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  • Writer's pictureSovanpidor Ham

Can an ethnic minority community lead the monitoring of an environmental issue?

Updated: May 22, 2023

Published on Jun 18, 2019

Author: Channe Suy Lan

It was 8 am on a Saturday morning at the Ban Huai Kon International Border Crossing Point between northern Thailand and Laos. Many people from Laos, mostly women and children, were walking to the Thai side with bags of vegetables, honey, herbs they collected from the forest, as well as other handmade textiles, to sell in the market in Thailand. Most of the people, both from Thailand and Laos, belong to the Lua ethnic minority that spans both sides of the border.

The police inspected their bags before letting them go. Thai sellers seemed to have a bigger place and a lot more goods to sell, while the sellers from Laos tended to only have goods that could fit their carry baggage. Just ten minutes after the sellers arrived from Laos, they had already set up their goods on the floor of the market street for sale. The market started to be very crowded and colorful, with sellers from both Thailand and Laos, while the buyers were mostly from Thailand.

We heard conversations in the market in Thai, Lao, and Lua languages. By 9 am, the crowd started to vanish, but the sellers still stayed a little while to catch the last buyers before packing back the unsold items. The communities on both sides of the border interacted and respected each other, living in peace and harmony, and sharing the Lua culture and language.

Our team continued the journey 43 kilometers further to Ban Namree Pattana village in Chaleum Prakit district. On the 4th of May 2019, we prepared to train with community volunteers. When we finally arrived at the primary health center, the meeting point, it was empty as it was Saturday, except for a young public health practitioner, Mrs. Roadjaree Jankeaw (nicknamed Jib) from Chiang Mai, who is on a two-year job placement at the health center after graduating from university. Mrs. Jib was promoted to be the director of the center. She has a 6-month-old baby, and her mother-in-law, who also serves as her baby helper, came to live with her in a home provided by the center right behind it. At the time of our arrival, the electricity was cut off, as was the mobile phone signal. We were waiting for the community volunteers scheduled to arrive at noon.

Thirty minutes past noon, the volunteers had yet to show up. We started to consider our plan B and decided to wait a bit longer. Just before one o'clock, two young school girls showed up. One of them was carrying a box of test kits and test tubes. These test kits are low-cost NO2 test kits developed by Chiang Mai University, which they contributed to our project. The electricity came back, and slowly people started showing up one after another.

This was my third visit to this community, and Somporn Pengkam, my project colleague, had been here many more times along with her assistant Lamita Kedkan (nickname Plaew).

Back in 2016, during Somporn's first visit to Ban Namree Pattana, she aimed to learn from the community about their concerns regarding pollution caused by the nearby Hongsa coal power plant and its impact on their agriculture and livelihood. The Hongsa coal power plant is owned by a Thai company but is situated just across the border in Laos, making it regulated by Laos. With a capacity to produce 1,878 megawatts of electricity, the power plant supplies 80% of the generated electricity back to Thailand. The plant has been operational for three years and holds a 25-year license.

This Lua community relies on agriculture for their livelihood, and they are situated behind the Hongsa coal power plant, which is located across the border in Laos. Ban Namree Pattana, our pilot site, is a peaceful village surrounded by mountains and creeks, with a majority of its residents belonging to the Lua ethnic group. Interestingly, it was also the former headquarters of the Thai Communist party.

Somporn and I are both Equity Initiative 2017 fellows. Somporn is a practitioner in community health impact assessment and the founder of the Community Health Impact Assessment (CHIA) platform in Southeast Asia. We joined forces to support the Lua community in Ban Namree Pattana in monitoring and reporting environmental issues in their area. In 2018, we visited the community and held meetings with local authorities, the district hospital, primary health center, and volunteer villagers to understand their concerns and collaborate on our project. We also partnered with Chiang Mai University, Chulalongkorn University, and the King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi. These universities contributed data, knowledge, and test kits for monitoring nitrogen oxide, air quality (PM2.5), and co-developed indicators with our team. On our part, we trained village volunteers to use the test kits and collect data using mobile data collection forms.

In early June 2019, one month after the test rollout, we conducted a follow-up visit to the village. During this visit, we invited two organizations that work with communities in coastal provinces - Kampot and Sihanoukville in Cambodia - to learn from our model. These organizations were impressed by the community's active participation and our approach of educating villagers to use the tool kits for monitoring the environment and reporting on their own.

It has been one and a half years since we started our project, and the achievement of building a multi-party partnership to work towards our common goal has exceeded our expectations. The community-led environmental impact monitoring, which is our dream, is still in its early stages, but we have discovered a champion volunteer among the others in the village. This volunteer is active, positive, and serves as an example for others in his village.

Empowering a community to address an invisible environmental issue is not an easy task, especially when many of the villagers have more pressing needs.

The boy in the photo below was nearly one year old when Somporn first saw him back in 2016. He serves as our inspiration and motivation to make efforts in keeping his village a beautiful and healthy place to live.



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