23 October 2008

Making Mining Connections Abroad

Mountain Top Removal
(Taken from baldwinbrothers.wordpress.com)

How do the issues I’m learning about in Thailand relate to issues faced at home? As a student studying in an environment so different from my own, I have found this to be a crucial question in my search for knowledge. Udon Thani residents against a potash mine proposed to be built below their villages have been organizing for seven years under the title of the Conservation Club. Coming into the region, I assumed I would see some concepts to which I could relate, given my experience dealing with mountain-top removal mines in coal country, Virginia. What I did not expect, however, was for the different mining practices in the respective situations to create a divide between the issues that created a barrier through which I felt unable to connect issues using my knowledge of the subject.

I did not begin actively fighting coal mining until college, when I learned of another proposed coal-fired power plant in my home region. I felt strangely drawn to the issue, especially when I pictured my home, surrounded by the beautiful Appalachian Mountains and then pictured those same mountains, just miles to the West, with their tops blown off by mountain-top removal.

Mountain-top removal is a method of leveling mountains to gain access to coal that lies in even seams around the mountain. The soil and rock removed from upper portions of the mountains are dumped into the surrounding valleys, thus, polluting or burying rivers.

Because the actual explosion of the mountains uses dynamite, it sends rocks, dust and debris soaring into the air at the expense of nearby landowners. Often, home foundations and wells are compromised from the blasts.

Liquid coal slurry, from the coal-washing process, containing carcinogenic chemicals and heavy toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury is stored behind dams at the headwaters of streams. This has the chance of breaking through the embankment to the devastation of homes below, such as has happened in the past. Moreover, the chance for flooding and erosion around mining areas is dramatically increased due to the lack of vegetation and foresting on the mountaintops after strip mining.

Coal-mining companies claim to bring development, money and jobs to the area, but set up a system where this is impossible. Dynamite does most of the work for the mountain-top removal, so very few jobs are necessary. The money from the mine profits the coal companies, while local families are often forced to relocate due to unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and businesses leave the region.

While mountain-top removal includes removing the land above mineral deposits, underground mining, as seen with potash here in Thailand, involves digging below the surface for minerals and leaving the upper levels of the land intact. Villagers are concerned mainly with three effects of mining: land subsidence, rising salinity in the surface and groundwater, and dust. Udon Thani villagers have been able to provide for themselves off the natural environment around them for centuries with the use of land for growing rice, grazing buffalo, planting fruit trees, and other activities. Some villagers also get much of their water from a local lake. If salinization of the surface and groundwater were to rise and dust were to spread constantly cloud the air, the villagers’ way of life would be drastically altered, possibly forcing them off the land.

Regardless of the special methods used and measures taken by the mine builders to prevent subsidence, villagers have seen the devastating results of other mines throughout Thailand and fear effects will be worse than the company predicts. According to villagers, uneven and abrupt subsidence will logically follow the removal of thousands of tons of potash from the land below their homes; hence, they will constantly feel in danger of subsidence if the mine is built below them.
A pond in Udon Thani was filled in with salty soil from digging in the area. The soil is dry and cracked and the runoff killed all of the fish in a nearby pond. - Photo Taken by Cloe Franko

During the first day of my Udon Thani homestay, I was exchanging with my host mother, a member of the Conservation Club, about her ongoing struggle for her rights. At this point, she questioned if we had mines in America. “Yes, actually,” I responded. “Mining is an issue I care strongly about due to its effects in my area.” I began to describe how I thought I could begin to understand her struggle due to its relations to what I see at home when she interjected to ask whether the coal mining in my area was above ground. When I answered that it was above ground, a process known as mountain-top removal, she immediately disregarded my attempt at describing the situation with a steady gaze and her opinion, “Strip mines are less dangerous than what we’re facing here.”

I was stumped, how am I to respond to this? Should I shut my mouth, or voice my opinions in an attempt to help her understand that I’m not here to compare struggles but to understand her issues and be an aid in any way possible? “I’m going to have to respectfully disagree,” I tentatively peeped, probably reddening as I spoke. I began to impart my understanding that both forms of mining are equally devastating to the lives of humans and the surrounding environment in their own ways, but could sense a bit of hostility coming from my host mother as I spoke. After the conversation ended, I felt like my host mother had taken a step back and distanced herself from me and it took a lot of effort for me to reverse this throughout the week.
How is it that in my attempt to shed light on the fact that issues being faced in Thailand are issues Americans continue to face today as well, I successfully alienated my host mother into believing I felt issues at home are more important than those here in Thailand? In my educational search for connections between issues, am I best off making these connections in my head, or is there a better way to link issues that I have yet to find?
Cloe Franko - University of Richmond

1 comment:

Christy said...

I don't think you were wrong to have compared the mining issues in the U.S. to those in Thailand. Making connections is an important and essential component of cross cultural learning. It's very likely that the comment you made was misinterpreted somehow. I think that discussing big issues with my Mexican host family has been an essential part of my learning process here. A lot of those discussions involved comparing political policies and social situations of our respective countries. Obviously there are hundreds of components that do not make our two countries the same but I think it's really important to find the similarities.