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Thai villagers rally against mine expansion, fearing more environmental damage

The ongoing dispute over a controversial potash mine in Nakhon Ratchasima has escalated, with local communities blocking a key transportation route to voice their demands for an immediate shutdown of the facility, which they accuse of causing environmental damage.

Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories
Previously fertile agricultural land now lies desolate and unable to sustain life due to serious salinisation of the soil. The potash mining facility accused of polluting the land lies in the distance. © Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

NAKHON RATCHASIMA – Hundreds of concerned villagers in northeastern Thailand took to the streets on 20 March, blocking a key roadway to demand the shutdown of a controversial potash mine. Citing years of devastating environmental damage since the mine’s 2017 opening, the community’s stand reflects a growing crisis over land rendered barren by mining activity.

Communities in Nakon Ratchsima’s Dan Khun Tho district believe that a by-product of potash mining, excessive salt production, has destroyed the surrounding farmlands. Fields once lush with corn, rice, sugarcane, and mangoes are now desolate, with the earth scarred by salt deposits and dead vegetation.

The recent protest is fueled by news of the mine’s planned expansion, intending to add three more excavation tunnels without a new environmental impact assessment – a move that skirts regulatory scrutiny.


Tests confirm high salinity levels

Recent soil and water tests by the Thai Environment and Pollution Control Office confirmed fears of alarmingly high salinity levels. The damage extends beyond the soil, with residents reporting salt-induced erosion affecting buildings and infrastructure.

The sample analysis by the Synchrotron Light Research Institute, a public research institute under the Ministry of Education, showed significantly high levels of sodium chloride, along with abnormally high potassium chloride contamination in the area around the mine.

“I always thought that they [the mining companies] would bring development to us, I was really shocked to see this much negative impact,” said local activist Thanawan Kainot in a previous interview with HaRDstories.


Public opposition to mining

Thailand’s northeastern provinces sit atop significant reserves of potash, a naturally occurring mineral critical to the global agriculture industry due to its potassium and sodium content. The demand for this mineral, driven by its role in fertiliser production, spans from local farms to international markets. 

The prevalent method of extraction, known as solution mining, involves the infusion of large volumes of water into the earth to dissolve the potash salts. This technique, while effective, poses substantial environmental risks, including the potential for groundwater contamination and the disruption of natural habitats.

The Dan Khun Thot mine is the country’s only active potash mine, a stark testament to the power of community activism. Plans to expand the mining footprint into three more areas within the Northeast have been met with strong opposition, with local populations staunchly defending their environmental rights and heritage, stalling any further development in its tracks.

Read our story: When the land turns white: Thai villages unite against a new push for potash mining

Governor promises investigation

The latest protest – the largest mobilisation to date by local environmental groups – drew Siam Sirimongkol, Governor of Nakhon Ratchasima, to the front lines of the dispute over the mine’s expansion. The protesters’ demands were clear: halt the expansion and begin restoring the land. 

While the Governor clarified his limited authority in shutting down the mine, the day concluded with an agreement – a pledge from the government to further look into the community’s concerns.

“If we don’t fight, the impacts are going to get worse,” Thanawan previously told HaRDstories. “We are fighting so people will see what is happening to us. We want to be an example so the same thing will never happen in other areas in Isan.”