Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ban Na Nong Bong

I just had the most amazing homestay experience ever. Our big group split in half to write two human rights reports, and my half went to this community which is basically falling apart because of a gold mine. The mine was built a couple of years ago, and since then not only have the ecosystems been destroyed, but they have completely changed a community. Ban Na Nong Bong used to be mostly a self-sustaining community, though growing rice and other crops, and collecting fish and vegetables from the forests and streams around the village. But the mine now uses chemicals which are seeping into the groundwater.


As soon as the mine was built, the fish in the community died and they now cannot eat the forest vegetables, partly because the water is completely contaminated and poisoning them, and partly because the mine is blasting the tops of mountains off and tearing down forests. Now the community members cannot drink or shower in the water safely, as shown by people with skin rashes and cyanide poisoning, among other health issues. In order to get clean water and food, they now are spending all of their savings. People are having multiple jobs just in order to live.

For my human rights report, I am on the profile team. This means that I conducted 7 interviews with different people in the community on their lives and how they have been affected by the mine. My profile team and I interviewed a woman whose baby is suffering from skin rashes from showering in the contaminated water, a man who was a farmer and is now working at the mine in order to act as a community informant or spy, a teenage girl who is actively writing letters to others about the conditions in the community, a man who lives next the mine and literally has to hide in his house at noon every day, for the boulders from the mine dynamite blasts shower on his fields, an elderly man who usually conducts ceremonial customs which require food and water, my homestay mom whose water has arsenics, among other chemicals in it (which I showered in daily! yummy!), a community organizer, and a woman suffering from cyanide poisoning. This woman's symptoms include regular fainting, migranes, eye sores, etc.

Our report is focusing on four human rights violations: the right to work, the right to food, the right to health, and the big one: the right to water. I cannot even express how connected I feel to the community and how much I am in awe of their strength.

The day that we got to the homestay we went straight into an exchange with the Mine officials. After a 3 hour discussion and a tour of the mine, we left feeling that there were no human rights violations. The mine's PR team is pretty amazing. They showed us around the facilities, and really made us confident in their work. We then got to the community, where the story was completely different. As one of the girls in my group said, we felt like we were on Scooby Doo. We were all detectives into the situation, since this community has absolutely NO information on what is going on. This is because the mine is so incredibly corrupt. 

The board in control over the mine is made up of government officials. The president of the board is the retired general of the Thai military, who was basically responsible for the 2005-2006 coup against Thaksin (old Prime Minister). Because of this really strong connection between the mine and the government, the community has little to no access to information about the condition of the water and their health. They have been asking for testing on their water for more than a year, and got their first water test just a month ago from the Ministry of Public Health. However, the test was taken during the middle of the day from one source, where cyanide can evaporate from the water. Therefore, the test only showed arsenics, cadmium, and other chemicals (which are also incredibly harmful to health). Also, the local public clinic is not providing village members with information on their health, only treating their symptoms, and not doing tests on their long term health conditions.


Basically things are effed up. The morning after we got to the community 6 of us went to a protest with the community members. We were told that we were going to the Governor to present a letter to him. So we all get dressed up and walk to the car, where we are given neon green T-shirts with "NO MINE!" and other Thai words on them (as shown in the above pics!). Then we realized that it was a real protest. We piled into the back of a pickup truck with other village members, and started this caravan through neighboring communities and picking up people on the way. It was pretty amazing - at one point we were on the highway with more than 20 pickup trucks all full of neon green t-shirts and signs. There were around 300 people at the protest. Pretty cool sight to see. 

When we got to the protest, we were told to stand back, so it wasn't a Farang protest. However, it was kind of easy to spot us, partly because we were white, and partly because we were a foot taller than everyone else. Anyway, we did interviews with different newspapers and TV news channels, and one of my friends was on the front page of the paper the next day. But yeah, we were at the protest for around 3-4 hours, during which a lot happened. At the beginning a security guard for the Governor came out onto the lawn where we were standing, and requested that a few people come inside and negotiate with the officials. People refused, and said that they would have to come outside. They said "We are all here together to fight the issues." Later on, when nothing was happening, we all moved closer to the Governor's building, and then moved all the way up to the steps. My homestay mom was awesome. She walked straight up to these government officials and demanded their attention. One good quote was, "Standing in the sun for a few hours won't kill us. But drinking our water will."  

Anyway, after a little we saw some of the representatives from the mine walk out of the building, who had obviously heard what the community was doing, and decided to get to the Governor first. We talked to them, and they were very cordial and fake, saying that all of these people made up the menial 5% of community members who didn't oppose them (false.). 

After awhile, the Assistant Governor and a representative from the Public Health office came out (The Governor was not there. coincidence?) and told all of us protesters that this was the first time he had heard of the health effects of the water. They said that they would provide more free water to villagers and that they would do more testing. We were happy that they finally dealt with the situation, but who knows when these changes will occur. 

Along with all of the things that I was learning about dealing with human rights, my actually homestay was amazing. I had such a great homestay mom, who I really connected with. She had the most intense eyes, and would just let you know exactly how she was feeling at the moment. She also didn't treat me as a foreigner, but as her own daughter. I slept in the same bed with her, and we all stayed up really late at night (her, me and my homestay partner, Tany) just giggling and talking about how tall we were, etc. It was my favorite homestay by far. 

 (my mom!)

When we left the community we were given this large ceremony and told that they really depended on our report, since they are deteriorating in health and their communities resources are diminishing. So basically, we all feel a huge responsibility to our moms and dads in the community to write this report in the best way possible, and maybe make a difference. It is also nice, because we are not just going in there as Farang and writing about what we think should change. The arguments are all thought up and supported by community members themselves. 

So. Now begins the writing process! We will write draft after draft, sending it in to different people for critiques, and then come out with our report (which kind of looks like a book - a cover and pictures and everything). I am so excited to get this out there, but really apprehensive because I want to do it right. I am writing about people I know, which makes it all the more meaningful to me. Let's do it!

P.S. one thing i learned this week: making one gold ring produces 10 tons of waste
           ...definitely makes you say "holy crap," right? 

1 comment:

  1. hey julia! it's really awesome to hear that you are not only doing this on-site human rights reporting but that it really matters to the people in the community in a visible way. fill us in on how this report turns out! i have a friend who worked for amnesty under t. kumar (he basically deals with asia affairs in the dc office) and she did something similar to this regarding burma - maybe we could find a connection there? either way, keep it up, don't get sick but DON'T GET CRAZY.