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How a Thai village repairs the scars of a toxic mine

Members of the “People Who Love Their Hometown” environmental group who were involved in the conflict on 15 May 2014, when over 150 masked men attacked their community. They pose for photographs in the now closed gold mine in memory of the attack. Roengrit Kongmuang/HaRDstories

After a hard-won victory against a toxic gold mine, a community in Northeast Thailand is now gearing up for a different kind of battle: healing from deep-seated trauma and bringing their poisoned fields back to life once again.

 

Armed with slingshots, they descended on the abandoned gold mine blamed for poisoning their fields in the mountains of northeastern Thailand. One seed at a time, they scattered thousands of mahogany and wild mango seeds as others planted seedlings to restore the ecosystem – and their way of life. 

“We can’t wait any longer,” Rotjana Kongsaen, a community leader, said before the event. “This year, we were collecting native seeds that once thrived on our mountains. When the rains come, we’ll plant.”

For years, residents of six villages in Loei province were locked in a stand-off with the mining company Tungkum Limited. Since the firm began gold mining operations in the area in 2006, locals had raised alarm bells over what they claimed to be extensive environmental contamination. Official water and blood tests later confirmed dangerous levels of cyanide, arsenic and mercury, causing widespread health concerns. 

Establishing the protest group “Khon Rak Ban Kerd” (People Who Love Their Hometown), the farmers of the Na Nong Bong community spurred into action. Mostly led by women elders, the group peacefully demanded the closure of the mine and the rehabilitation of their lands. Their opposition was met with a flurry of lawsuits filed by the company, intimidation attempts – and a violent attack of 150 masked men on the community in May 2014.

Finally, in 2017, the mine shut down, and the company was declared bankrupt a year later. It left behind dilapidated buildings, pools of polluted water and tanks with toxic chemicals. The government ordered mining firms across the country to rehabilitate the environment, and asked state agencies to provide remedy for the mines’ harmful impacts.

Six years later, an investigation by HaRDstories has found, little has been done to reverse the ecological scar in Loei province or heal the trauma the community suffered. Today, hardened by more than a decade of persistent activism, the Khon Rak Ban Kerd group is taking matters into their own hands to undo the damage inflicted by the gold mine. 

Deaths in the Iron Valley 

Nestled among hills, Na Nong Bong enjoys the embrace of several mountain ranges that extend to the Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary, and the origin of the Loei River that eventually merges with the Mekong River. 

However, this serene landscape was disrupted when gold was found beneath its surface. Mining explorations began in 1992, culminating in the issuing of a gold mining permit a decade later and the opening of the mine in 2006.

At first, the community’s grievances revolved around the dust and noise from the mine’s rock blasting. As time wore on, more dangers emerged from below the land they had lived on for generations. 

Suphab Vichitpanya was one of the residents who farmed the basin, known locally as the Iron Valley. She recalled her mother complaining about her rice plants having mysterious black roots and later perishing in droves. 

Other residents also experienced rashes and skin problems. Dead farm animals and pets, like fish, chickens and dogs, were dying at an alarming pace. Complaints started to grow louder. It wasn’t long before the provincial authorities issued a health advisory warning against consuming water, aquatic animals, and vegetables in the area. The notice cited extremely high levels of toxic chemicals and heavy metals found in the water sources. 

But Suphab said it was too late. Her father suddenly fell ill with high fever and rigid darkened skin. He died in May 2003 at the age of 56; his cause of death was listed in official documents as a heart attack. Later that same year, Suphab’s mother was struck with the same symptoms. She died five months after her late husband, with her death certificate blaming liver cancer as the cause.  

While no autopsy confirmed this, Suphab remains convinced that her parents were killed by the contamination from the mine that flowed into the Iron Valley. 

“We planted rice in Iron Valley and consumed the rice we grew every day, three meals a day,” she said. “We gathered vegetables, sourced our food, drank and used water from shallow ponds in the field every day.”

Much later, the villagers’ suspicion was confirmed through a series of studies conducted by health officials.

In 2014, the Ministry of Public Health’s food safety bureau found high levels of arsenic in crabs caught in the community’s water sources. A 2018 report by the Loei Provincial Health Office concluded that blood samples collected from 725 people in six villages around Na Nong Bong contained traces of heavy metals, such as mercury, cyanide, and lead.

Nearly 40 of the villagers had levels as much as 43 times higher than the standard.  Arsenic poisoning was also detected in 21 residents, according to a joint study by the health office and the Pollution Control Department. 

 

Assaults on the Wall of Hearts

Despite the growing evidence of deadly effects on the local environment and concerns raised by community representatives, the mine was kept open. Frustrated residents took action in 2013, when they set up a blockade on the roads running through their village to the quarry. 

Dubbed the “Wall of Hearts” by local activists, the makeshift concrete barrier effectively forced the mine’s operation to come to a halt. Though the mining company sent workers to dismantle the barricade on three separate occasions to make way for its trucks, the villagers built them back each time. 

