EARTH Thailand

Rare triumph for the little people

Bangkok Post 05 March 2009 | Veera Prateepchaikul

The rulings by the Rayong and Chiang Mai administrative courts should not be mistaken as a bad omen for investors, that their industrial projects are not welcome here. They are still welcome but, well, with a condition that they will not cause pollution that will contaminate our environment and threaten the health of the people.

On successive days this week, the little people whose livelihood has, for years, been threatened if not shattered by pollution, won two hard-fought battles against the “big brother” polluters.

On Tuesday, the Rayong provincial administrative court gave the National Environment Board 60 days to start a cleanup of the polluted industries inside the Map Ta Phut industrial estate and to declare the areas around the estate a pollution control zone, meaning the areas must be free from toxic chemicals beyond the permissible safety limits.  The following day, the Chiang Mai provincial administrative court ordered the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) to pay compensation of 246,000 baht, plus interest, to each of the 130 Mae Moh villagers badly affected by the poisonous emissions from its lignite-fired power plant in Mae Mo district of Lampang. The court also ordered Egat to relocate the affected villagers at least five kilometres from the power plant and to change its golf course into a forest.

Interestingly, the Chiang Mai provincial administrative court targeted Egat for building a golf course instead of ordering that it turn the lignite mine area into a forest -- on the grounds that the new forest would help absorb the impact from wind and running water.  The court said that the golf course had destroyed the habitat of wildlife and could not be used to store water.

Echoing the Rayong court’s decision, Democrat MPs for Rayong have called on the government to not appeal against the court’s ruling, to review the role of the Industrial Estate Authority in connection with Map Ta Phut industrial estate and to allow public participation in any future plans regarding pollution control in the pollution control zone.

While the two courts’ rulings were seen as a rare triumph for the little people and the public in general, they were viewed with dismay and alarm by the industrial sector and concerned authorities.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, as chairman of the National Environment Board, said the courts’ orders had to be followed anyway but he had asked Natural Resources and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti to prepare a report about the impacts of the court rulings for the board.

Suvit Chuenpiyavaja, president of Rayong industrial council, meanwhile, expressed concern that the court’s ruling might drive away potential investors from Map Ta Phut industrial estate.

Given the years-long sufferings of the people living in close vicinity to the Mae Mo power plant and Map Ta Phut industrial estate and their repeated complaints to the authorities, which went largely  unheeded, the courts’ decisions represent a great relief if not the final solutions to the pollution problem. 

In the case of the Mae Mo victims, the amount of compensation is a pittance compared with the hardships and health impairments they have suffered.  And for the Map Ta Phut residents, even though they are not compensated for their sufferings from the toxic chemicals they have inhaled for years, the designation of their communities as pollution control zone appears to be more desirable than monetary rewards. 

The industries in the estate have, for years, made profits while churning out poisonous emissions into the environment, and the Map Ta Phut residents deserve better living conditions, cleaner air and water.  It would be morally wrong and irresponsible if the government, or any of the authorities concerned, decide to deprive them of what they are to receive and appeal against the two rulings.

There is no doubt that new investment for industrial development is much needed at this juncture, in the face of economic slowdown.  But the health of the people is of priority importance and should not be compromised either. 

Yes, we warmly welcome new investment with open arms and big smiles.  But, please, no more polluted industries that will contaminate the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we grow our crops on.