Defending the forests she calls home: Duang’s struggle against a coal mine

By Nanticha Ocharoenchai

Dressed in colourful traditional garb, the village’s female elders gather around a young woman as two large cameras begin recording. In a soft but firm voice, 18-year-old Pornchita Fahpratanprai explains why they are standing up against a coal mine threatening their peaceful community in the mountains of northern Thailand.

Only a year ago, Pornchita, who goes by the nickname Duang, could have never imagined being interviewed on national television. She was just a young student, a dance team and school council member who would help tend to her family’s tomato farm after class. 

“Our families usually go farming during the day and come home in the evenings to eat together,” Duang says. “But never before have we had to organise meetings deciding where to protest the next day and who would hold the banners.”

In April 2019, news of a planned coal mine reached the ethnic Karen village of Kaboe Din. The community was shocked to learn the project would occupy large parts of their farmland and divert two streams they rely on for irrigation, raising concerns about food security and environmental impact.

“It’s really unfair, no one in our community was informed about any of this,” says Duang, who became the unexpected leader of a local movement to stop the mine.

Concerns over impact

Tucked away in the forested mountains of Omkoi in Chiang Mai province, Duang’s village is home to more than 300 indigenous Plong Karen who traditionally practise subsistence living. Many still source most of their essential needs from nature, making the forests of their ancestral homeland crucial to their lifeline.

But despite having lived in Thailand long before the nation was established, Karen people, like other ethnic minorities, are not officially recognised as indigenous people. 

Duang’s family, like most in the community, does not have any land deeds, giving them no legal ownership of their ancestral lands. If the plan for the coal mine goes ahead, the community stands to lose 41 plots of farmland.

According to Greenpeace, the project would also divert two streams that villages in the area rely on to irrigate their fields. The NGO estimates the mine would use up to 380,000 litres of water a day, possibly causing shortages in the surrounding communities. There are also concerns the mine would contaminate the area with heavy metals, degrading the forests and wildlife they are home to. 

The mine would be located one to two kilometres away from the village, raising concerns that coal trucks would carry dust and noise through the communities along the way to the highway. 

Villagers say they were not informed of the project until the day signs appeared in front of their homes in 2019.

“My heart dropped when I first found out about the [coal mine],” says Natthita Wuthisinlawat, a friend of Duang who joined the anti-mining group.

Through information meetings held by NGOs, the community learned the government had given a Thai-owned mining company the green light to build and operate a 45.3-hectare coal mine in Omkoi district. The project had been approved by the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) in 2011. 

At last year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that, with international support, Thailand is aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030. However, the country’s current national energy plan still includes 16-17 percent of coal-fired power in its total energy mix. There is currently only one operating coal mine, but more have been proposed, several to be located in the northern region. 

A plan to stop the mine

Determined to save their hometown, Duang and her friends drew up a plan to stop the mine. With the support of an NGO, they organised symbolic protests, drafted petitions and organised discussions for the villagers, government officials and the project’s representatives to exchange perspectives and arguments. Within weeks, they became spokespersons, negotiators, cooks and coordinators for the anti-mining movement. 

“I had to quickly learn how to convey complex topics to community members and gain their trust,” Duang says.

In May 2019, under the name “Anti-Coal Mine Network”, the group submitted a letter to the Omkoi district chief calling for the suspension of the coal mine concession. In June, thousands of them marched and protested. Once again, in September, hundreds marched, and two were arrested.

Shortly after, the Chiang Mai Provincial Industrial Office organised a public hearing to gather local opinions. Up to 3,000 people showed up, mobilised by Duang and her friends, causing the meeting room to overflow. In the end, the authorities had to postpone the meeting. 

In July 2020, the National Human Rights Commission found irregularities in the approval process of the coal mining concession and recommended a review. Community members had complained that an earlier public hearing for the environmental impact assessment (EIA) included names of people who say they’ve never been consulted.

