By Mick Thanakrit (Mekong commons)
Fighting for justice
Over the past five decades, a lead-processing mine and factory in Kanchanaburi province has released toxic waste including lead into the rivers and creeks of the Lower Klity creek, home to about 400 ethnic Karen people. The factory operation began in the mid-1960s and, though it was shut down in 1998, the lives of local people have never been the same since.
The Lower Klity village, located in Chalae sub-district, Thongpakphum district of Kanchanaburi, is situated about 200 km away from town deep in the forest where the community has settled down for over a hundred years. Villagers rely heavily on nature and the Klity creek water source for farming and livelihoods. After the lead factory was established about 12 km from their village, the factory emissions contaminated the village water sources and farming areas.
Lead is a poisonous metal that poses serious health hazards as it affects the nervous systems and kidneys. In 1972, the full impacts of the lead factory became evident when the creek water turned into a thick, muddy-red color and the area was filled with a terrible stench. Soon huge numbers of dead fish floated up to the surface. The villagers noticed that many of them were falling sick with dizziness, stomachache, headache, numb and swollen limbs as well as babies both with birth defects: blind or with mutated hands and fingers. Miscarriages and infant mortality were increasingly reported in the community.
Over the last twenty years, the villagers have became more aware of the toxic impacts of the lead factory pollution and actively campaigned for its closure. In 2003, the villagers initiated two court cases to defend their rights to life and to live in a clean and safe environment; the courts awarded damages in both cases in 2010 and 2013. The courts ordered the defendants from the firm Lead Concentrates Co. Ltd. to pay Thailand’s Pollution Control Department (PCD) to clean up the creek.
In 2013, the Klity villagers staged a campaign in front of the Supreme Court in Bangkok. Later in 2016, the Court ordered the Lead company to clean up the creek and pay compensation to affected villagers. (Photo by EnLaw.)
In July 2016, the Supreme Court issued an order that the defendants from the firm should also pay compensation to the villagers for both the past and future illnesses and their previous medical expenses over two years at 20.2 million baht. This sum also covers the loss of livelihood opportunity as the plaintiffs were unable to have healthy lives due to the lead poisoning. However, high lead toxicity remains in Klity creek up to today as the PCD has delayed the cleaning up of the creek and the surrounding areas. There is no information about when the contaminated areas would be cleaned up and life can return to normal for the Klity villagers.
The Jo family
‘The Jo Family’ is the nickname of the three young boys in the Lower Klity Creek village: Jo Ti Pai aged 26, Jo Sor Wor aged 16, and Jo Pu Jai aged 12. Jo means “mister” in the Karen language. Ti Pai means the flesh of the human body; Sor Wor means a senator because when he was born, a Thai senator was visiting the community. Jo Ti Pai and Jo Sor Wor are brothers, and Jo Pu Jai, whose name means a nomad, is their cousin.
They all were born with cerebral impairment.
“Sawaddee krub (hello),” say the boys with cheerful smiles whenever they meet other villagers. The Jo family has undergone unimaginable suffering. The father, who was the primary wage earner for the family, passed away in 2015 with a high-level of lead in his blood, higher than the permissible standard of 41mg/dL. Many members of this village have been found to have the same high levels of lead as the father.
The mother took over the earning of income for the whole family. But she gets sick very often; as an ethnic Karen, she cannot speak Thai language, so her chances of finding work are quite limited. She takes up work as hired labor in the fields to make a living and support her children.
Jo Ti Pai: A childhood poisoned by lead
Jo Ti Pai was born in 1990, around the time that the lead mine stopped operating and discharging lead effluents at its full capacity. His mother loved fishing and eating fish; even when she was pregnant Jo Ti Pai, she always went out fishing.
Until the age of 4, Jo Ti Pai looked like any other children in the village. He started to walk at 11 months old, and mumbled his first words as a two-year-old. But when he turned five, he developed abnormal seizures that sometimes lasted up to 10 minutes. While the seizures became intermittent, other more serious health-related disorders like speech and walking impairment started to show.
