- Activists in the southern Thai province of Satun have for years protested against plans to open a quarry in the limestone mountain Khao Toh Krang.
- The limestone mountain sits just outside a UNESCO global geopark, notable for its Paleozoic fossils and karst landscape, and is also flanked by villages and a large school.
- Officials say the quarry will promote jobs and ensure a local source of construction material, but opponents say a group of planned quarries threaten the geopark’s UNESCO status as well as cultural and archaeological sites and the health of nearby residents.
THUNG NUI, Thailand — Firdaw Manjeed says she’s glad to be back to school for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Here in Thailand’s southernmost province, Satun, on the Andaman Sea coast, it’s the first day after two years of depressing solitude away from friends. More than 1,600 students and 90 teachers buzz and swarm everywhere.
The 17-year-old says she’s happy to see her school again, and to know that everyone is safe. And, much to her relief, Khao Toh Krang, the limestone mountain that shadows her school, is still there.
“I was afraid we wouldn’t see it again when we returned,” Firdaw says.
According to Thai law, no rock quarry, mine or other extractive concession is allowed within 500 meters (1,640 feet) of a community or household. Khao Toh Krang stands 380 m (1,250 ft) from Firdaw’s school.
Firdaw and her friends are no strangers to the mountain. They’ve seen it from their classroom windows, and before that from their bedrooms, since they were born. They’ve visited it for biology class to search for tiny rare snails, and for archaeology class to observe 11 limestone caves and the thousands of bats that make their home there.
In 2016, when Firdaw was in sixth grade, the Thai government opened a rock quarrying concession on Khao Toh Krang. Poothonganda Company Limited, a mining firm with multiple operations in southern Thailand, applied for quarrying rights.
As part of the process of getting permission to begin operations, the company submitted an environmental impact assessment (EIA) in 2017 to the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment. Due to local opposition, the office sent the EIA back to the company to revise. The company has still not formally submitted the revised EIA to the government, and resistance to the project remains.
Omitted from official reports
On the opposite side of Khao Toh Krang from the school, in the village of Ban Naprik, 64-year-old Ibrahim Densamli leads the way through dense rubber trees into the bush. After a walk across ground so soft and moist he sinks calf-deep into the soil, he arrives at a wide marsh area and then a shallow swamp.
Here, abundant underground water rises up through the porous limestone at the foot of Khao Toh Krang. “It has never dried up since I first saw it 60 years ago,” Ibrahim says, standing knee-deep in this capillary pond.
In Thailand, rock quarries or other extractive concessions can only be granted in places without rich natural resources.
In the reports published by the relevant government bodies in support of opening of the quarrying concession, Khao Toh Krang is described as surrounded by degraded forest and only 11 households.
“Capillary water would never appear in the degraded forest,” Ibrahim says. In the rainy season like this, the pond in front of him spreads across 0.8 hectares (2 acres). “My village alone has more than 100 households,” he adds. “All of this has never been mentioned in the official reports.”
Global geopark with rock quarries
Satun province’s rich geological and archaeological heritage has been recognized by UNESCO since 2018, when part of the province was declared a Global Geopark.
The Satun geopark covers 259,700 hectares (641,700 acres) of land and sea. Its 72 registered geological sites date back to the Paleozoic era, ranging from 250 million to 541 million years old. The sites include caves, limestone mountains, evergreen forests, renowned fossil sites, and Andaman Sea reefscapes. The geopark also includes the Tarutao Islands, also acknowledged as an ASEAN Heritage Park by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Out of eight designated rock quarry sites in the province, two lie within the area demarcated as part of the Satun Global Geopark.
Locals see the presence of these sites as a threat to the geopark’s UNESCO recognition. Geoparks are reviewed every four years by UNESCO; Satun’s turn is scheduled to come this year.
A committee under the Ministry of Education that’s responsible for ensuring UNESCO best practices are followed has warned that the review could yield negative findings as well as positive ones, and the status of the geopark could be affected. “There are yellow and red cards like every evaluation,” says board member Surichai Wun’gaeo.
But Pongsak Thongnueakhaeng, a member of the Satun Global Geopark’s executive board, says there’s no cause for concern. He says Thailand has done its best to protect and promote the geopark, regardless of the two designated quarrying sites within its borders. “None of them are close to the registered geological or archaeological sites which are protected natural reserve,” Pongsak says.
