ROI ET – About 100 people opposing the plans for a sugar mill and a power plant in Roi Et’s Pathum Rat district on Tuesday clashed with security forces as a local protest group of rice farmers tried to block a public hearing.

The incident on Tuesday that left one protester injured caused the authorities to move the event that drew more than 1,600 locals to an alternative venue. Yesterday, the second day of the public hearing, police charged the protesters with a violation of public assembly laws.

The protest reflects growing disquiet in the Northeast over the government’s push for a massive expansion of sugarcane and the construction of 29 new sugar mills in the region by 2024.

About 250 security forces were mobilized for the second public hearing as about 100 protesters blocked the entrance to the meeting hall at the Pathum Rat district office.

In Pathum Rat district, Banpong Sugar Company Limited plans to build a sugar mill that will process about 24,000 tons of sugarcane a day. Like most of the planned sugar mills in the Northeast, the facility is accompanied by a power plant fuelled by bagasse.

The company has faced strong local opposition since the plans became known four years ago. A network of local groups named Khon Hak Prathum Rat [We Love Pathum Rat] has been organizing against the project.

“There are no sugarcane fields here so why do we need a sugar mill and a power plant?” asked Amon Singthimat, a leader of the protest network. “It will only destroy the environment and cause toxic dust and waste water in our communities.”

Amon is worried that the arrival of the two facilities could provoke a contest over local water sources, often a scarce resource for farmers in the area.

“This is a big issue that the company still has to address in a clear manner,” he said.

The organizers moved the event to a nearby parking lot where tents were set up as protesters continued to demand the postponement of the public hearing.

Local groups are also concerned the development project might pose a threat to rice farmers. Located in the region of Thung Kula Rong Hai (Fields of the Crying Kula), the area is known for its award-winning rice variety hom mali. Organic rice farmers fear that the expansion of sugarcane in the area would contaminate their organic jasmine rice fields and endanger their livelihoods.

“We export jasmine rice to other countries. It’s an OTOP (One Tambon One Product) product that put us on the map,” Somyot Chaleebut, representative of the Thung Kula Non Sawan Community Network told The Isaan Record in September. “Our rice is some of the tastiest rice in the world due to its fragrance and softness.”

But many people in the district support the construction of the facilities.

Phim Phanop, who attended the public hearing on Tuesday, said she wants to see the project go ahead. The 60-year-old hopes it will create jobs for locals and keep them from having to move to Bangkok for work.

Speaking to more than 1,600 locals at the event, Lertbut Kongthong, the provincial vice governor, acknowledged local concerns about the project. In the first public hearing in May, many people had expressed their worries about the potential negative impact on public health and the environment, he said.

Organizers handed out copies of a health impact study of the sugar mill and the power plant. But participants complained that the document of several hundred pages was difficult to understand.

The public hearing process was concluded on Thursday with a final event in which attendees were invited to express their opinions of the project in a survey.

Meanwhile, the protesters read out a statement in which they called on the government not to recognize the outcome of the public hearing .

“This so-called public hearing is fake and a meaningless ritual to fulfil the legal requirements but we want real public participation,” the statement reads.

Protesters of the Khon Hak Prathum Rat group burned straw effigies symbolizing four district officers after the police declared their demonstration illegal on the second day of the public hearing yesterday.

Opposition to the construction of sugar mills and power plants has grown in several northeastern provinces in the past years. At the same time, many farmers have switched from rice to sugarcane growing.

Thailand is the world’s fourth largest producer and the second biggest exporter of sugar. Of all the major producers, it exports the largest proportion of the sugarcane it produces: 81 percent in 2018.

According to the latest numbers of the Office of the Cane and Sugar Board (OCSB) for 2018/19, the Northeast produces the lion’s share in the country’s sugarcane production at 46 percent.

Yet Thailand’s success in sugar production has also contributed to a drop in the world price of sugar. Huge inventories of sugar from last year promise to keep prices low for the near future and may imperil the government’s push to expand sugarcane cultivation

Banpong Sugar belongs to the Banpong Group, the seventh largest sugar-milling group in Thailand with existing mills in Petchaburi and Kamphaeng Phet. It held 4.2 percent of the Thai sugar market, according to a 2017 report.

Writing by Fabian Drahmoune. Reporting by Hathairat Phaholtap. Photography by Adithep Chanthet.