31 March 2011

Copper in the Backyard

Unit 3 has been a whirlwind –in less than 72 hours we have been able to connect with different villages to talk to them about solutions, and not just the problem they are facing. My team of six traveled to Huay Muang, a village that relies heavily on the surrounding mountains for their livelihood. Phu Taeb mining company is threatening the integrity of this community and 14 surrounding communities by proposing a copper mine in these neighboring mountains.

What struck me the most was a recurring theme of conflicting intentions within the government. The land the mountains lay on has been declared as National Preservation Forest, yet the government granted Phu Taeb company permission to survey the land. To summarize, this surveying involved digging 280 holes throughout the “Preservation Forest.” It is ironic to see that the land is being destroyed by the same stakeholder that aims to preserve it.

We learned in the past unit the complexities surrounding land tenure in Thailand. For Thailand, ideas of preservation and conservation sprouted from a department that was formed to oversee a logging and later cash-crop industry. Ideas of preservation arose to keep up with global players, like the United States. But in reality the motivation of capital gain and economic growth that the government was formed upon still lives on.

I don’t want to automatically assume Thai government is bad, but in every unit we have studied thus far, the root of the problem always lies at the hands of the corrupt government. For Huay Muang this sentiment manifests itself through the lack of transparency from the government and Phu Taeb they have received.

Villagers from Huay Muang were approached by Phu Taeb in 2005 asking to dig 28 holes on the land. After securing 230 rai of land from the villagers and government, they dug 280 holes. Besides these holes, villagers were unaware of the intentions Phu Taeb had for their community –the proposal of a copper mine. Further, community members had no idea about the potential health and environmental implications of a copper mine.

The Loei Network of Monitoring Effects of Mining Industry Policies funded under the Loei Fund for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development enlightened the communities of Phu Taeb’s plans.

Since 2008 this community has been mobilizing to prevent the construction of the proposed mine by creating the Poohinlekfie Preservation Network (PPN). PPN works mainly to raise awareness about the potential effects of copper mining and also networking with affected communities in an effort to bring solidarity to the cause.

Despite villagers’ persistence in preventing Phu Taeb’s plans, strangers were found conducting tests in the mountain on September 2010. Upon questioning, villagers discovered that they were professors from Kaset University testing ground water in Huay Muang for the Phu Taeb mining company.

There doesn’t seem to be too much government involvement in the events described, but it is really what the government isn’t doing that is hurting the villagers. Villagers wrote several letters to government authorities protesting the mine with no response.

The government’s ulterior motives will indefinitely show during the upcoming April 7 “public scoping” hearing to be held in Loei City. In order to conduct the Environment Impact Assessment, Phu Taeb must confirm majority approval from all stakeholders. This meeting will serve as such. Hopefully the outcome of this meeting and the role the government will play in the EIA (the process is often found to be ridden with corruption) will disprove my theory…

Meghana Anugu
University of Rochester


Anonymous said...

Anyone actually see the longterm benefit that mining will have on those mostly poor people?

Jobs for almost all able bodied thai nationals at a rate of pay that would at least quadruple their current ones. This would continue for generations to come. The knock on effect of others opening services to cater for the work force etc.

The influx of foreign money and subsequent investment into the loei distict would be substantial.

So yes there would be issues with a mine but the positive impact would far outweigh the negative that your groups over state.

You are not helping, only hindering these people from improving their lives.

Kendra O said...

Mining projects in marginalized communities can be a very fickle and inconsistent issue to address. Sure, as "anonymous" pointed out, there's the potential increase in jobs, foreign investment and economic growth for the community and the country as a whole. However, in an industry that has one of the highest ratios of global employment to workplace fatalities (1% of the world’s labor force, almost 10% of fatalities, according to the ILO), I don't think I would agree that the benefits always outweigh the costs.

Mining is also a tenacious topic in the Dominican Republic. Once one of the largest industries in the country, it has been the root of many problems and prospects. Most notably, the international gold mining corporation, Barrick Gold, has launched what it claims to be an eco-friendly project to construct new mines in the community Pueblo Viejo, by importing newly developed machinery and methods that “minimize” the impact of mining on the surrounding environment while maximizing potential for growth in mine production, labor creation and local capital. However, the company has recently faced setbacks due to the past year being full of strikes and protests by its workers who claim that the company does not respect its promises of paying minimum wages, providing safe work conditions and acknowledging union input. While “anonymous” may claim that miners are paid quadruple what they would get in other fields of work, what happens when mines run dry and there’s no work, or companies hire outside of the local labor force for other components of their business such as transportation, or when they simply don’t pay their workers?

Aside from violating workers’ rights, mining has horrendously devastating effects on the environment as a whole. Apart from deforestation and mountaintop removal, the natural and chemical byproducts of mining are extremely dangerous to the surrounding land as well as its inhabitants. Even something as simple as excess dust can cause asthma, chronic respiratory infection, and even cancer of the lungs, heart, and nervous system, effects that have been seen in the people of Las Salinas near the Barahona mines. Excess dust has also been a deterrent of tourism in the area, and one can assume that ravaged mountain sides full of giant holes and mining equipment would also discourage tourism, an equally important industry in both Thailand and the DR.

To assume that a company in one of the most dangerous industries will not try to exploit its workers, the land or its surrounding resources is to be just plain ignorant of these issues. As Meghana points out, it should be the government’s job to regulate the practices of these companies to ensure the safety and security of their own people. However, I believe that there are many more sustainable practices that would be infinitely more beneficial to these types of small, developing communities that would not be detrimental to their health, human rights, or the natural beauty of their land.

Mirah S said...

It’s crazy to see the connections between this village and others we have been to. When we found out that Tamui village was located on a Reserve Forest, I almost lost it. This land should supposedly be protected by the government, and instead the construction of a dam is being pushed, which will alter the surrounding land’s ecosystem. Because the villagers are technically living illegally on this land, their rights to their land and livelihood are even less recognized. It’s scary to think that the government could use this against the villagers who fight in Tamui and Huay Mong, and just arrest all of them for trespassing. It’s so clear that the government needs to reevaluate their priorities, and let villagers have a more participatory role in what is being done to their surrounding land. It is hard to guess the long term benefits of any of these development projects, but from what we know about how they affect the environment and people’s livelihoods, they don’t seem quite worth it.

Julia Peckinpaugh said...

Like Mirah, I also think it is really crazy how everything seems to connect. It seems like the more I see the less I know. By looking at different development projects in Thailand and seeing their positive and negative impacts, I feel I am learning a lot about what development and globalizations means to a developing country. I feel, however, that I seem to know less about the key players in these schemes (like the government and the shareholders involved). I feel that instead of having an identity and communicating with communities, these large profit making industries seem to thrive on being opaque and retaining power. I think your comment, “I don’t want to automatically assume Thai government is bad, but in every unit we have studied thus far, the root of the problem always lies at the hands of the corrupt government,” holds true to me as well, but instead of it being just the Thai government and governments in general, I find real fault in the system of oppression that we currently call capitalism.

Praveen said...

Great job and well written! Hopefully the land and forest areas are preserved.