Guest contribution by Luke Duggleby

A photo series commissioned by MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum.

Under the vast swathes of green rice paddy, deep below the ground of Northeast Thailand, lie enormous deposits of potash. For decades, mining companies have been eyeing this ore rich in potassium chloride that provides the primary ingredient in the production of agricultural fertilizers

Some 20 years ago, a Canadian company was the first to begin the exploration process in Udon Thani province. It quietly passed an Environmental Impact Assessment and gained a mining license. 

But as soon as the local villagers were informed, the opposition was so strong that even today not an ounce of potash has been mined, and exploration markers stand rusty and bent.

In 2015, a Chinese company called China Ming Ta Potash Corporation received the rights to explore the potash reserves of neighbouring Sakhon Nakhon province. The company has five years to test what lies below on twelve mining plots that encompass 120,000 rai (about 47,500 acres) and include 82 villages in the district of Wanon Niwat. 

Again, the resistance was fierce. After receiving advice from Udon Thani’s now-famous activists, people in Wanon Niwat formed their own environmental protest group. Sporting matching green shirts and wide-brimmed farmers’ hats, the local activists, over 80% of which are women, began pressuring the company to cease all mining efforts.

Mining of potash produces large amounts of salt as a byproduct. In an already-salty region, locals are concerned that the mine’s impact will make farming impossible, ruin water sources, and damage important ecosystems.  

Now with less than a year left of the company’s mining license, the villagers and their environmental group are ramping up the pressure, fearing a renewal in the mining rights.

In December 2018, they organized the “Wanon Walk” in which about 200 villagers marched from their community to the provincial capital of Sakhon Nakhon, 85 kilometres away.

Closely followed by police, military, and intelligence agencies, villagers of all demographics walked for six days, stopping only to eat and sleep at local Buddhist temples, until they reached their final destination for a rally at Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University.

Later in March 2019, four months after the protest march, the group held a ceremony for the spirits of the Huay Thong reservoir located close to their community. The ceremony’s purpose was to give offerings to the spirits of the lake who protect this valuable water source. 

The lake supplies drinking water to thousands of villagers in surrounding villages as well as the nearby town of Wanon Niwat. It also helps irrigate large areas of farmland and provides an important supply of protein in the form of fish, shrimp, and snails.

For this lake to be contaminated or salinized by potash mining would cause countless problems not only to the surrounding ecosystem but also to a way of life that has remained unchanged for generations.

Keeping the spirits happy is one way to help keep the waters clean, but it’d be better to put a stop to the mining before the changes become irreversible.

Water buffalo herders in Wanon Niwat sit in the shade watching their animals graze. From morning until dusk they will stay there, keeping an eye on them before guiding them home for the night. It is this simple and tranquil way of life that the villagers worry will be threatened if a mining company begins extracting potash.

Lua Banlua Nikom, 68, catches fish in the Huay Thong reservoir, next to his village. The reservoir not only provides food but also drinking water to thousands. If the mining company expands, the locals fear that the water will become salinized and the fish will die.

Lua and Wikan wait to be rescued when their boat sank in the middle of Huay Thong during a fishing trip at dawn. About a kilometre from shore and five meters deep, they clung to the end of the up-turned boat and stay above water for about 20 minutes until another fisherman came to rescue them.

Dui, 51, uses his net to catch fish and crabs in a small canal that runs from the main lake in their community.

Women of Ban Wang Bong Noi village fish for shellfish, crabs, and shrimp in a way that hasn’t changed for centuries. What they catch they will either eat that night or sell at a local market. People in the area live in a beautiful equilibrium with nature. If destroyed, it would be devastating for the community.

An anti-mining sign written in Thai reads “I love my home (community) and I don’t want a mine here.” Using the coarse pronoun ‘ku’ (กู) for ‘I’ gives this message an angry tone and expresses the villagers’ determination to fight, no matter what.

On the morning of the first day of the “Wanon Walk” in December 2018,  approximately 200 locals gathered at a local temple in Wanon Niwat district ready to begin their walk to the provincial capital.

One man holds a portrait of Nujiam Paisita, a core-member of the environmental group who was tragically killed in a car crash the day before the start of the walk.

The group walks in single file along a remote road wearing their green shirts and waving green flags. For six days they will walk to the provincial capital of Sakhon Nakhon, eating on the roadside and sleeping in temples in protest against the potash mining project.

Members of the Wanon Walk shout slogans as they walk to the provincial capital in protest of the potash mine.

Every step of the way, the protesters were closely monitored by police and members of the military and intelligence agencies.

On the fourth day of their protest walk, the villagers set up camp at a local temple. Before sleeping they erect protest banners and have an open  forum to which academics, activists and villagers from other communities have been invited to come and discuss the issue.

Elderly members of the walking groups huddle around a small campfire outside a newly erected Buddhist temple where they slept the night, approximately  five kilometer outside of Sakhon Nakhon city.

Core -members of the Wanon Walk stand in defiance on day five of the anti-potash walk to the provincial capital. Standing opposite them was an equal number of officials, ranging from police to army.

At their final destination of Sakhon Nakhon Rajabhat University, over 200 anti-potash mining protesters sit and listen to speeches by academics and other anti-mining groups whilst closely watched by the authorities.

An elderly group of women listen to talks by visiting experts on the subject of mining in Northeast Thailand. Over 80% of the protest group are women who play a vital role in any such activity.

The anti-potash mining protesters read and sing in unison.

A protester hides her tears with a piece of paper during an emotional end to the Wanon Walk. The presence of security personnel caused stress and anxiety to the protesters. It also remains uncertain whether the Wanon Walk will prove to be enough to deter the renewal of the mining concession. But the activists are determined to keep on fighting.

Four months after the protest march, members of the Wanon Niwat environmental group continue their activism. They drive around their village collecting donations for a traditional ceremony in which they will bless the spirit of the nearby water reservoir, praying for its longevity. Huay Thong reservoir supplies drinking water and food to thousands of people. The group worries that any potash mining activity will increase the salinity of the water, making it undrinkable and killing the fish.

Wearing the group’s green shirts, the activists stop at every house to explain the issue to local residents and ask for donations.

In preparation for a traditional ceremony, Lua connects the ‘spirits house’ with a piece of white string to where the ceremony will happen, approximately 1.5 km from the villagers’ community center.

Komon Munmani, 12, helps carry the white string from the ‘spirits house’ to the community centre.

Villagers give offerings at a spirit house during a traditional ceremony to bless the spirit of Huay Thong reservoir.

Villagers take part in the blessing ceremony which has taken place annually for the past three years, as a way of maintaining cohesion and morale for the struggle against the Chinese potash mining company.

During the ceremony, anti-potash mining legend Mae Mani gives her support to the locals of Wanon Niwat. She is from a community in neighbouring Udon Thani province that has been fighting against another potash mining company for the last 20 years. Support and exchange networks have played a crucial role in the activism of northeastern communities affected by development projects.

The photos of this story were commissioned by MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum and will be part of an exhibition in December 2019.