Potash investment upsets locals

Potash investment upsets locals

Mining project gets lukewarm private sector response

A tunnel at the potash mine run by Asean Potash Chaiyaphum Plc (APOT) in Chaiyaphum's Bamnet Narong district in 2018. (File photo)
A tunnel at the potash mine run by Asean Potash Chaiyaphum Plc (APOT) in Chaiyaphum’s Bamnet Narong district in 2018. (File photo)

Locals in Chaiyaphum province have expressed alarm after the cabinet’s decision in February to put an extra 90 million baht investment into Asean Potash Chaiyaphum Plc (APOT), seen as a push to revive the local potash mining industry.

APOT’s 60-billion-baht potash mine in Chaiyaphum occupies 9,700 rai of land and has faced strong opposition from villagers and activists for over 20 years. The company has also weathered financial crises over the years, and has sought a capital infusion from Thailand and abroad.

The APOT project was a joint venture among Asean member countries under an agreement signed in 1976. APOT was founded in 1991 with Asean members owning a 29% stake.

The Finance Ministry holds 20%, and the remaining 51% is owned by companies. The aim is to undertake potash mining and processing, and in turn to produce affordable and high-quality potash fertiliser for farmers in Asean. A production capacity of 1.1 million tonnes of potassium fertiliser was envisioned by 2020.

Unfortunately, the project received a lukewarm response from the private sector.

“The Thai government has attempted to change the agreement to lure more investment, but it is difficult because it is a multi-country agreement,” said Lertsak Kumkongsak, coordinator of the Ecological Culture Study Group.

High salt content in surrounding areas of another potash mine in Dan Khun Thot district of Nakhon Ratchasima left underground water non-consumable and farmlands non-arable, and locals in Chaiyaphum were wary of a similar thing happening there.

The Department of Primary Industries and Mines’s second master plan on mineral management for 2023-2027 focuses on industrial rock, gold, quartz and potash. The northeastern region is regarded as a significant source of potash with a potential volume of 400 billion tonnes.

It has granted concessions for potash mining to three companies. They are APOT in Chaiyaphum province, Thai Kali company in Nakhon Ratchasima province and Asia Pacific Potash Corporation (APPC) in Udon Thani province.

Suwit: Damage borne by locals

Thanawan Krainok, a 47-year-old villager who lost her 15-rai farm to a mining plant in Nakhon Ratchasima, said potash mining has destroyed livelihoods.

Locals could not plant rice or farm other crops on their own land due to high levels of salt in the soil.

Many farm owners now earned wages as labourers and incurred huge debts. Hundreds of families are now facing high costs for water consumption because underground water is contaminated. Communities were forced to find other sources of clean water, making it more expensive at up to five to 25 baht per cubic metre.

“The company provided assistance, including financial compensation. But it is not enough, we need stronger action to clean up the environment. I would like other communities to learn from our experience. Mining has caused the collapse of our lives,” she said.

Locals filed a complaint against the company as the source of pollution after a barrier installed to prevent salt leakage broke in 2015. The villagers demanded that a probe committee verify the source.

Pikulthong Thothuyo, a villager from Udon Thani’s Prachaksinlapakhom district, said the project caused conflict in the community.

She said the government ignored the Administrative Court’s order to reconsider the process of public hearings that sought input from stakeholders before issuing the concession to the company last year. She insisted she would keep fighting.

“If I don’t fight for my own homeland, who will do it? I don’t want to a repeat of the tragedy in Nakhon Ratchasima province,” she said.

A combined 28,127 rai of land plots in the two districts of Muang Udon Thani and Prachak Sinlapakhom has been allocated for the mining concession, with plans to produce two million tonnes of potash per year.

The government promoted the potash mine as a component for cheaper fertiliser that would benefit farmers. Thailand imports 800,000 tonnes of potash a year, worth 7.6-10 billion baht, mainly for fertiliser.

Settharach: Notes lingering conflict

Suwit Kulabwong, a coordinator of the Udon Thani Environment Conservation Group, said poor transparency in granting concessions may end up harming the government.

He added the Isan region has become a target for investors interested in potash, but the damage will be borne by locals. The local community woud file a complaint with the Administrative Court seeking to nullify the concession.

Settharach Luadsakul, deputy chief of the Department of Primary Industries and Mines, said the department is worried about the lingering conflict between mining activities and host communities. He said locals should express their opinion during public hearings.

He said the public hearings are held according to the law and locals should be confident the process granting concession permits is transparent.

A tunnel at the potash mine run by Asean Potash Chaiyaphum Plc (APOT) in Chaiyaphum’s Bamnet Narong district in 2018. Patipat Janthong