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Last Thursday (28 September), local communities in Chiang Mai’s Omkoi District marched from the local municipal stadium to the District Office auditorium to protest against a coal mining project sited near their communities, while concerns have been raised of the risk of contamination of local farmland and air and water pollution if the mining project is allowed to go ahead.

Members of indigenous Karen communities in Omkoi carrying signs saying "Stop mine" during their march. (Photo by Wachiraya Wiratboonyakorn)

For the past 4 years, the locals in Omkoi have been protesting the government’s plan to grant a mining concession in the district. Local people were informed by the Chiang Mai Provincial Industry Office in 2018 that a private company had requested a coal mining concession on a piece of land it purchased in Kaboedin village. They began protesting out of the concern that, if implemented, the project would have negative impacts on the health and livelihoods of the local residents, who are members of indigenous Karen agricultural communities.

In April 2022, residents of Kaboedin village in Omkoi District filed a lawsuit with the Chiang Mai Administrative Court to revoke an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the mine and requested that a new EIA be conducted in a transparent manner and with participation from affected communities. A community spokesperson said that the EIA was conducted 10 years ago without the participation of the local residents, and contains many errors and omissions, including information about the impact on local environmental resources that the community relies upon. The concern is that the project will deprive community members of their rights to a healthy environment, including clean air and water.

In October 2022, the Chiang Mai Administrative Court granted a temporary injunction prohibiting all relevant agencies and the company behind the mining project from doing anything relating to the project until a ruling is made.

Last Thursday morning (28 September), local residents marched from the municipal stadium to the Omkoi District Office auditorium in an event commemorating 4 years of the movement against the mine. They were joined by community rights and indigenous rights activist groups, who marched holding banners protesting the mine.

The stage at the Omkoi District Office Auditorium surrounded by banners calling for an end to coal mining and the use of coal in Thailand.

After the march, activists and academics participated in panel discussions about the anti-coal mine movement over the years. Kaboedin youth activist leader Pornchita Fapratanprai said that local people are not against development, but they are protesting the mine because it will have a negative effect on the communities and the future generation.

Meanwhile, Sumitchai Hattasarn from the Center for Protection and Revival of Local Community Rights noted that the EIA had not been conducted properly, and that the activists intend to ensure that no coal mining concession is ever granted again in Thailand.

UN Human Rights Officer Hanae Hanzawa noted that Thailand has no law protecting indigenous communities, even though Thailand is a signatory to several international agreements on indigenous peoples. She called for the protection of cultural rights for indigenous peoples.

Pita Limjaroenrat marching with the local community members carrying a banner saying "Protect the village, protect the farmland." (Photo by Photo by Wachiraya Wiratboonyakorn)

Former Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat marched with the activists. He said that the government needs to understand that the use of coal is outdated and called on the government to declare that it will end the use of coal within 12 years. He also noted the inequality when it comes to land ownership, as most of Omkoi is part of a national forest and a wildlife conservation area, which means that the locals are not able to use the land, but a private company is able to claim a mining concession on forest land.

Pita said that the government should involve the local indigenous communities if it wants to make use of the resources in the area and make sure the local people benefit from it. Decentralization is also needed so that the local communities have a say in how to deal with issues facing them.

Photos of past anti-coal mine protests on display at Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Law during the 26 September exhibition. (Photo by Wachiraya Wiratboonyakorn)

Ahead of the 28 September march, the local activist group Kaboedin Wonderland, Greenpeace Thailand, EarthRights International, the Center for Protection and Revival of Local Community Rights, the Somdul Chiang Mai group, and Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Law held an exhibition titled “Omkoi Coal or Home” on 26 September at the Faculty of Law building. The exhibition aimed to raise awareness about the effect of coal mining on the local communities and demand that the government revoke the concession.

At the exhibition, Greenpeace Thailand and Naresuan University also launched a report on the risk of air pollution from coal mining. The report notes that if the mining project proceeds, Kaboedin and other communities in Omkoi, most of which are agricultural communities, will face the effects of the resulting water and air pollution on the local environment and farmland. It also predicts that coal mining would cause the spread of PM2.5 and PM10 air pollution, which would affect the health of mine workers and the local communities, while local farmland and water could become contaminated with nitrogen dioxide and heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury.

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