Serving up a hot debate

Locals opposed a port project by starting their own impacts study

Lunch tables were full of freshly-cooked seafood — from deep fried fish, steamed shrimps with spicy dip, to southern style kaeng luang curry with fish and pineapple.

Ban Nai Tung villagers in Nakhon Si Thammarat’s Tha Sala district sort out fish which are abundant in Tha Sala bay where Chevron planned to build a deep sea port.

“If we allow heavy industries to build here, there will be no fresh and delicious seafood dishes like this,” said a local fisherman of Sa Bua village in Nakhon Si Thammarat’s Tha Sala district.

Sa Bua villagers have joined their fellow fisherfolk from several villages in Tha Sala district to protect marine resources and the locals’ livelihoods from destructive activities over the past decade.

They fought their most recent battle against the US company Chevron’s port and chemical storage site in tambon Klai of Tha Sala. The project was intended to support the company’s oil drilling and exploration work in the Gulf of Thailand.

Undeterred by the influence of the oil giant, Tha Sala fisherfolk came up with campaigns to convince policymakers and the public that their locality is one of the country’s most abundant food sources.

They argued that turning this land into Chevron’s “shore base” would destroy marine resources and the livelihoods of thousands of people, most of them making a living from the fishery and related businesses.

Chevron spent five years trying to bring the project about, only to run into constant opposition from the locals.

In December last year, Chevron finally announced it had cancelled the port and shore facility, citing long delays and rising construction costs. The company said its facility in Songkhla province is sufficient to serve its operation in the Gulf.

"This is not the first time our community confronted such a threat," said Supon Tohsen, 42, president of Tha Sala small-scale fishermen's association.

“We have been fighting destructive activities in this area because we want to preserve Tha Sala sea for the younger generations to harvest marine animals to feed their families and consumers,” Mr Supon said.

Songwut Patkaew, 33, the association’s coordinator, said Tha Sala district had faced three major threats over the past 10 years. In 2006, local fishermen fought clam dredgers and trawlers which caused massive destruction to marine life as the dredgers would destroy the sea bed which feeds marine animals.

Five years later, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand announced it would build a coal-fired power plant in the district. In 2007, Chevron revealed its plan to build a port and shore-base activity for its oil business.

“We had to adopt different strategies to fight different threats. We used both harsh and soft means — from holding demonstrations and road blockades to make friends with state authorities — to win our cause,” Mr Songwut said. “But the most important thing is that we fight with knowledge and information.”

Prasitchai Nunual, a researcher from the Network for the Protection of Nakhon Si Thammarat’s Food Resources, said the National Health Commission’s regulations on the health impact assessment procedure were one of the “tools” which Tha Sala villagers used in their protest against Chevron’s project.

The regulation was issued under Section 11 of the 2007 National Health Act which stipulates that people who stand to be affected by public policy have the right to request an assessment.

“After we read the environmental and health impact assessment report of Chevron’s deep-sea port project which describes Tha Sala sea as ‘infertile’, we decided to conduct our own health impact assessment report based on the NHC’s rules and procedures for health impact assessments,” Mr Prasitchai said.

More than 100 meetings were held during one year of drafting the so-called Community Health Impact Assessment (CHIA) report to gather information about marine resources and the locals’ livelihoods that would be adversely affected by Chevron’s project, he said.

“The villagers found that Tha Sala sea is much more pristine than they thought,” Mr Prasitchai said.

“What we’ve got from conducting the CHIA is not only a set of reliable information to counter the company’s environmental and health impact report, but also a strong sense of love of the sea and the community. I believe this feeling will empower the villagers to fight any future threats.”

The NHC has named Tha Sala community as the winner of the NHC award for 2013. The award is given to local communities which can put the National Health Act to work to protect natural resources and the people’s livelihoods. The awards ceremony will be held in Bangkok on March 26.

Ampon Jindawattana, the NHC secretary-general, said Tha Sala community was a showcase of a group of active citizens who managed to use the National Health Act to support their cause.

He encouraged other communities affected by public policy to follow in Tha Sala community’s footsteps by conducting a community health impact assessment.

About the author

Writer: Kultida Samabuddhi
Position: Reporter