“The company said they’ve already listened to the community’s opinions, and completed two public hearings,” Duang says, “all this even though most villagers don’t understand Thai language.”

“Many people see me as a leader, but I don’t want them to view me that way because we’ve fought together throughout.”

Lessons from Mae Moh 

Duang got a glimpse of the potential dangers of coal mining on a study trip to Thailand’s largest coal mine and Southeast Asia’s largest coal-fired power plant in nearby Lampang province. 

The community of Mae Moh has been bearing the consequences since the projects began operating in 1978. Ash blanketed the fields, and crops no longer grew from the soil. Villagers developed a wide range of illnesses from the chemical cocktail the projects unleashed. Duang realised that Kaboe Din could face the same fate.

“Knowing our rights, understanding that we shouldn’t be abused in such ways and learning about other affected communities made me feel like I needed to stand up and fight,” Duang says.

Youth leading the struggle 

Unlike in many indigenous communities in Thailand, in Kaboe Din, the young lead the fight. They present their case to reporters and officials, compile information from advocacy groups and translate it into Karen language for their community. They help NGO staff conduct population surveys and map out their village’s water sources and households. 

Among those supporting the community was Korawan Buadoktoom, research and investigations coordinator at Greenpeace Thailand. She remembers seeing Duang the first time; a young woman standing in the middle of a large circle of villagers, petite but powerful, explaining the coal mine situation and introducing the NGO staff to the community.

“Duang is a shaper who enables her friends to do the things she does, like speaking to the camera, storytelling or coordinating,” Korawan says. “Several times, we’ve seen her as a behind-the-scenes person who would help organise activities or leave group chats so that her friends can take the lead.”

Though often doubtful of her own abilities, Duang earned the trust of her community. She speaks up for them and fights for their families, bridging the gap between their village and the world outside. 

“Duang is confident and charismatic,” says her friend Natthita. “She’s now overcome many obstacles and learned so much from the world outside.”

With the help of reporters from the Thai Public Broadcasting Service and through social media, she became a citizen journalist for a national television channel and Kaboe Din’s own Facebook page

“Many people see me as a leader, but I don’t want them to view me that way because we’ve fought together throughout,” she says.

Since the struggle began, thousands of Omkoi locals have come out to join protests to demand a new environmental impact assessment (EIA). The local anti-mining group is in the process of suing the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) for negligence. Using supporting evidence Duang and her friends collected, they accuse the ONEP of approving an EIA that failed to seek informed consent from local people. 

New challenges ahead 

And though their battle is yet to finish, another two more have already begun. In 2020, a water diversion project from the Salween watershed into the Bhumibol Dam and a high-voltage electricity transmission project were proposed, cutting through some of the most pristine forests around Omkoi.

“I didn’t think it’d persist so long,” Duang says. “I thought that when we handed the complaint letter in the beginning, it would have all been resolved already.” 

Before joining the movement, Duang dreamt of becoming a preschool teacher. She grew up near a kindergarten and found herself loving the company of children. She also loved going to school and would like to pass on her passion for learning. But unconfident about whether she’d be accepted into university and how she’d adjust to city life, Duang decided not to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

“I just thought I’d just let it go,” Duang, now 21, says. “Lately though, I feel like I have the skills and knowledge to help my community.”

While she has put off her dream for now, Duang uses her new learned skills to educate and empower communities who face similar threats in the region. Volunteering at the Northern Development Foundation, she is helping collect data, organise discussion platforms and mobilise campaigns for forestry protection and land rights – much like the NGO staff who supported her and Kaboe Din village.

“Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot and it made me become an adult,” Duang reflects on  her journey as a community rights defender.

Today, the most important thing for her is to protect the home she has grown up in, so that the future generations can have a childhood as carefree and wholesome as hers.

 

Edited by Fabian Drahmoune

Nanticha Ocharoenchai (Lynn) is an environmental writer and youth climate activist from Thailand. She frequently writes about the environment, science, conservation and sustainability.