By Pratch Rujivanarom
Local residents of Wanon Niwat District on Sunday disclosed the results of their “Tai Baan” (villager-led) participatory research project, which researched the value of local natural resources. At an academic seminar at Wanon Niwat Public Park, the study team revealed that after two years gathering and evaluating data, they concluded that their land is too precious to allow the investment in potash mining.
In this approach to academic research, local communities study their surrounding environment and natural resources based on local knowledge and traditional ways of life that have been passed down through generations.
With the possibility of direct investment from China for a potash mining project in their area, the local people decided to study the environment around them to evaluate the real value of their local natural resources, said Mali Saengboonsiri, a local resident of Wanon Niwat district and one of the members of Wanon Niwat’s Tai Baan research team.
The team learnt that the economic value of the local ecosystem’s ecological services is beyond counting, said Mali. Local people have always been self-sufficient through drawing on the surrounding natural resources, without having to find a job in the city to earn money.
“We have found that our rivers, lakes, wetlands and reservoirs are home to at least 31 freshwater fish species, which … provide the major sources of protein for the local people”, said Mali.
As well, “the rich freshwater biodiversity also sustains the local economic activity of a freshwater fishery”, she said.
Wanon Niwat's wetland
“Moreover, the communal forestland and green areas are also giving us the seasonal food and forest products all year round. For the local citizens, these communal forests are just like a supermarket – we can just take a basket into the forest and come out with all ingredients for our dinner.”
The fertile farmlands and forests of Wanon Niwat district are the source of the Songkram River, a tributary of the great Mekong. Beneath the natural bounty lies one of the world’s largest potash deposits in the Sakon Nakhon Basin with an estimated value of up to Bt1 trillion
China’s state-owned mining company China Ming Ta Potash Corporation is currently exploring the potash deposit to discover the feasibility of investing in an underground potash mine project in the area. In 2015, the company secured an exploration licence covering over 110,000 rai (17,600 hectares) of land in the district. The project developer and some authorities have promised that developing a potash mine would bring economic prosperity to the rural region, but Udonthani Rajabhat University’s environmental lecturer Santipap Siriwattanapibul has warned that the local people and the environment would pay a very high price if the potash mining project went ahead.
Santipap in particular points to two major adverse environmental impacts that would follow from mining potash. First, underground mining would cause the land to become destabilised and to begin sinking. “Sinkholes have already been observed at the site of underground potash mining in Vientiane, forcing the mine to cease operation,” he noted.
Second, large piles of salt would be created in the mine areas due to the tremendous volumes of salt that are a by-product of the creation of potash.
“Imagine a large salt mountain here in Wanon Niwat during monsoon |season; the rain will wash salt into the water sources and severely contaminate the freshwater ecosystem with salinity, not only killing the fish but also transforming fertile farmland into |a barren salt marsh,” Santipap warned.
Weighing the current sufficiency lifestyle of locals and the ecological damages likely from potash mining, Mali and other locals concluded that the local environment and ecosystem are too valuable to trade in for the proposed potash mining project.