In 2015, after decades of mineral exploration in Sakon Nakhon Province of Northeast Thailand the Department of Mineral Resources awarded the China Ming Ta Potash Corporation the right to explore potash mining in 12 plots covering 18,700 hectares including 82 villages in Wanon Niwat District for 5 years.
For decades, mining companies have been eyeing the Northeast for its potash potential, an ore rich in potassium chloride that provides the primary ingredient in the production of agricultural fertilizers. This part of Thailand holds one of the world’s largest deposits.
But due to fierce opposition from the local community, only three exploratory pits have been drilled and the conflict has lingered on for 4 years. Now with only one year left of the company’s concession the affected villagers have formed an environmental group and are ramping up the pressure fearing a renewal in the mining rights.
And they have a right to be concerned. This fertile area of land has cultivated rice for generations and sits amongst important watersheds and river tributaries. Part of the land is seasonally flooded forests and is a delicate and important ecosystem that has been sustainably managed and utilized by the communities who gather food and other resources from them.
Nevertheless, the mining company has been trying to drill the land including these forests as much as possible before the expiration of their license in 2020.
Information on the mining process and practices of the company have been requested at a provincial level four times by the villagers but to no avail. In fact the company has even taken the opposing villagers to court filing criminal complaints against them accusing them of ‘coercion’ as a result of their opposition to the fourth exploration drill. Civil suits have also been lodged against nine individuals demanding 3.8 million baht (approximately US$117,000) for damages.
Such aggressive reactions to their valid concerns has prompted the villagers of Wamon Niwat to act by themselves staging mass protests including the Wamon Walk. In December 2018, around 200 villagers walked from their community to the provincial capital of Sakhon Nakhon 85 kilometers away. Taking 6 days, villagers of all demographics walked every day, stopping only to eat and sleep at local Buddhist temples until they reached their ultimate goal of Sakhon Nakhon University grounds.
Closely followed by police, members of the military and intelligence agencies the villagers refused to back down and with over 15 companies eyeing potash mining prospects in an area covering a total of 960,000 hectares in Northeast Thailand, this battle is being closely watched by both sides.