The stand-off escalated when the company failed to renew its permit to use the protected forest area for mining amid the persistent resistance. Community members, journalists, and scholars discussing the mine’s impact were hit with a staggering 27 lawsuits. The “Wall of Hearts” alone was the catalyst for six of these legal cases, which demanded compensation exceeding 270 million baht (about $7.55 million).

For Surapan Rujichaiwat, a 52-year-old community leader behind the anti-mining campaign, the salvo of those legal actions was an act of retribution meant to punish the residents and their supporters. 

“[We] faced threats to our lives, legal challenges, and pressures to open up access for the transportation of minerals from the mine,” Surapan said of those difficult days. 

But nothing had prepared him or other activists for the harrowing events that unfolded on the night of 15 May 2014. 

As the sun set and the Iron Valley was shrouded in darkness, 22-year-old Angsana Hirantho was suddenly alerted to an intrusion at the “Wall of Hearts.” Snatching her camera, she hurried to the site and was met with a sight that would haunt her for years: scores of masked men armed with sticks, knives, and even several firearms descending on the barricades and brawling with the villagers who desperately tried to fend off the assailants. 

In the midst of the melee, Angsana said, a few attackers tried to seize her camera, but she was saved by a friend who was then punched by the masked men. The images Angsana took of that night would later serve as crucial pieces of evidence in court. 

Media reports would later put the number of attackers at 150. Their mission: to crush the villagers’ blockade and open up the road for a convoy of trucks to move unopposed into the mine and retrieve the precious ore in its depots. 

Elsewhere in the village, residents reported being beaten, assaulted and even held as hostages by the armed thugs while the trucks moved in and out of the mine. A 15-year-old was forced face down onto the road, as the trucks sped past him just inches away. A 60-year-old woman was kicked in her face, losing some of her teeth. 

“I fought back, but they kept hitting until everything went black. When I came to, I was face-down on the road, hands tied behind my back,” Visarn Vichitpanya, a 45-year-old resident, recounted his memories of that night. 

Surapan, the community leader who organised the protest against the mine, was quickly recognised by the masked men during the commotion at the “Wall of Heart.” 

“He’s one of the ringleaders!” Surapan heard one of the masked men shouting, gesturing at him. He was beaten and dragged into a car that drove to the mine’s entrance, where, Surapan said, the men proceeded to use the butts of their rifles to strike him in the face. 

As the chaos and violence was tearing their village apart, Viranon Rujichaiyavat and another villager sped to the nearest police station, Wang Saphung, in their car to seek help. There, she found a lone police officer on duty and besought him for help. Villagers were being attacked, she pleaded, and her husband Surapan had been taken away.

“I can’t go,” was his reply. 

Viranon hurried back to the village, where some residents tried to drive away the attackers and rescue the hostages. They were pelted with sticks, bottles and other sharp objects. The confrontation lasted throughout the night, with sporadic sounds of gunfire. The masked assailants only withdrew, leaving behind the hostages, after the eleven trucks managed to transport the minerals out of the mine. 

As dawn returned, villagers sought out and unbound those who had been captured, while the injured were sent to the hospital.

A community traumatised 

Even when measured against the routine attacks and intimidations faced by community rights activists in Thailand, the scale of violence and impunity that descended on Na Nong Bong villages came as a shock to rights watchdogs nationwide. Calls for justice were soon clamouring in the media, even after the military seized power in a coup on 22 May 2014 and brought Thailand’s democracy to a standstill.

Nine of the injured villagers, alongside the public prosecutor, filed a lawsuit against the attackers who terrorised their community. The suit named at least 150 individuals as defendants, including two high-ranking military officers – a father and son duo – who were accused of engineering the attack. 

In 2016, the two officers were sentenced to more than two years in prison and ordered to pay a compensation fee of 160,600 baht (about $5,000) plus interest to the victims. The verdict was later affirmed by an appeal court, who handed down a heftier jail term – five years for the son and three years and four months for the father – citing “blatant disregard for the law.”

But no one else was jailed, said Weerawat Ob-O, an attorney who worked on the case on behalf of the community. The lack of legal repercussions left the villagers in perpetual fear that those responsible for the violence on 15 May 2014 may return to exact vengeance on the community, according to residents who talked to HaRDstories. 

“I can’t sleep, can’t eat, I jolt awake in the middle of the night haunted by what I saw in that evening,” said Sombun Sriburin, 48, emotion thick in her voice. “They trampled on our dignity, as if we were just dust beneath their feet.”

An expert on trauma said many villagers of Na Nong Bong she interviewed exhibit many symptoms akin to mental wounds taken in conflict zones, including recurring nightmares, paranoia, rage, and a palpable sense of hopelessness.

The absence of tangible legal accountability, an official apology, or any swift measures from the authorities to remedy the damages done to the community only exacerbated the village’s collective trauma and deepened their distrust, academic Alysa Hasamah said.

The wounds to the psyche, as well as the environment, have deeply eroded trust in the state,” Alysa, who teaches disaster sociology at Songkhla Nakarin University in Pattani province, said. 

“These mines are more than just physical excavations; they have dug deep into the social fabric, undermining the very essence of human dignity, relationships, community, family, and both physical and mental well-being.”

