It was 8 am on 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 and 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, colorful and while the sellers were both from Thailand and Laos, the buyers are mostly from Thailand. We heard the conversations in the market – a little bit in the Thai language, Lao language and a lot in Lua language. By 9 am the crowd started to vanish, 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 interact and respect each other, live in peace and harmony and share the Lua culture and language.
Our team continued the journey 43 kilometers further to Ban Namree Pattana village in Chaleum Prakit district. On that day of 4th 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 on Saturday, except for a young public health practitioner, Mrs. Roadjaree Jankeaw(her nickname is Jib) from Chiang Mai who is on a two year job placement at the health center, after she graduated from university. Mrs. Jib was promoted to be a director of the center. She has a 6 months old baby, her baby and her mother in law (which doubles as her baby helper) came to live with her in a home provided by the center, right behind it. At the time we arrived, the electricity was cut off, as was the mobile phone signal. We were waiting for the community volunteers to arrive scheduled to noon.
Thirty minutes past noon, the volunteers have yet to show up. We started to plan our plan B and decided to wait a bit longer. Just before one o’clock, two young school girls show up. One of them was carrying with her a box of test kits and test tubes. That test kits are low-cost NO2 test kits developed by Chiang Mai University which contributed them 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 it had been many more times for my project colleague Somporn Pengkam and her assistant Lamita Kedkan(her nickname is Plaew).
Back in 2016, Somporn was on her first visit to Ban Namree Pattana to learn from the community about their concerns of pollution from the nearby Hongsa coal power plant on their agriculture and livelihood. The Hongsa coal power plant is owned by a Thai company but located just across the border in Laos, therefore is regulated by Laos. The coal power plant can produce 1,878 megawatts of electricity and it supplies 80% of the electricity it generates back to Thailand. This power plant has been operational for 3 years with 25 years license.
This Lua community lives their lives depending on agriculture and they are located just behind a mountain Hongsa coal power plant across the border in Laos which is the location of the. Ban Namree Patana, our pilot site, is a small, quiet village surrounded by mountains, creeks and most of its residents are Lua. It is also the former headquarters of the Thai Communist party.
Somporn and I are both Equity Initiative 2017 fellows. Somporn is a community health impact assessment practitioner and also founder of Community Health Impact Assessment (CHIA) platform in Southeast Asia. We teamed up to work together to help the Lua community in Ban Namree Patana to monitor and report about environmental issues in their community. In 2018 we visited the community, met with local authorities, district hospital, primary health center, and volunteers villagers to learn about their concerns and design our project with them. We also collaborated with Chiang Mai University, Chulalongkorn University and the King Mangkut’s University of Technology Thonburi. The universities contributed their data, knowledge and test kits to monitor nitrogen oxide, air quality (PM2.5) as well as co-developed indicators with our team. On our side, we trained volunteers in the village to use the test kits and to use the mobile data collection form.
In early June 2019, 1 month after the rollout of the test, in our follow up visit to the village, we brought in two organizations that work with communities along with the coastal provinces – Kampot and Sihanoukville in Cambodia to learn from our model. They were impressed by the community’s participation and our approach of educating villagers to use the tool kits to monitor the environment and report 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 on our common goal exceeded our expectations. The community-led environmental impact monitoring which is our dream is still at its early days, but we found a champion volunteer among the rest other volunteers in the village who is active, positive and serves as an example for others in his village.
Empowering a community to act on an invisible environmental issue is not easy to do, especially as many of the villagers have more urgent needs.
The boy in the photo below was a nearly one-year-old when Somporn first saw him back in 2016. He is our inspiration and motivation to try to help a little bit in keeping his village being a beautiful and healthy place to live.