Indigenous community mounts legal challenge to Thai coal mine development

  • Villagers in northern Thailand have filed a lawsuit against authorities who approved an allegedly faulty environmental impact assessment for a coal mine project that they say would destroy farmland, divert watercourses, and affect long-term human health.
  • The project has been in the planning pipeline for two decades, but only became public in 2019; the Indigenous Karen community in Kabeudin village has opposed the coal mining project ever since.
  • The lawsuit alleges the 10-year-old EIA was conducted and approved with virtually no participation from potentially impacted communities and omitted crucial information about the environment and the natural resources on which the community depends.
  • Observers say the case is an example of the rural population’s growing awareness of their rights and of legal processes that hold companies and government departments accountable to the law and to climate commitments.

Local opposition to a planned coal mine in northern Thailand escalated in April when plaintiffs representing more than 600 villagers filed a lawsuit requesting the revocation of an environmental impact assessment conducted and approved more than 10 years ago.

Members of Kabeudin village, an Indigenous Karen community in Omkoi district, Chiang Mai province, filed the lawsuit against the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) and the EIA Expert Review Committee on April 4, stating that the environmental impact analysis (EIA) is outdated and was conducted and approved with little to no participation from the local communities that will be impacted.

The villagers also allege the EIA report omitted crucial information about the communities themselves and the natural resources on which they depend, including their rights to clean air and water.

The legal challenge is the latest in the community’s efforts to oppose the coal mining project. Although discussions between Thai-owned 99 Thuwanon Company and government authorities have been ongoing for more than two decades, villagers only learned about the project in 2019. They promptly founded the Omkoi Anti-Coal Mine Network and mobilized to gather and disseminate information about the development and its potential impact.

Observers say the case is an example of the rural population’s growing awareness of their rights and of legal processes that hold companies and government departments accountable to the law.

“The Kabeudin community has the fundamental right to oppose the coal mine,” Tara Buakamsri, country director of Greenpeace Thailand, told Mongabay in an email. “They are telling the truth to power. Local communities like Kabeudin have every reason to fight dominance narratives in Thai society that a small group of people must sacrifice their sustainable livelihoods for the sake of economic development.”

Community members demonstrate against the coal mine project at a forest ordination ceremony in Omkoi district, northern Thailand. Image by Chalefun Ditphudee/EarthRights International

Human rights violations

Prior to the villagers’ lawsuit, a 2020 investigation by Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) showed that the EIA for the mining project violated the human rights of the affected communities and recommended that ONEP initiate a review. According to local media reports, the investigation revealed that procedures for public hearings were at fault, with villagers named in the EIA report falsely listed as participants.

“We’ve been fighting the mine at every opportunity for the past three years,” Pornchita Fapratanprai, an Omkoi community member, told U.S.-based nonprofit EarthRights International. “We have grave concerns about the coal mine project, and we will fight until we win.”

The villager’s mobilization in opposition of the mine has gained the support of more than a dozen civil society groups, NGOs and academic research institutions in the form of the Coalition of Communities and Civil Society Organizations Working to End Coal Mining in Omkoi. The group assisted the community in undertaking an evidence-based community health impact assessment (CHIA) to evaluate the project’s impacts and demonstrate the faults with the EIA report.

The CHIA identified that the 45.5-hectare (112-acre) coal mine would damage people’s health, water and lands while increasing emissions that contribute to the global climate crisis. In addition to concerns about heavy-metal contamination of surrounding ecosystems, road access routes and increased traffic, the villagers face food security risks: they would lose more than 40 farm plots to the mine, and several waterways they depend on for crop irrigation would be diverted.

Karen activists, Thailand
Young Karen activists prepare for a ceremony in Omkoi district, northern Thailand. Image by Chalefun Ditphudee/EarthRights International

Taking a stand despite repression

Activism against the development project has at times been stymied by what experts call “intimidation tactics.” William Schulte, Mekong policy and legal adviser at EarthRights International, said the coal mine development company filed four separate complaints with local police alleging that social media posts about the mine amounted to defamation under Thailand’s laws.

“The police must investigate such complaints once they are filed, even if there is minimal evidence,” Schulte told Mongabay in an email. “This is an effective intimidation tactic because the simple fact of being the subject of an investigation by the police can be enough to deter people from speaking up even though they have the right to do so.”

Schulte added such criminalization underscores the need for protections against strategic lawsuits aimed at repressing meaningful public participation in EIA and other planning processes. “There should be consequences for those that needlessly use up government resources by filing frivolous complaints with the police that are only designed to intimidate,” he said.

Despite EIA policies being in effect in Thailand since 1975, Tara said assessments regularly lack adequate public consultation or information sharing as required by the law, rendering them a “constant source of conflict and injustice.” As a result, projects that require an EIA are routinely protested and opposed by affected communities, he added.

If the villagers’ request for a new EIA is successful, they will expect meaningful and effective engagement throughout the assessment process. “This does not just mean the company sharing information about the project with local communities,” Schulte said. “This means also giving the communities an opportunity to share their own concerns and questions about the project, and requiring that the company respond to these issues in a substantive manner.”

Karen activists, Thailand
Community members demonstrate against the coal mine project at a forest ordination ceremony in Omkoi district, northern Thailand. Image by Chalefun Ditphudee/EarthRights International

Toward a coal phase-out

In addition to direct impacts to the community and the environment, experts have expressed concerns that the planned coal mine goes against Thailand’s climate change targets. Last year, at the COP26 climate summit, Thai officials announced a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, but it remains unclear how this will be achieved. In particular, national energy plans seem to disregard the phase-out of fossil fuel industries like coal.

“The Net Zero Plan and Carbon Neutrality Goals outlined in Thailand’s long-term, low-emissions development strategy (LT-LEDS) submitted to the Glasgow COP26 climate summit are clearly an accounting trick,” Tara said. “It makes no mention of a 100 percent renewable energy system or the phase-out of coal.”

Tara said that by taking a stand against the coal mine, the Kabeudin community is safeguarding the environment for future generations and holding authorities accountable to their climate promises.

He said he sees the community as “the guardian of the entire society’s rich ecological integrity and life-sustaining system … If humanity is to survive, the coal age must come to an end.”

Banner image: Members of the Omkoi Anti-Coal Mine Network from Kabeudin village march to protest the Omkoi coal mine project in northern Thailand. Image by Roengchai Kongmuang/Greenpeace Thailand

Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @CarolynCowan11

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