In 2018, the village won another court victory. A lawsuit demanding remedial action filed by 165 local activists of the “People Who Love Their Hometown” group had yielded a verdict. A court ordered the company behind the gold mine to pay compensation to the residents of Na Nong Bong. 

But the cause for celebration was short-lived; the company filed for bankruptcy, effectively nullifying its obligation to pay the villagers. They were forced to bear the burden of locating the company’s remaining assets – like bags of ores left behind inside the mine – and passing them onto law enforcement officials for processing. 

Compensation would only be paid to the villagers if those assets manage to find buyers in a bankruptcy auction, community leader Rotjana said.

 

‘Close the Mine, Restore the Nature’ 

Thanks to the bankruptcy filing, the gold mine that had poisoned and traumatised the community of Na Nong Bong for years is now shut for good. 

Its effects on the environment, however, proved to be far more persistent. Toxicity level in the area remains harmful. Farming is impossible for many households due to contaminated water sources. Elevated levels of cyanide and excessive amounts of manganese, surpassing safety thresholds, continued to be detected in the bloodstreams of some villagers.

“It was worth the fight to close the mine,” said Phattraporn Kaengjumpa, one of the many villagers who had long opposed the gold mine. “But the battle continues. Now we need to restore the environment.”  

The 2018 court verdict had instructed the government to restore the natural resources and the environment around Na Nong Bong “to a healthy state … encompassing both water and soil, while involving the locals in the environmental rehabilitation process.” But little to no action has been taken, according to the villagers.

Rotjana from the “People Who Love Their Hometown” group said the key disagreement is over the plans to rehabilitate the lands. A proposal submitted by the government would only strictly deal with pollution inside what used to be the mining concession area, whereas the residents argue that the plan should encompass the entire ecosystem and include decision-making from the local representatives.

“The government refuses our involvement in drafting the plan. They deny us representation in the restoration committee at the level we’re asking for,” Rotjana said. “They simply want us to follow their unilateral blueprint, which we reject.”

As the debate with the authorities dragged on, the only action the community could take was to put up signs warning about high contamination levels, advising against harvesting crops in the area to prevent potential poisonings. 

Some residents grew exasperated with the lack of progress. “Back then, I was eight months pregnant. Now, my child is eight years old,” said Viranon, the villager who sought help from the police in vain on the night of 15 May, “It feels like we are constantly fighting, whether we’re awake or asleep.”

Eventually, their patience ran out. Led by Rotjana, members of the group put up banners in the village, declaring “Close the Mine, Restore the Nature.” They grabbed tree seeds and slingshots, then went into the hills and woodlands around the defunct mine to rebuild what was dead. 

The villagers also turned to local spirituality to raise awareness and solidarity with one another. Triangular kratong made from banana stalks, adorned with fresh flowers, candles, and ceremonial offerings, were offered as tribute to Lord Sri Mueang – a guardian spirit believed to be protecting the mountains around Na Nong Bong – in a ritual held to pray for the forests’ wellbeing to return. 

“Lord Sri Mueang has been here from the beginning, long before us and before the mines began to exploit our lush forests and the Thup Fha Mountains,” Noo Sukpue, a 65-year-old local shaman and a member of the activist group, explained the symbolic meaning behind the ritual. “We resisted its destruction, and it is with this spirit we’ve managed to conserve our hillsides.”

 

Justice at last? 

Another piece of rare good news arrived in late October. Officials informed the villagers that the gold mine’s assets were finally sold off in an auction, netting a total value of 2.3 million baht (about $63,900). The door to compensation for the traumatised victims was finally open once again. 

And then the door was slammed shut. As it turned out, Rotjana said, the gold mine company owed large sums of money to a number of creditors before its bankruptcy, so the money from the liquidation auction would have to go to those high-value debtors first.

None is expected to reach the villagers, who are last in line in the process.

“It’s a legal problem,” Rotjana said by phone. “The company could just make a run for it, and didn’t have to take responsibility for any compensation. And the state couldn’t do anything about it either.” 

She added, “It’s probably not fair, but that’s how the law in our country works.” 

There’s still a silver lining in the news, however. The new buyer of the mine’s assets had agreed to take full responsibility to remove all toxic materials from the mine and pay for the entire clean-up effort. The villagers are also invited to set up an oversight committee and inspect the work; the company went as far as putting down a deposit of ten million baht as a guarantee of its word. 

Rotjana said she’s optimistic that the community will at least have its land back, freed at last from the poison from the mining operation. 

“Even though we won’t get any compensation, that’s alright,” she said. “What we want more than money is having our hometown back for good.” 

 

Edited and translated by Teeranai Charuvastra

Introduction by Fabian Drahmoune

Bampen Chaiyarak is an anthropologist and writer focusing on cultures, nature, and human interactions. Her work emphasises social-ecological systems and health equity, drawing from her extensive ethnographic fieldwork to author many non-fiction documentary books and in-depth reports.

Roengrit Kongmuang is a documentary photographer with an interest in social issues, nature, and the environment. His work has been published in various international publications, including National Geographic.

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