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It was the last week of June when I received an invitation to hear the Chiang Mai administrative court’s decision on the dispute between 200 farmers from Ban Trai Kaeo village in Chiang Rai and the Phalang-ngan Sa-ard Dee 2 Co, a biomass company that wanted to build a husk-fired power plant in the farmers’ community. I was invited because my old classmate from the Mekong school, Neung, was serving as the farmers’ lawyer. At first, seeing my classmate and being in the administrative court of Thailand for the first time was more exciting than the lawsuit itself. However, seeing 200 farmers standing up for themselves and using the law as a tool to win made me change my mind.  I was deeply moved by their struggle for justice, and by its culmination: the power plant’s license was revoked!

On the day of the court decision, my friends from the Earthrights School Mekong and ERI’s Mekong legal program joined me at the court.  We were surprised to see over 200 local farmers actually present. They represented the 7,756 people in the Wiang Chai district affected by the proposed factory. They made the 200km journey to court by bus, having started very early in the morning and also bringing their own food. I remember this case from Neung’s fieldwork presentation in our class back in 2011. Neung explained that the villagers had been struggling for 5 years to withdraw the license for the biomass plant construction. It started when the local people realized that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Health Impact Assessment (HIA) were not conducted and the pollution from biomass plants operation would impact their water quality and fresh air.

In Thailand the law can be used as a tool to help communities fight development projects that have not had their impacts adequately assessed or have not conducted genuine public consultations. However, under Thai law, a biomass plant that produces less than 10MW of output does not need to conduct an EIA or HIA. In this case, there were 60 proposed biomass plants in the local area with a total electricity production of 57 MW, which means each plant produced less than 10MW on average. Local villagers were especially concerned that the location of the project would block water flow. The company organized a consultation, but it was with a very small portion of the community and did not involve participation from government. It was these factors that led the community to file a case in the administrative court to protect their rights.

Villagers await word of the judge's final decision

As my colleague, Tom, explained, “The villagers did not only sue the company since it’s an administrative court. They actually fight against the Energy Regulatory Commission of Thailand, which is supposed to regulate and ensure the security and reliability of energy generation with standards fair for energy consumers and environmentally friendly. But for this project they approved the license to the company without impact assessment or consultation and therefore unlawfully”. I’ll never forget the moment when the villagers gathered in front of the Administrative Court of Chiang Mai to say thank you to their lawyers. Neung and his colleagues from the Center for Protection and Revival of Local Community Rights in Chiang Mai and the Human Rights Lawyers’ Association had been working closely with these villagers for five years. It was a touching atmosphere.  For the first time, I saw how the law could be used to protect ordinary people.

Biomass power is considered an important source of alternative energy in Thailand.  In theory, it can contribute to sustainable development. Even so, should such development projects not have appropriate EIA, HIA and public hearings to mitigate the impact on people’s lives? In this case, alternative energy created conflict within the community because it was implemented without participation. Starting with the careless attitudes of the company and local authorities, it took five years for the people, accompanied by the skill and commitment of their lawyers, to successfully protect their environmental and community rights by accessing justice in the Thai legal system. The company has thirty days to lodge an appeal to the decision, so there may be further struggles for the community. However, seeing the farmers’ strength and solidarity at the court, I am sure they will be ready should they need to stand up again!