The EarthRights School Mekong (ERSM) often takes students outside of the classroom and into the field to observe the negative impacts of development projects and to hear from local communities about their struggles to address those impacts. In one of their first field trips this year, the ERSM students visited the Mae Moh power plant and lignite mine. Owned and operated by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the facility is Southeast Asia’s largest coal-fired power plant and is fed by an open-pit lignite mine covering 135 square kilometers.

Lignite mining causes severe environmental damage and heavily impacts surrounding communities. Pollution from the facilities at Mae Moh has displaced over 30,000 people, and many more have suffered from acute respiratory problems as a result of sulfur dioxide in the air. Toxic coal dust has worked its way into the rivers, reservoirs and ground water in the surrounding area, causing further health problems for residents and decimating the natural environment.

The Mae Moh lignite mine disfigures the surrounding landscape

The local communities, however, have been fighting for their rights for over a decade and have won significant legal battles against EGAT. The Mekong School students had a chance to meet with many of them to discuss their struggle and gain first-hand experience with grassroots activism.

Clearly, lignite mining caused pollution and the villagers must bear the consequences of the mining company – who has been getting so much profit regardless of pollution or abuse the human rights of the villagers. [. . .] [B]ecause of cadmium contamination, the community also cannot catch fish or use water for households and irrigation. – Student from Vietnam

In this trip, I learned more about how the community can fight for their rights by the Mae Moh villagers’ experiences. Although the villagers are fighting for their human rights, they didn’t have money and power like the EGAT. But they are fighting with their unity, and networking with other villages, NGOs, and media. [. . .] I know how important is it to network with each other, and to share information to know our rights in the campaign. – Student from Burma

Later in the year, the ERSM students traveled to northeastern Thailand to the site of the infamous Pak Mun Dam, a World Bank-funded project. Like the Mae Moh power plant, the dam at Pak Mun forced the surrounding communities to relocate and resulted in severe environmental damage.

They lost their livelihood and way of life, land, community, and career. [. . . ] The local community applied many strategies for their struggling. Many NGOs helped them for consultant and provided some necessary information. They demonstrated for countless time to fight against the EGAT and required the responsibility from the government. – Student from Thailand

Students also visited Huay Ra Ha, the site of a highly publicized debate over control of irrigation water. They met the legendary Grandma Hai, who inspired them immensely with her successful story of fighting for her rights for almost 30 years.

I felt satisfied and happy when I met Grandma Hai [. . .] All of her words are very strong and she said, “I never afraided the government because I didn’t commit any violation of the rights. They violated my rights.” [. . .] In this trip, I met the strong villagers who are fighting for their rights and they are protesting their natural resources and their villages for long time ago. [. . .] I had learned about how they fought and protested in their struggle. – Student from Burma

ERSM also spent time in Ta Mui village, the site of the planned Bak Mun dam, and spoke to the villagers there.

During the time visited at Ban Ta Mui village, we learned more about their livelihood based the mother river through fishery, agriculture cultivation, their daily routines and cultural ceremonies. [. . .] “How to protect the nature of the Mekong river in this site, and what will happen in the future” are the big questions we asked on this issue for the local people. They are still struggling for their livelihoods and their future. – Student from Vietnam

Finally, the students visited the site of a potash mine and learned about its impact on the local community. After their return to the classroom, the students discussed what they learned from the local communities’ struggles and how to apply it to their own work.

[I] learned different knowledges from all of the villages [. . .] how to do campaign, how to do advocacy, how to do research, how to organize the people and how to collect and share informations. For me, I think, the villagers knowledge is play the most important roles to do all of the above things for their rights. – Student from Burma.