon Nakhon Basin. Potash discovered here is said to be of high quality, and is often found at easily accessible depths of 150-300 meters. In other places in the world, the mineral is usually located at depth of at least 1,000 meters.

For decades, mining companies have been eyeing the Northeast as an attractive area for potash exploration, an ore rich in potassium chloride that provides the primary ingredient in the production of agricultural fertilizers.

But because of strong local opposition, environmental concerns, and legal restrictions, the mining industry has made little progress gaining the right to mine Thailand’s rich potash deposits.

As a result, potash reserves in the country have remained largely unexploited. But as the military government has amended mining legislation and is keeping a tight grip on public opposition, this is likely changing now.

Potash to boost economy

In 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Pridiyathorn Devakula told a business conference the military government plans to make better economic use of the country’s natural resources.

“Thailand has huge deposits of potash ore, estimated at 400 billion tons, which have yet to be commercially exploited,” he said. “This Government has already begun to support potash mining.”

In the same year, a mining concession were granted to Asean Potash Mining Co (APMC) for a potash mine in Chaiyaphum Province. In 2014, the Ministry of Industry had given permission to Thai Kali Company Ltd. for a potash mining project in Nakhon Ratchasima Province.

Last year in September, the Ministry of Industry announced a plan to promote potash mining to reduce the country’s reliance on imports of potash and fertilizers, which has increased production costs in the farming sector.

Every year, Thailand imports about 700,000 tons of potash and 5 million tons chemical fertilizers, according to the SCB Economic Intelligence Center.

By exploiting the Northeast’s rich potash reserves, the government also hopes to turn the country into a global player in the production of chemical fertilizers and attract both domestic and foreign investments.

The global potash mining industry received a boost in confidence this year when market prices for the mineral began rising after a decade-long downward trend, according to a recent report from Bloomberg. World demand for potash is expected to grow from 34.9 million tons in 2014 to 38.7 tons in 2018, according to a forecast by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.

As Southeast Asia’s growing demand in potassium-based fertilizers is expected to continue this year, the government sees Thailand as geographically well-positioned to become a major exporter of potash fertilizer in the region.

New mining legislation

The military junta bolstered its push for potash mining with a new mineral law that replaces 50-year-old legislation, the Minerals Act of 1967. Taking effect in August, it sets a new legal framework for mining aimed at decentralizing decision-making and speeding up the approval of mining concessions.

As part of this decentralization effort, new provincial committees are set up. Chaired by the provincial governor, the bodies are armed with the power to approve small-scale mining on up to 100 rai (about 39 acres.)

Large-scale mining projects will be overseen by a newly established, national-level committee. The size limit on mining areas has been more than doubled, from 300 rai to 625 rai (about 247 acres.)

The new law makes it easier to grant mining licenses to companies by speeding up the approval process to 60 days. Before the process could take up to five years.

Since the bill was first proposed in 2014, it has drawn strong criticism from civil society and environmental groups. Activists say new legislation ignores the potential impact of mining on the environment and people’s health, and muzzles communities’ opposition to mining in their areas.

But mining officials respond that the new law will ensure public participation as two representatives of local community organizations will be part of the provincial committees.

“Local people shouldn’t be worried about the new law. Villagers will have more participation,” Pattong Kittiwat, Director of the Provincial Industry Office in Bueng Kan Province, said in August.

Local opposition

In Sakon Nakhon’s Wanon Niwat District, residents are worried that the new potash mine will cause environmental problems like high salt concentration in the soil and contamination of water sources.

Local activist Sifong Chantawon is especially concerned about the risk of land subsidence due to mining at shallow depths beneath densely populated agricultural communities. “In other countries, potash mines have caused landslides and killed many people,” she says.

In September, members of a local environmental conservation network opposed to a potash mining project submitted a petition to Sakon Nakhon’s Deputy Governor Noppadon Jarupong.

Out of concern for the environment and people’s health, Ms. Sifong and other residents organized a network of environmental and health protection groups against the potash mining project.

The local activists are unconvinced the new minerals law will ensure that their concerns are heard. They say government agencies over the last two year have done little to provide information regarding the project, and ignored their concerns.

Last year in September, the group gathered 500 members to stage a protest at a public hearing. The event titled “Let Knowledgeable People Speak” was aimed at educating local officials and residents about the mining project. But protesters said only a few locals were allowed to speak at the event while the majority of people were excluded.

In a 2016 report, Thai Lawyer for Human Rights noted that these public hearings in the Northeast tend to be moderated by the military. Citizens are often not allowed to voice their opinions or ask questions.

In September, the activist network in Wanon Niwat accused a local official of spreading “propaganda” about the mining project. District Chief Lt Col Ruayrung Kraibut had ordered posters produced by the Department of Primary Industries and Mines promoting the potash mine to be put up.

“We love the land, nature, and its resources that belong to us,” says Ms. Sifong. “If the district chief won’t give us clear information [about the project], we’ll fight for our right until death.”

Members of an environmental conservation network in Sakon Nakhon’s Wanon Niwat District show the bore hole of a potash exploration, during a media tour organized by the National Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International Thailand. The activists claim the company did not receive permission to drill from the local landowners.

Conflict and intimidation

But not all people in the district oppose the potash mine. Residents told The Isaan Record there has been heightened conflict between opponents and supporters of the mining in many communities.

“People have even told me to stop my opposition because I’ll be killed one day,” says 55-year-old Nujiam Faisitao, a member of the anti-mining group in Wanon Niwat District.

Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission has received several complaints about intimidation of anti-mining activist by authorities in the district.

In March this year, an environmental activist in the district was charged with violating the Public Assembly Act for participating in an anti-mining meeting. Last year, two other environmental activists were charged for the same offence, as reported by Prachatai.

At a public forum on community rights organized by Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University and The Isaan Record, National Human Rights Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit urged the government to take local people’s concern into account.

“In the balancing act of development and human rights, there is no room for making people scared,” she said. “People need to have the freedom to express their opinions.”

Reporting from Sakon Nakhon by Jirasuda Saisom. Jirasuda is a participant of The Isaan Journalism Network Project 2017 organized by The Isaan Record.