STORIES

Recycled problems: Farming communities fight pollution in Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor

By Ryn Jirenuwat

Photography by Luke Duggleby

Sanit Maneesri and his friend Tieb Samarnmitr slowly make their way through what used to be a productive rubber plantation of hundreds of trees. From the road, the straight lines of trees appear healthy, but closer to the factory walls, they become more sparse and sickly – leafless, precarious, and dying. 

As the sound of the traffic grows softer, a pungent smell intensifies. Beneath the shadows of dying rubber trees sits a 50-metre-wide pond, jet black and viscous. 

“It gets worse!” says Sanit as he steps over broken branches. Opening to an expanse of bright orange ground covered in dead trees, the smell grows even stronger and fine orange dust puffs into the air with every step.

Sanit sarcastically jokes, “Isn’t the golden soil pretty? This place can become a new tourist attraction!” 

In one of the country’s worst cases of environmental pollution, the small rural community of Nong Pawa in Rayong province, about 150 kilometres east of Bangkok, has been suffering from the toxic impacts of a recycling plant for over a decade. 

Year after year, Sanit has watched the pollution in his village go from bad to worse, as villagers fight chronic water and soil contamination allegedly caused by a Thai recycling factory. 

Sanit’s community is located in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), a large-scale development zone established in 2017 for the eastern provinces of Chonburi, Chachoengsao and Rayong.

Recycling waste became a booming industry in the EEC noticeably after China began banning the import of waste five years ago. International import of plastic and electronic waste to Thailand surged between 2017 and 2019, according to watchdog group Ecological Alert and Recovery – Thailand (Earth).

Toxic warnings signs

First, Sanit says, the air pollution came, then a stench over the village, and after that, the water in his friend Tieb’s pond next to the factory walls turned black.

When the walls of a storage pond inside the factory grounds gave way, the area flooded, polluted water flowed into a public pond 500 metres away in front of Sanit’s house. As a result, the community could no longer use the water for their crops. When the factory was operating, the smell of the water was so bad that primary students in Nong Pawa school periodically closed. A toxic warning sign is now hammered to trees at each water source.

“We lost count of how many times we filed complaints to different government agencies. Every time they came, nothing really happened. Things get worse and worse. We are so discouraged,” Sanit says. The factory denies any responsibility, but the plant remains officially closed.

“These massive environmental problems that trouble the villagers have been going on for over 10 years,” 

In October 2020, Attapol Charoenchansa, the Pollution Control Department director-general, inspected the Win Process factory compound. His team found that the surrounding water sources were highly contaminated with heavy metals and had high acidity levels.

“These massive environmental problems that trouble the villagers have been going on for over ten years,” Attapol says. “This is because the factory does not have a good conscience, and the responsible government officials do not have the civil servant spirit.”

When the flooding of farmland surrounding the factory occurred the first time, community members raised funds to drain the water and minimise the damage. But a few months later, after the rainy season, the ground dried up and then turned toxic orange. 

Hopes for compensation

But after all these years, Sanit now hopes the community will receive compensation. The Pollution Control Department (PCD) set up a committee to resolve the issue and file legal claims to force the company to compensate affected farmers and take responsibility for the cleanup and rehabilitation of the land surrounding the factory. 

In June 2021, 15 community members brought the issue to court, asking for compensation of 47 million baht (1.4 million US dollars). In addition, the PCD laid out a plan to sue the company for up to 1.3 million baht  (40,000 US dollars) for the rehabilitation needed to revive the ecosystem. 

In February 2022, locals noticed that the company started moving equipment out of the factory. Some in the community are worried the polluter might try to run away from the cleanup responsibilities. 

Aweera Pakkamart, the director of 13th Region Regional Environment – overseeing Chonburi, Rayong, Chanthaburi, Trad, Chachoengsao, and Samut Prakan –  explained that in the last five years, the problem of recycling businesses using imported waste increased alarmingly.

“From mid-December 2020 to January 2021, we inspected around 95 plastic and recycling factories in our areas. More than 60 to 70 percent were Chinese companies. We also found that sometimes they just packed up and left when villagers complained,” he said.

Changes to land use

Apart from the growing environmental effects of industrialisation with more and more EEC area residents finding themselves living next door to factories, land-grabbing has also become an issue. 

According to a 2021 report by real-estate company Colliers International Thailand, land prices in the ECC have risen from 30 to 50 percent and land previously reserved for agriculture has been transformed into industrial zones. 

“The communities in the EEC have changed a lot,” says Somnuck Jongmeewasin, a renowned environmental activist and researcher for the local NGO EEC Watch.“There have been a lot of land procurements from big companies and industrial estates. Some villagers were compensated but only in small amounts because there’s nothing they can do. Their livelihoods are gone, and villages have been disappearing.” 

In 2019, the Eastern Special Development Zone Policy Committee issued guidelines that replaced all existing town plans in the EEC, much of it converting agricultural land to industrial purposes – such as hazardous waste disposal factories and power plants. 

This change in the law has often caused direct conflicts between communities and recycling companies. But in many places local residents and environmental activists are determined to put up a fight against the government’s development plans and polluting factories.

