A major Geographical investigation looks at the devastating environmental and debilitating health effects a Thai gold mine is having on a village in Loei, and at how a group of determined villagers are fighting back
It’s a truly idyllic valley, thumbs of karst rising from rice fields, a glowing sunset tempered by cumulo nimbus. Women bend at the waist planting rice seedlings, their movements reflected in the water. The set for a painter or poet.
Instead it’s the stage for the violent suppression of popular protests in the northern Thai province of Loei. For eight years, the embattled villagers have been fighting the owners of an adjacent gold mine. This lovely valley and the determined villagers are at the intersection of human, physical and political geography writ small and very mean.
To the villagers, the environment itself has become the enemy. The water in which the women stand plunging seedlings into mud is contaminated with arsenic, manganese and chromium. Below the overburden dumps, the rice fields hold arsenic, cyanide, mercury and cadmium.
Under trees, an unusual number of people sit in wheelchairs. Changma, 65, suffering debilitating peripheral neuropathy in her legs and hands (‘stocking/glove syndrome’) sits in her basic kitchen, cleaning pots. She is barely able to walk. Her doctor diagnosed the cumulative effects of arsenic. Cham, 84, who lives 300 metres away, has worse symptoms. A bowl of water nearby soothes the pain and persistent tingling associated with damaged nerves. Her 86-year-old husband with degenerative spinal condition is unable to care for her. We see cases of skin rashes. All signs of chronic arsenic poisoning.