Guest contribution by Cameron Todd and Ellen Krebs

Photos by Olivia Torbert and Hideo Ishii-Adajar

KHON KAEN – Last week, environmental activists gathered in Mueang Phia to discuss the potential impact of a planned sugar mill and power plant  near their village by Mitr Phol, Asia’s largest sugar and bio-energy producer.

The Love Our Hometown Group, based in Mueang Phia sub-district in Khon Kaen’s Ban Phai district has been organizing against the factory since 2016. Locals are concerned about the project’s impact on the environment, livelihoods, and personal health. In March, the group protested at Khon Kaen’s provincial hall and met with the governor to share concerns about the possible environmental and health impacts of the project.

Aside from the academics and experts present, around 75 people attended the forum on May 11-12. Most were members of the Love Our Hometown group and the Lake Lawa Preservation group, organizations concerned with protecting the body of water and wetlands crucial to the local biodiversity, ecology, and way of life for the people of Mueang Phia.

Throughout the two-day forum, Mueang Phia villagers listened to the multiple speakers. Photo by Olivia Tolbert.

Getting organized

The forum’s main agenda was to prepare a protest to be held at Mitr Phol’s first public hearing at Ban Phai’s main secondary school on May 21-23, where Mitr Phol will present its plans and propose ways to address or mitigate potential problems. The law requires a public hearing for the project to be held before the government can formally permit construction of the sugar mill and its attached power plant.

The activists and villagers argue that these public hearings would be biased–essentially just paying lip-service to the rules designed to safeguard the interests of the local population–if they do not allow for opposing views to be aired.

The forum also aimed to educate people about their rights to protest the industrial projects and to create a network between academics, organizations, and villagers. The speakers talked about community rights, the potential impact of the project, and how other communities have fought similar bio-industrial threats.

Sonpong Chaison, a farmer whose land is located one kilometer from Lake Lawa, is worried about water contamination and competition for water between the factory and local farmers. Photo by Hideo Ishii-Adajar.

Sonpong Chaison, a 66 year-old farmer typical of the forum’s participants, said he wanted to learn about how local organizations such as the Love Our Hometown group and the Lake Lawa Preservation group intend to prevent the sugar factory from being built. But if resistance doesn’t work, Sompong said, “then we need to learn how to peacefully coexist with the factory.”

Big Sugar

Buoyed by government policy that encourages farmers to switch from rice to sugarcane, Mitr Phol is currently on a factory-building spree as Thailand becomes the world’s second largest sugar exporter after Brazil.

In 2015 Thailand’s sugarcane plantations totaled 10.54 million rai, which ultimately produced 11.14 million tons of sugar. The Cane and Sugar Board, an agency under the Ministry of Industry, is planning a 50% increase in the area being used to grow sugarcane by the year 2026, aiming to push Thailand’s overall sugar production up to 20.36 million tons of sugar–an almost 80% increase in sugar output as compared to 2015.

Not so sweet

Many guest speakers went before the crowd to talk about the potential impacts of the factory and the efforts of the movement to counteract them.

The first speaker, Sataporn Roengtam, a lecturer at Khon Kaen University, said that he is most concerned about the impact of the power plant for the proposed sugar factory.  

“The benefit [of the sugar factory and power plant] is not worth the potential negative impact,” Sataporn argued. He believed that Khon Kaen University can help by sending students and academics to conduct studies on the matter and ensuring that the findings are appropriately publicized in the media.

Suwit Kulabwong, an activist and advisor to the protest group (left), and Prisana Kumchai, a law professor at Khon Kaen University (right), address the participants about the strategies and tactics available to the community in the fight against the development project. Photo by Olivia Tolbert.

Sataporn and other experts expressed concerns about potential water pollution as well as the air pollution that might be created by the sugarcane-husk fired power plant. They also warned that there may be greater competition for water, given that sugar production requires massive amounts of water.

During this year’s sugarcane harvest, smog levels in Khon Kaen city reached crisis levels even by the government’s own lax safety standards for air pollution. According to the Pollution Control Department, which operates the Northeast’s sole comprehensive air quality monitoring station in Khon Kaen, PM2.5 dust particulate levels reached 85 micrograms per cubic metre of air, well above  the government mandated safe limit of 50 (for many countries the threshold is between 25-35).

Going forward

The Love Our Hometown group is determined to organize a peaceful protest on the hearing day. Members stressed the importance of preventing violence and destruction of property.

For now, though, that won’t be necessary. The group’s efforts to present a unified and organized front appear to have paid off.

The group’s demand to have hearings postponed until an independent impact study is completed appeared to have been met. On May 15, Mitr Phol announced that the public hearings are to be indefinitely postponed, pending a review of “understandings between all parties concerned.”

Sam Rickman studies Environmental Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder and Cameron Todd studies political science at George Washington University. Olivia Torbert is a student of International Politics at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., and Hideo Ishii-Adajar studies mathematics and economics at the Southern Methodist University. All four studied about development and human rights issues in Khon Kaen last semester.