But Mongabay found that one of the potential quarry sites is just 13 kilometers (8 miles) from “Le Stegodon,” a famous cave where the fossils of Pleistocene-epoch rhinos and the ancient elephant-like Stegodon orientalis were found in 2008. It was this discovery that triggered the move to register the area with UNESCO.
The other potential rock quarry sits even closer to a place of geological significance, just 8 km (5 mi) from a site with 400-million-year-old stromatolites, rock mounds of fossilized bacteria that created the oxygen in the atmosphere.
Khao Toh Krang, too, is close to a recognized site: 700 m (2,300 ft) to the south is a Department of Fine Art-registered archaeological site where a 3,000-year-old grave with complete skeletons and antique earthenware and ornaments dedicated to the deceased was discovered.
For local activist Abdulkoffa Leeyao, founder of conservation group Love Khao Toh Krang, the threat is obvious. “How can rock quarries stand in a global archaeological site?” he asks. “This is simple question.” Abdulkoffa and his group have sent an open letter to UNESCO asking the organization to conduct an urgent review.
Pongsak, however, says he’s optimistic that UNESCO can accommodate these extractive industries, pointing to Southeast Asia’s first recognized global geopark in neighboring Malaysia. “Langkawi Global Geopark also has a marble mine in its territory and it has never been revised or revoked since [being] awarded in 2007,” Pongsak says.
But there’s also precedent for a global geopark losing its status due to poor management: Iran’s Qeshm Island Global Geopark was delisted for five years following a negative UNESCO review.
Long and costly fight
Like other provinces in Thailand’s deep south, Islam is the predominant religion in Satun, where close to 80% of the population is Muslim.
“Religion must preserve the environment created by God for mankind,” says Jehisamaaeh Paduka, 56, the imam, or religious leader, of several villages near Khao Toh Krang. He’s speaking less than a mile from Khao Toh Krang, in a cemetery that dates back to 1839, a few decades after his ancestors founded the town.
In another village nearby, a museum displays a stone pillar that was buried in the ground to mark the founding of the town in 1797, along with a handwritten Qur’an and other manuscripts dating back to the late 1700s — an indication the town was one of the first settlements in modern-day Satun.
Abdulkoffa, who has a master’s degree in environmental management and experience as a researcher, founded his organization right after the quarry concession was opened. His group works in the area to promote the protection of natural resources and has vowed to protest against quarrying.
“A school with 2,000 people,” Abdulkoffa says. “Villages that can trace back over 200 years, with the graveyard of their ancestors and founders of this city. The rich nature of the mountain. Archaeology sites with thousands-of-years-old ruins. Aren’t they enough to convince this mountain is not to be blasted? So, all of these have to face the blasting noise and the asbestos dust that one day will bring us all cancer.”
Jehisamaaeh has led local protests against the rock quarry for six years, but notes that the issue divides his congregation. The imam himself sees the quarry as a threat to local livelihoods, society and culture. However, he says some villagers support the quarry in hopes it will yield jobs and financial opportunities; the value of rock that could be quarried from the mountain is reportedly as high as $200 million, or more.
“We try not to discuss the quarry issue at the mosque,” he says. As for leading the protest, he sees it as a religious duty: “It is said in the Qur’an that mountains are here to anchor the world. Without it, the world could not be stabilized.”
Excluded on a technicality
Khao Toh Krang stands at the juncture of two districts: Kuan Don and Kuan Kalong. The majority of the mountain’s 19 hectares (47 acres) lie in Kuan Kalong, which is also home to Firdaw’s school.
The petition for the concession was filed in a village in Kuan Don district. Thai law dictates that all related legal activities must be carried out in the administrative area of the petition, and that those who are not registered residents of that area are excluded from related proceedings. Even the villages where Ibrahim, Abdulkoffa and Jehisamaaeh live, which are in Kuan Don district but in a separate administrative area, are excluded.
After Poothonganda’s first EIA was rejected, the company held a public meeting as part of the process of revising its assessment. But many residents say they weren’t invited.
“When they conducted the local public hearing in 2019, we were not notified,” Abdulkoffa says. “Only those who live in the village that the petition has been registered in could participate.”
“As the nearest residents, and with a student population bigger than the whole village, we’ve never been allowed to participate [in] the public hearing,” says Muhammad Paduka, chairman of the foundation that runs Firdaw’s school. “How ironic it is that this community of over 2,000 people, in these 5 acres [2 hectares] of land, with dozens of big buildings has never been noticed?”
