When a Chinese mining company arrived in a quiet rural area in Thailand’s northeastern province of Sakon Nakhon in 2015, a group of local women knew they had to act.
“In the beginning, we were only women,” says Mali Senbunsiri, a 52-year-old farmer and grandmother of four. “We weren’t very well organised, just reacting when we saw the company trying to drill.”
Concerned about their livelihoods, health, and the environment, Mali and her neighbours formed an anti-mining group in Wanon Niwat district. They educated themselves about the dangers of mining, put up banners, held public forums and organised protest marches. They faced intimidation attempts and a flurry of lawsuits, but the group refused to budge even then.
The company continues to push for the mine, but the women are determined to defend their homes and keep the minerals where they belong – deep below the ground.
What lies below
The people of Wanon Niwat had always known that the earth below them contained a lot of rock salt; traditional salt producing activities nearby were testament to that. But it wasn’t until the potash mining company arrived six years ago that they realised how this deposit could affect them.
In 2015, Mali noticed company signs appearing on plots around the community, declaring them surveying areas for a mine. She remembered the warning of a relative, the leader of an anti-mining group in neighbouring Udon Thani province, to be on the lookout for any strange signs. “It means they are getting ready to open a mine,” he had told her.
A few days later, Mali and her friends were preparing a religious ceremony in the local temple when the news spread that the company had arrived to drill for soil samples.
“As soon as we heard, we dropped everything and rushed there to stop them,” says Nongluck Oupadeng, one of the women who co-founded the anti-mining group.
Upon inquiry, the sub-district office confirmed that a company was studying the viability of mining in the area. China Ming Ta Potash Corporation had received an exploration license covering more than 15,000 hectares. The Chinese state-owned company was looking to dig up potash, a potassium-rich salt used in the production of fertilisers.
Potash mining comes with the risk of increased salinisation of local water streams. This can reduce aquatic biodiversity and land subsidence, says Miguel Cañedo, a researcher on aquatic ecosystems at the University of Barcelona, who studied the impacts of potash mines.
“If you don’t carefully plan preventive actions, the environmental impact of these mines can be really high”, Cañedo says. “It can also have an impact on human health; it is not only about ecosystems. Salts can interact with other residues and cause carcinogenic substances.”
The danger of destroying great swaths of farmland in this agricultural dependent region has fomented strong public opposition against potash mines. Other communities in Udon Thani, Nakhon Ratchasima and Maha Sarakham spent decades fending off such projects.
Women leaders, fierce opposition
Without any official notice, the residents of the district’s 82 villages learned that their homes were now part of a potash mining area. It was the beginning of a fierce local opposition movement against the project.
Eventually, the local men joined in, and the group grew in size and strength. It changed how the group of about 50 women leaders saw themselves and how the community perceived them.
“I have learned to be more confident,” says Nongluck. “Now I am recognised by the community, and they give me more responsibilities.”
“It really changed me,” says Samrit Boranmun, 48, another of the women activists. “Before, I was only staying at home. Now I am a leader. I feel empowered and braver.”
Kitima Khunthong, a sociologist at Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University, is one of a handful of people who have been working closely with the community since the beginning. She helped arrange the finale of the community’s six-day protest walk in December 2018 at the university despite much resistance from officials.
To her, the group’s success and tenacity in fighting back against an external threat have deep historical and cultural roots embedded in the region’s fabric.
She points out that most of the women in Wanon Niwat have an intimate relationship with nature. They make a living from gathering vegetables, roots and plants in the forest, which they consume at home or sell in the market.
“They are aware of the negative impact from damage to the ecosystem, which affects the wellbeing of their families,” Kitima says. “So they feel the need to fight.”
Growing up during the Cold War, the women experienced traditional Isan family structures change. When Isan men began migrating out of the region to seek work in urban areas, women who stayed back took on decision-making roles in their families.
“It taught leadership to Isan women and also fostered matriarchy in their families,” Kitima explains. “It is no surprise that we see many women leading social movements in Isan.”
“It really changed me. Before, I was only staying at home. Now I am a leader. I feel empowered and braver.”
A flurry of lawsuits
The women’s collective spirit and leadership proved to be a vital asset in their fund-raising efforts to organise protest activities and pay for legal fees. They recently organised regular funding walks through their community and nearby villages, collecting about 80,000 baht in donations. They used the money to cover the legal fees for filing an appeal notice at a court in Bangkok.
Mali and other community leaders faced judicial harassment from the company in the form of SLAPP lawsuits (strategic lawsuits against public participation), known as intimidation lawsuits. It is a common method to silence activists by burdening them with legal defence costs until they abandon their criticism or opposition. Several people in Wanon Niwat have cases pending as a result of their activism against the mine.
Pisamai Sukka, 53, struggled after the company sued her for disrupting its business. Ultimately, the court dismissed the case, but it still took its toll on Pisamai. Frequent court visits and the preparation of the case made it difficult for her to make a living.
Recently widowed, she grows rice on a small plot of land for her family while also working as a cleaning person to make ends meet.
“I never accepted the charges. I didn’t cause any damage to the company. I just sat and asked for information,” Pisamai says, explaining her involvement in one of the protests against the mine for which the company sued her.
According to Sakkapol Chaisaengrach, the community’s lawyer, judicial harassment is common in the country to intimidate activists. “I was already expecting the company to sue them because, in Thailand, companies often use the justice system to try to stop communities,” he says.
Over the past six years, the group has stopped four attempts at drilling exploration holes and organised several large protests. In December 2018, they held a 6-day long protest walk bringing together hundreds of people. Community members of all ages marched to the provincial capital of Sakon Nakhon, 85 kilometres away.
Waking in a long line along rural roads, they handed out information pamphlets and chanted slogans. At night they stopped at local temples setting up makeshift forums with local and national experts to discuss mining issues. Police and military, as well as plain-clothed intelligence officers, closely monitored their actions.
Things are quiet in Wanon Niwat at the moment, but the community stays vigilant. Despite the company’s exploration licenses expiring in 2020, its office and a few staff remain in the area. In February 2021, members of the group travelled to Bangkok, petitioning the Ministry of Industry not to renew the company’s mining license.
There is also a pending lawsuit in which the company sued nine community members for defamation and loss of income. Somboon Duangpromyao, 54, one of the plaintiffs, is adamant they have done nothing wrong.
They took the case to the Supreme Court, because as Somboon explains, “it does not just burden the nine villagers. It puts the burden on the whole community to raise funds to help them pay the court fees. We will not pay a single baht,” she says. “We will fight until the end.”
Additional reporting by Paritta Wangkiat | Edited by Fabian Drahmoune
Laura Villadiego is a freelance journalist now based in Madrid, but previously lived in Southeast Asia for several years. Her work has appeared in publications such as Público, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera and TV5Monde.