Jo Ti Pai, Jo So Wor and Jo Pu Jai (left to right) enjoy their everyday lives like other children although their health is irreparably damaged by acute toxicity. (Photo by Thanakrit Tongfa.)
His mother sought every method for a cure. Eventually she found some herbal medicine that helped lessen the seizures, but other health disorders remained. When he was able to walk, he often strayed around the community, broke into other villagers’ houses and destroyed their belongings, ate their meals, and was often ill-tempered.
He threw plates and bowls, and he bit people when he was not happy. Once he strayed into another village and traveled in another car when nobody noticed. Once they realized Jo Ti Pai was in the car that was now already far away from the village, they tried to get him out, but he refused. He often disappears from the village for days, and his family has to run around the community and nearby areas looking for him.
Whenever they could not find Jo Ti Pai, they would assume that he must have gone outside the village. His family and relatives would borrow a motorcycle from neighbors or relatives, borrow money for gas, and go out looking for him. Often they do not have enough money and end up borrowing from neighbors and relatives and getting into debt.
No water, no life
Klity stream is the only stream for the domestic use of the villagers from drinking, cooking, and watering their gardens to washing clothes, bathing, cattle-raising, fishing, and catching shrimps and shellfish in the creeks. The elders in the area have sayings that reflect the importance of this creek: “Where there is water, there is life. No water, no life;” “Not eating rice for one month, we can survive. Not drinking water for 3 days, we die.”
Klity stream is the lifeblood for the people in the area. But since the Lead Concentrates Co. Ltd. was established in 1967, this stream has been filled with lead effluents discharged into the stream without any filtering or water treatment.
Now the clear stream has become turbid, smelly and poisoned. Villagers are not able to catch fish anymore and often buy food from mobile-grocery trucks that visit the area. Moreover, many of the people are now suffering from acute toxic poisoning. Traditional medicines and herbs are not able to help cure their sickness.
Klity Creek residents rely on the Klity stream to sustain their livelihood; although it looks like any other picturesque stream, it is fatally poisonous. (Photo by Thanakrit Tongfa.)
The villagers have to travel to see a doctor outside the village. In earlier days, when the road was unpaved, the villagers had to go by tractor over 80 km from the village to the Thongpaphum Hospital taking a whole day to travel. This long exhausting journey took up both their time and money.
The community’s way of living has completely changed. Money has become indispensable for travel expense, health care and food. The villagers have been struggling to make a living. From growing rice for subsistence, they have switched to growing cash crops for income such as corn and cassava. Klity villagers have also been sub-contracted to supply animal food to big companies.
Every year, tons of corn from Chalae sub-district are processed into animal food for livestock such as pig, chicken and fish; villagers also lease their lands to Hmong ethnic people to grow cabbage that is distributed to wholesale markets in the center of Thailand.
The Chalae sub-district from being an area for processing lead has now become an area for growing vegetables, rice and corn; the produce from this area travels to markets to feed both humans — in supermarkets, households and restaurants — and animals. The risk of lead exposure is thus being spread among consumers in the city, not just among the people and environment in the Lower Klity village.
Denial of rights
The Jo family is but one horrifying example of the unimaginable suffering endured by the people of Klity creek. Although the state provides an allowance of 500 Baht per month for those with any disabilities, and a waiver of tuition fee at the extra-curriculum school for children who require special care, these remedies are barely sufficient.
Kilty Creek children at school, they are the future of their community and the Thai society but have to live in the environment that was very toxic contaminated at their own health and life expense. (Photo by Thanakrit Tongfa.)
Even today, blood tests of the Klity Creek residents show high lead levels. The elders no longer worry about themselves but more about their children. All children have rights to live in a healthy, clean and safe environment. The children are the future of their community but are growing up in a poisoned environment. Their question is: how many more years need their children have to endure this toxicity, struggling to survive with illness and deformities, without proper access to education and healthcare and without any sign of clean-up of their environment?