Muhammad and other locals, including Jehisamaaeh, filed a court case seeking the revocation of the EIA as well as the 2019 public hearing, which they say they were unjustly were excluded from.
They’ve also traveled to Bangkok to meet with the National Human Rights Commission, a special committee in the House of Representatives, UNESCO and other U.N. agencies. They came with a single request: To stop the quarry.
From their province, it takes 15 hours to reach the capital by road, a grueling journey of nearly 1,000 km (620 mi), repeated multiple times over six years.
“We would leave at 2 p.m. and arrive early the next morning,” Ibrahim recalls. “We washed and ate in the mosque, then rushed out to those we expected would help us. We slept on the mosque floor for two nights then took another 15 hours riding back home.”
Over the years, many opponents of the quarry have quit the long battle.
“Most of us work to make ends meet,” Ibrahim says. “Protesting or traveling back and forth for a long time has not been easy. The size of resistance has shrunk day by day.” Ibrahim says he’s had to sell huge batches of the santol fruit and rubber that he farms to pay for each trip.
Rock reserve for local needs
Khao Toh Krang isn’t the only site in Satun being targeted for rock quarrying. Across the province, eight mountain groups have been designated as rock reserve areas.
According to Nirun Yingmahisaranon, director-general of the Department of Primary Industries and Mines, the government agency responsible for mineral reserves nationwide, this is to secure supplies in each area.
“Rock reserves are proposed by local authorities to serve the demands of infrastructure and other development in each province,” Nirun says. “Otherwise, a remote province like Satun needs to pay much higher cost for the material from afar, and that will make the province and its people suffer.“
But for Abdulkoffa, the eight reserve locations, containing 10 limestone mountains and total rock reserve of 112 million metric tons, far exceed local demand. “The province already has two rock quarrying sites with the capacity of 1 million tons,” he says. “That’s more than enough for a province of 960 square miles [2,480 square kilometers] and a population of 300,000.” He says no further quarries should be allowed.
When the plan calling for eight rock reserves was made, authorities expected the stone would be used for the Pak Bara deep seaport project on the Andaman coast, a mega project that faced a decade of protest and was finally halted with the declaration of the Satun Global Geopark. With that project stalled, there’s no longer an immediate local demand for huge quantities of rock. Yet the designated reserves remain open for concessions.
Half an hour away, in La-ngu district, stands one of the rock reserve mountains: Khao Ju Nung Nui.
For almost 30 years, Olarn Chumjun has lived with cracks throughout his concrete house, caused, he says, by quarrying operations that began in 1995. Within a year, the quarry had shut down due to constant protests and other disputes. The company office was shuttered, leaving people like Olarn to try to repair the damage on their own.
The mountain is now back on the list and open for concessions.
Nirun says he acknowledges local frustrations, telling Mongabay he has received similar complaints and will make sure everyone affected by quarrying will be given a say in whether any new quarries should be permitted.
Thailand’s newly amended 2017 Mineral Act now requires community consent for any new concessions. “Under the new mineral act, nothing could ever be granted without local permission,” Nirun says. “I really want the locals to exercise their power under the new mineral act, which is considered the most progressive law we have in centuries.”
However, the mechanisms for implementing the new law are not yet in place, key among them a provincial mineral board including representatives from local communities. This board, which is empowered to prepare a new list of mineral reserve areas, has not yet been established in Satun. Nirun cites personnel shortages.
Calls to expand the geopark
Lacking a formal mechanism to enforce their demands, local activists have continued to protest and petition against the mine. They also propose new solutions to protect the area.
Muhammad Paduka of the school foundation says he wants both of the districts in which Khao Toh Krang stands to be annexed to the geopark in hope of saving the mountain. Abdulkoffa goes a step further, proposing that all seven districts in Satun be part of the geopark. “Four districts have already been in the geopark,” he says. “Why bother leaving three districts out? It’s obvious that this province is the archaeology site itself. So, we ask UNESCO to consider the whole province to be a geopark.”
In the meantime, since late 2019, Thailand has been awaiting recognition of a new and even bigger proposed global geopark: a site covering 20 double cuesta-ridged mountains on the Khorat Plateau and boasting an abundance of fossils, including those of dinosaurs. The proposed geopark site, which encompasses the Ban Chiang archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is currently under review.
For Abdulkoffa, this raises an obvious question: How does the government expect to receive recognition for a new Global Geopark if its existing one isn’t well protected?
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