Energy needs must not override rights
A coal concession in Myanmar has endangered forests and the health of villagers
Due to the volatility of the price of oil around the world, Thailand is attempting to find alternative sources of energy to support the country’s industrial sector. Coal has been targeted. The country has started using coal to generate electricity and as fuel in iron smelting and cement plants, and the need for energy is rapidly increasing. Thailand has coal reserves amounting to 2.197 billion tons, mostly located in the north, but this is not seen as enough. As such, the government is constantly looking for new sources of coal, even outside the country. In April 2008, a subsidiary of a big Thai construction company got a concession to tap into coal resources in Mong Kok, about 40 kilometers across the border in Myanmar. Coal reserves there are estimated at 120 million tons in a 30-square-kilometer area. The concession involves mining coal to the tune of 5,000 tons per day, building a 405 MW-capacity coal power plant on site and transporting remaining coal to cement plants in Saraburi, central Thailand. Mining and transporting of coal has already begun, while the power plant is expected to be completed in 2016. Meanwhile, in November 2009 the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) made an agreement with the concessionaire to buy 396 MW of electricity from 2016 onward. Noticeably, the Mong Kok power plant project is included in EGAT’s Power Development Plan 2010-2030. The industrial sector in Thailand is delighted with the prospects of relatively low-cost energy. However, villagers along the Kok River suffer from water pollution and lack of water, as well as air pollution and the threat of deforestation. A lot of water is used in the mining process, and contaminants flow back into waterways, which flow down to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces in northern Thailand. The affected river water cannot be consumed, aquatic animals die and three villages have already been abandoned. The villagers had to relocate and start a new life without any compensation. Villagers are also worried about worsening air pollution once the power plant across the border starts operating in 2016. In addition, people living along the road that has lorries transporting coal to Saraburi say they suffer from respiratory and other problems. At present, about 200 rounds of lorries each carry 10 tons of coal to a storage facility in Mae Chan district, Chiang Rai province, before being transported to Saraburi. The government is planning to build a shorter route across community forest. As it is, the forest is already affected. Forest produce has lessened and some villagers have migrated to towns to look for work. This is not only an environmental issue but also a human rights issue. According to Article 66 of the Thai constitution, local communities have the right to “participate in the management, maintenance, preservation and exploitation of natural resources and environment including the biological diversity in a balanced sustainable manner.” Article 67 says “any project or activity which may seriously affect the community in the quality of environment, natural resource and health shall not be permitted.” Local people who have been affected have joined local sub-district governments in exercising their constitutional right to oppose the project. They have formed a network to oppose construction of the new road. Through continual protests, they succeeded in having the government abandon its plan to construct the new road. However, this is just the first stage in a long battle. The challenge is to stop the Mong Kok project altogether and get EGAT to change its energy policies. To do that, the Thai network would do well to work with NGOs in Myanmar. Time is also running out. Due to the great demand for energy, the authority is looking to invest not only to Myanmar but also Laos, without thoroughly studying the impact on the environment and on villagers’ human rights. Kulachart Daengdej is a Catholic social and environmental activist. He formerly served as program officer of ActionAid Thailand, as well as human rights officer of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.