Thailand’s Radical Grandmothers

A group of women are using weaving skills to fund their fight against mining pollution in rural Thailand.

In a village of northeast Thailand, a group of resilient women weaves bright-colored scarves to fund their fight against the mining company that has allegedly poisoned their land and water.

In 2006, the mining company Tungkum Limited started extracting gold close to the village of Na Nong Bong, in Loei Province. First, the villagers complained about dust and noise, resulting from rock explosions. Later they reported health conditions consistent with poisoning. According to the NGO Fortify Rights, in 2007 government tests found unsafe levels of arsenic, cyanide, and manganese in local rivers and underground water supplies. These chemicals are commonly used in gold-mining processes.

Ranong Kongsaen, 59, founder of the Radical Grandmothers’ collective in the village of Na Nong Bong in Loei province, northeast Thailand. The radical grandmothers weave traditional textiles to raise funding for their fight against mining pollution.
Credit: Valeria Mongelli
A farmer harvests rice in a rice field outside Na Nong Bong. Before the mining activities started, the villagers lived a simple and quiet life. Agriculture was their main source of income, with most of them earning livelihoods through rubber, rice, and soybean production.
Credit: Valeria Mongelli
A view of the mine. Soon after the mining activities started, local residents reported symptoms of poisoning. In 2009, the government cautioned residents against using local water sources for drinking, bathing, and cooking. Later, villagers were warned to stop eating snails and crabs from local rivers.
Credit: Valeria Mongelli
Detail of one of the offices inside the mine site. The sign “cyanide liquor” is visible below the screens. According to Fortify Rights, a 2007 government report revealed that Tungkum Limited allegedly failed to meet 13 environmental safeguards in conducting its mining activities in Loei province, including failures to adequately manage cyanide contamination and its detoxification tanks.
Credit: Valeria Mongelli

Also in 2007, the communities surrounding the gold mine founded the Khon Rak Ban Kerd (“People who love their homeland”) group to ask for the closure of the mine and the restoration of the environment. Ranong Kongsean, one of Na Nong Bong’s social leaders, had a dream: raise funds for the villagers’ fight through the sale of textiles weaved by women of the community. This is how the Radical Grandmothers’ collective was born.

In their decade-long struggle for justice, the radical grandmothers and other residents have faced threats, harassment and criminal prosecutions, both from the mining company and the local authorities. On the night of May 15, 2014, a group of about 150 masked men armed with sticks and guns surrounded Na Nong Bong and beat the villagers, while trucks brought previously harvested ore out of the mine. Police and provincial authorities did not intervene or answer villagers’ calls that night. In 2016, the Loei Provincial Court convicted an army lieutenant colonel and a retired lieutenant general for their involvement in the attacks.

Kan Jutano, 62, a resident around the mine area, stares out of the window while holding her granddaughter. Her husband died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis five or six years ago – she cannot remember. Blood analyses revealed an abnormal concentration of mercury in his blood, allegedly caused by environmental pollution linked to mining activities.
Credit: Valeria Mongelli
Wanpen Kunna, 21, stands by the entrance to the weaving center in Na Nong Bong. The sign means “Center for weaving against the mine.” When she was 15, Tungkum Limited filed a criminal defamation complaint against her. The charges related to her narration in a news clip, in which she claimed that the villages and the water resources close to the mine had been environmentally affected by the mining activity. All charges were dismissed in 2016.
Credit: Valeria Mongelli
Tam Laem Saichumloem, a member of the collective, weaves at her loom. In 2016, with the help of six US undergraduate students on a study abroad program, the radical grandmothers set up a social enterprise to sell their products internationally.
Credit: Valeria Mongelli

The mine is now out of operation, as Tungkum Limited’s license expired in 2013. In December 2018, the Loei Provincial Court ordered Tungkum Limited to pay 104,000 baht (about $3,150 at the time) to 149 families affected by the mining activities. The court also ordered the company to take measures to restore the environment. Still, villagers have yet to receive any compensation and nothing has been done to restore the environment.

“They did not take responsibility for anything that happened here,” says Ranong Kongsaen. “They said they had never done it.”

Tungkum Limited went bankrupt in February 2018. Tongkah Harbor Public Company, Tungkum Limited’s parent company, denied any responsibility for issues regarding its subsidiary.

Detail of a weaver’s hands. The weavers grow organic cotton in the plantations surrounding the village, then spin cotton fibers into thread in their home. Thanks to the collective, the women of Na Nong Bong get an income and support the anti-mining activities, thus playing a more active role in the community’s fight.
Credit: Valeria Mongelli
A close-up of Ranong Kongsaen’s hand lying on the scarves weaved by the radical grandmothers. Members of the weaving group donate 50 baht (about $1.60) of their earnings from each item to the Khon Rak Ban Kerd group. The group employs this money to travel to court, pay legal fees, and cover room and board for the villagers and the lawyers.
Credit: Valeria Mongelli
Ranong Kongsaen holds her granddaughter’s hand at the entrance of Na Nong Bong. The sign in the background reads “Close the mine. Restore. This village does not want the mine.”
Credit: Valeria Mongelli

The women of the Khon Rak Ban Kerd group received a National Human Rights Commission award for defending human rights on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2016. “I keep fighting for the next generations,” says Ranong. “I don’t want the next generations to say, why didn’t this generation try to […] make a change? If I have to die because […] I fought so hard against the injustice, it will be worth to die this way.”

By : Valeria Mongelli – THE DIPLOMAT

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