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From insider to fierce opponent: How one woman took on Thailand’s largest gold mine

By Nicha Wachpanich

Photography by Luke Duggleby

As the reopening of Thailand’s largest gold mine in Phichit province is on the horizon, one woman is leading the fight to protect her community from health impacts and pollution.

 

For six years, Primsinee worked as an accounting assistant for a gold mining company handling invoices and making orders ranging from coffee and office stationery to occasional loads of cyanide.

The young woman enjoyed her time at the office as the mine was close to her home, a short distance from her village of Khao Mo, a small community in Phichit province, north-central Thailand. 

“I was with them from the very beginning. When the prime minister came to open the mine, we dressed up in beautiful traditional Thai costumes,” Primsinee Sintornthammathat reminisced about the good days before she learned what she was actually doing.

Cyanide is a potentially lethal chemical used in extractive mining, typically stored in the mine’s tailing ponds. One day, a worker at the mine, who handled the cyanide, fell very ill. His body showed burning red swellings. When he died, his wife cried over Primsinee’s shoulder. The company declared the worker’s death unrelated to the chemical, but Primsinee began wondering about the safety of the mine.

With many local people experiencing possible symptoms of poisoning they reached out to different health authorities, including the Central Institute of Forensic Science, asking them to perform blood tests. The results conclusively showed elevated levels of cyanide and various heavy metals in many people living in the community.

“First, I thought I was drinking too much coffee, so I stopped,” remembered Primsinee. “But I still didn’t feel like eating, and my skin had rashes from the groundwater we pumped up for bathing.”

One after another, people in the village started moving away to escape the health impacts, daily explosions and dust pollution from the mine. Once a lively community, hundreds of families abandoned their homes to create a new life somewhere else.

Only Primsinee’s house remains, standing boldly, walking distance from Thailand’s oldest and largest gold mine. Isolated but full of determination, the ex-mine employee’s life today revolves around seeking justice for her community and herself. Now 46, she leads the fight against the multi-million dollar transnational mining corporation.

A job in the Land of Gold

In ancient times, Thailand was known as ‘Suvarnabhumi’ or the ‘Land of Gold’ which gave Bangkok’s main airport its name. The term refers to the country’s abundance of natural resources and, in its literal meaning, gold deposits underground.

Gold extraction in Thailand was a small-scale business for centuries until a gold rush kicked off in the 1980s when more and more potential gold deposits were discovered. As a result, the state granted a series of permits to investors to explore and extract the precious metal. 

In 1995, Akara Resources, a Thai subsidiary of the Australian mining company Kingsgate Consolidated, found an ore field straddling the provinces of Phichit, Phetchabun and Phitsanulok. During that time, Primsinee was still in elementary school in her home in Phichit. 

“I went to school here, just like my two older sisters,” she said, adding that, despite being so small, Khao Mo village school had a wide green field where the provincial football competitions were held, but now the school and the football field are no longer there. 

The gold mine began operating in 2001 under the project name “The Chatree Mining Complex”, covering an area of 78,257 rai (125 square kilometres). After graduating with an accounting diploma, Primsinee went to work in Bangkok like many young people from rural areas. She was struggling after a global economic recession when she received a call from her uncle telling her about a job opening at the new mine.

“It was a good opportunity because we could make a living at home,” she said. Many locals in the neighbourhood had been offered positions. It was a rare opportunity for the small communities where most people earn a living from growing rice and fruits. 

Buying out the community

Primsinee spent six years at the mining company, married another staff member, and had a beautiful baby girl. 

During those years, she gradually learned how the mining was impacting the surrounding communities. A study by independent researchers examining the water leaks from the mine into nearby rice paddies found cyanide contamination 1,734 times greater than the surface water standard. Meanwhile, a test taken by the company reported 522 times. In addition, blood tests of locals found that thousands of adults and children had heavy metals exceeding the healthy standard in their bloodstreams.

One day, the company offered to buy the land of families living close to the mine. Many accepted the offer, fed up with the constant noise and pollution. 

Primsinee left the decision to her family, trying to avoid a conflict of interest. But they didn’t want to sell the house. Soon after, in December 2007, Primsinee found herself fired from her position.

Surprised but defiant, Primsinee took the issue to the Labour Court, suing for unfair dismissal. Two years later, the court ruled in her favour, ordering the company to pay compensation. 

“Offering jobs to locals isn’t a generous act for the mine, it’s a tactic to deal with the community,” Primsinee argued. 

After losing her job with the mining company, Primisinee became a full-time leader of the movement against the Chatree gold mine.

Living in the only house left 

At first, there was only herself against the mine. In 2010, she filed a lawsuit against the Minister of Industry and related authorities, accusing them of unjustly granting mining permits in an area that included a community forest. She demanded the withdrawal of the permits and urgent relief plans for the affected communities. The court of first instance ruled the company should do EHIAs within one year. Later, the company claimed to have done so with the Supreme court.

In 2016, more than four hundred community members joined the legal action, launching a lawsuit against the company for violating the National Environmental Quality Act. 

They tried every possible way they could think of to hold the company responsible: They took blood tests to prove the mine’s health impacts, protested in front of the Australian Embassy and blockaded the entrance to the quarry. Some actions led to small victories, while others are still stuck at court. 

