New licence, same saga

New licence, same saga

A move by a subsidiary of Akara Resources -- a company whose parent firm, Kingsgate, engaged in a legal tussle that led to arbitration with the Thai government -- to seek a gold exploration licence on a vast land area has infuriated environmentalists and the public.

Akara's Chatree gold mine in Phichit was closed by a court order when local villagers complained about its severe environmental and health impacts. The order came after the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order invoked Section 44 of the interim charter to suspend mining at the site on Dec 31, 2016. The mine operator, however, disputed the claims, insisting that it had complied with the country's environmental protection regulations.

The Prayut Chan-o-cha government has forked out a large sum in defending its decision in the arbitration.

A total of 24 new exploration licence requests have been submitted by a firm named Rich Phoom. The requests are for huge areas of land, stretching over 223,000 rai, in Phetchabun and Chantaburi provinces. The Department of Primary Industries and Mines (DPIM) said Rich Phoom Mining and Akara Resources are operated by the same owner.

The department's Phetchabun office last week posted an announcement on the company's request for a special licence.

The office noted that the announcement was posted to inform the public of the planned location and the amount of land the company would use to explore for gold and silver. It said if people disagreed or opposed the company's exploration licence request, they could do so with the office. Civic groups in the two provinces have already rolled up their sleeves and are prepared to fight the company.

There are grounds to believe that by allowing the firm's licence requests, the Thai authorities have practically lifted a ban imposed on Akara or its subsidiary, even though the arbitration process is still going on. And there are solid grounds for concern that the operator and the Thai state may have reached a compromise over the Chatree saga.

Besides, the department said that all the requests were old documents, which had been submitted in 2003, 2005, and 2007.

DPIM director-general Wisanu Tabtieng, in particular, downplayed worries by local villagers over the requests, insisting that the new Mineral Act BE 2560 has teeth.

In a TV interview, the chief was adamant that Akara or Rich Phoom are obliged to follow strict environmental protection guidelines and also a public participation process. He seemed to imply that the Chatree mine was not subject to the law and that's why it's riddled with problems.

Yet, it's too premature for environmentalists and the public to feel relieved or rejoice. In Thailand, it's a case of strong laws, but weak enforcement.

In addition, the top DPIM official seems to have forgotten the allegation of bribery brought against the mine operator and Thai authorities in securing a permit for the Phichit mine. Shouldn't all concession requests be suspended at least until allegations are cleared?

More importantly, in previous news reports by Thai-language media, the land areas targeted for gold exploration belong to private owners and the Royal Forest Department.

If true, it means part of the requested area must be situated in forest reserves. In this case, the state and the Royal Forest Department in particular, should put the forest before industry, and observe all forest protection laws, without compromise.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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