In July 2020, 34 representatives from affected communities in Chachoengsao, Chonburi, and Rayong provinces filed lawsuits against the EEC Committee and the Thai cabinet, asking the Supreme Administrative Court to revoke the original land-use plans. Eight months later, the court finally accepted the lawsuits.

Somnuck, one of the representatives, believes that the drafting of land-use plans was illegal as the government failed to provide sufficient information to the affected residents. 

But Somnuck knows they are fighting an uphill battle, “I feel it was not a fair trial from day one when it was delayed during the approval process of the court. This never happened in other cases from my personal experience. How can we believe that we will get a fair trial and what we are doing will lead to the policy change?”

“Many of us feel like giving up. We ask one another ‘what’s the news?’, but there is no update,” says Sanit. “I myself almost too. But seeing pollution issues popping up everywhere in Thailand I swear to myself that I won’t [give up].”

“It’s hard enough to deal with one factory’s pollution, but it is very scary when they plan to build another twelve factories here.” 

A similar case 

About 130 kilometres north in Chachoengsao province, residents of Phanom Sarakham district have also been filing complaints about wastewater and air pollution issues allegedly caused by a recycling factory. The area has one of the highest concentrations of recycling plants in the ECC. 

On the morning of 25 January 2021, a team of officials from the  Pollution Control Department, the Nature Resources and Environmental Crime police, and the local administrative office descended on the molybdenum smelting factory to follow up on the complaints. 

Located on a rough industrial estate surrounded by rubber plantations, the officers trekked through scrubby terrain to collect samples of amber-coloured soil from ditches and a pond outside the factory. 

In February 2022, the test results were still pending, but after a recent fire at the factory, its future remains uncertain. 

Some officers who participated in the inspection, and requested anonymity, expressed frustration with the lack of cooperation from the Department of Industrial Works. 

Action from the regulatory authorities in Thailand can take years. Environmental activists often face an uphill battle and are subject to harassment, lawsuits and even killings.

On 25 February 2013, environmental campaigner Prajob Nao-Opas was shot dead. The 43-year-old village chief of Nong Nae in Phanom Sarakham district fought against a nearby factory that allegedly polluted the area with illegally dumped toxic waste. According to the provincial health office, carcinogens levels in the area were 30 times above their legal limit.  

The police later arrested an official who worked at the Department of Industrial Works and who owned the factory accused of the dumping along with two other accomplices for Prajob’s murder. They were subsequently given the death penalty but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2019.  

In honour of Prajob, the community fundraised money and commissioned a life-size wax model of the village chief. The model still sits at a desk in the local community centre wearing his original uniform. 

Fighting to have a say

In other places in the ECC where factories are being planned, local communities are fighting to have a say in the industrialisation of their hometowns. 

One Sunday morning in early 2021, in a forest-lined scout camp in Chonburi’s That Thong village, more than 200 community members of all ages gathered to discuss the construction of a plastic production and recycling plant. 

The community is concerned the planned 70-acre factory compound might pollute the surrounding sugarcane and vegetable plantations. Some people also worry about the potential environmental impact on nearby Khao Chao Bo Thong national park.

The local community group, Rak Klong Mue Sai Environmental Group, claim they were not consulted in the planning process of the factory. According to interviews with residents, public hearings were held at such short notice that many community members could not attend. In other instances, it seemed the events were only organised to collect signatures needed for the factory compound’s approval.

After requesting more information about the factory, the community learned the company plans to invite investors from Japan and China to operate up to twelve factories in the compound. 

Jakkrit Kunthong, a professor in electrical engineering at King Mongkut’s University of Technology in Bangkok, said the company’s plan to invite more factories caused great concern among locals.

“It’s hard enough to deal with one factory’s pollution, but it is very scary when they plan to build another twelve factories here,” says Jakkrit, who is also a leader of the affected community.

In early 2021, the group filed a petition asking the Department of Industrial Works to review the factory’s permits. They also lobbied other government agencies to inspect the case. One year later, they still have not received any response to their petition, and there has not been any update on when the factory will open. 

Meanwhile, the company sued three community members in a 10-million-baht (304,000 us dollars) defamation lawsuit. 

One of the defendants is Suchat Tana-amornpun, a member of the Municipal Council of That Thong subdistrict who lives on a small hill looking over the factory compound. The hearing is scheduled for May 2022, but Suchat is determined to continue defending his community’s rights. 

“I don’t feel afraid. It’s nothing. A lawyer friend of mine read the charges and commented that it was very funny,” he says. “If it turns out that the court picks up the case, then we will just fight according to the facts.”

But not everyone brushed off the legal threat as quickly as Suchat. Some people in the community are now concerned about speaking out against the company. Others find it difficult to imagine the potential environmental impact that might occur, according to Dawan Chantarahassadee of Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand, an NGO working on the case. 

As Jakkrit explains, “We are not against the development but the factory should not be located in an agricultural area. We can’t wait for them to open all twelve factories and the pollution happens. Then it will be too late.”

 

 

Additional reporting by Nicha Wachpanich

The original version of this story was first published in ChinaDialogue

Ryn Jirenuwat is an independent Thai journalist, documentary producer and news producer. For over a decade Ryn has been covering a wide array of stories ranging from human rights issues, to environmental issues, investigative reports and politics.

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