Primsinee was charged with defamation by the company and faced several other lawsuits for her resistance. Meanwhile, the mine continued operating during these years of unsettled legal processes. Many community members chose to sell their land to the company, relocating for a better life. 

But Primsinee’s house remains with stacks of complaint letters and research documents piled high in the corner of an upstairs room. She has only a few neighbours left, who are the monks of a half-built temple meant to become the spiritual centre for a community long gone. “There is no more reason to finish it because nobody lives here anymore,” Primisinee said.

The struggle against the mine left cracks in the community, dividing friends and families into company supporters and anti-mining activists. Some locals accused Primsinee and others who opposed the mine of only trying to raise the price of their properties. 

Looking for support and solidarity, Primsinee joined a network of people affected by Thailand’s growing mining industry. She became friends with Yanapat Praimeesup, an indigenous Karen leader whose community is fighting a similar struggle against a mine in Tak province.

“There are three phases of this kind of journey we’re in; first, the company comes in and offers benefits to the community which then causes conflicts. Second, the leaders of the opposition are discredited, similar to what Primsinee is facing,” Yanapat said. “And third, of course, death threats. And I’m not making this up, it’s what you see happening everywhere.”

Primsinee is no exception. She has faced different kinds of intimidation which she believes are related to her stance against the mine. First, it was the severed head of a dog thrown in front of her house. Then it was suspicious men who fired gunshots towards her house from the darkness of the surrounding forest.

Illusory victory 

But despite these intimidation attempts, Primsinee is determined to continue her fight against the mine and hold the company accountable. She divides her time tending to her rice fields and attending events and protests in Bangkok. 

In 2017, Prayuth Chan-ocha, then the military government leader, invoked a special law to close the Chatree mine citing environmental and health concerns. 

“We were delighted. We fought to close the mine for years and then this government just came in and shut it down.” Primsinee said.  

But only a few months later, the Australian owner of the mine launched a lawsuit against the Thai government for using an irregular law to shut down the mine. The company sued for 30 billion baht (USD 866 million) in compensation. 

Rumours of an agreement between the two sides and the reopening of the mine came and went throughout the years while the international tribunal in Singapore is still deciding on a final verdict. They come in fragmented announcements by the Thai government facilitating the mining business for the Australian investor. In early 2021, Thailand approved four new leases that might pave the way to reopen the mine, according to a Kingsgate public report.

The communities submitted several complaint letters to the congress representatives to prevent the reopening of the mine. The issue has been taken up by opposition parties and raised during the recent censure debates, catching much public attention.

“I learned that fighting the mine is much more than what happens in my home,” Primsinee said. “It’s really about law, policy and power.”

Making the gold mine pay 

Today, Primsinee still gets offers from the company for her house – three times more than what they offered fifteen years ago.

But she does not want to sell her house. Instead, she wants accountability for the impacts of the mine on the community and compensation for the damages. 

“I have lived with these health risks for ten years, and this time when they reopen the mine, the impacts will be much worse, not to mention all the threats that may happen to me as the face of the anti-mining movement.” she said.

After hearing the news about the reopening, Primsinee dialled a number she had not called for years. She asked The Project Public Policy on Mineral Resources (PPM), the environmental group that used to work with the community before the mine was shut down, to embark on a new journey.

Primsinee and PPM discussed with the people in Khao Mo. Despite all the cracks in the community and differing opinions, many people showed up.

“I was quite surprised. I heard a lot that the communities felt discouraged but actually there were many people who still wanted to fight,” said Juthamat Srihatthapadungkit, a young member of PPM, about the first day she visited the affected communities in March 2022.

 They demand a new study on the environmental and health impacts of the mine, a required step to carry out mining projects according to the Minerals Act 2017. 

The Thai government is not only renewing permits for existing mining sites, but it is also allowing the Australian company to explore new sites, possibly up to hundred thousand rai (160 square kilometres). More villages in Phitsanulok and Phetchabun could soon face the same fate as Primsinee’s community according to Juthamat.

“This case shows how crucial it is to assess the impacts of mining on the communities and the environment,” Juthamat said “And having communities engaging in closing down the mine is better than by the top-down policy because as you see the policymakers can twist back their decision so easily.”

While Primsinee’s ultimate dream is to permanently keep the goldmine’s gates closed, she understands her community might need to relocate. But she wants the company to acknowledge the gold mine’s impact on the community and compensate everyone.

“I care about my girl’s health, my sister’s and my own, but I don’t want to leave the other people behind. If I have to leave, I don’t want the people here to lose hope in fighting,” Primsinee said. 

“I tell them the truth that if I have to leave, it’s not that I’m abandoning them, but to regain a firm foothold for the upcoming fights,” Primsinee said. “I’m the last one here in my village, but I might be the very first person in the other villages that will be impacted by the mine.” 

Nicha Wachpanich is a Bangkok-based journalist covering stories from a rights-based and human-interest perspective. She previously worked with a local environmental news agency under Thai Society of Environmental Journalists. 

Luke Duggleby is a Bangkok based photographer. He regularly works on stories related to the environment and the impact of pollution and development on local communities.

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