Klity Karen wait for justice after legal victory

Ethnic Karen forest dwellers from Klity, Kanchanaburi, hold photos of villagers who died from lead poisoning before the Supreme Court could even rule on their lawsuit. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)

After 19 years of struggling for justice, the country's biggest lead poisoning lawsuit finally ended early this week with the polluters punished at long last. Unfortunately, the victims' decades-long suffering is far from over.

"Our Klity Creek is still full of lead," lamented elderly forest dweller Yaseu Nasuansuwan of Lower Klity, a forest community of the indigenous Karen in Kanchanaburi province.

That's not all. The public health authorities still refuse to diagnose the Karen peasants as victims of lead poisoning. Consequently, none have received proper medical treatment for their illnesses.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Klity Creek is the forest dwellers' only source of water for drinking, fishing and household uses. It is where mothers used to collect vegetables along the creek while their children merrily swam with friends nearby. But it has been severely contaminated by toxic wastewater from a lead separation factory upstream for more than 40 years.

When their lead poisoning tragedy became public in 1998, the country was stunned and angry. Many ethnic Karen peasants died from lead poisoning while others were suffering myriad symptoms ranging from acute aches, chronic pains, bone diseases, numbness, mental disabilities and physical deformation to visual impairment. Pregnancies often ended with stillborns and a large number of children suffer slow learning. Their cattle also died from drinking water from the lead-ridden creek.

An extensive media coverage and public outcry prompted the government to shut down the lead processing plant. On cue, the pollution control and public health authorities looked busy examining the level of lead in Klity Creek and the forest dwellers' bloodstream.

The findings are shocking. There are over 15,000 tonnes of lead sediment in Klity Creek. The forest dwellers' blood lead level is seven times higher than for an average Thai. Lead contamination in aquatic animals is 6-130 times higher than the standard. Lead contamination in the soil along Klity Creek is also the highest in the country.

The authorities' conclusions for subsistence forest dwellers: Don't use water from the creek. Stop fishing and eating all aquatic animals there. And forget creek rehabilitation; let it recover naturally.

In short, no clean-up for the creek, no medical treatment for the patients.

It was this gross negligence -- and total lack of sympathy -- from state authorities that made the ethnic Karen forest dwellers decide to take the lead mine operator Lead Concentrate (Thailand) Co Ltd and the Pollution Control Department to court.

It was a case of David versus Goliath. On one side were the powerless ethnic forest dwellers. On the other a powerful lead mining company with political connections and the state agency in charge of rescuing their creek.

It was an uphill task. For starters, Thailand has very few occupational health doctors. Most of them also work for the Public Health Ministry. No one wanted to break the ministry's "no treatment" line or waste time going to court and risk being sued by the company. So they refused to diagnose the Klity forest dwellers. No diagnoses, no legal evidence for the court.

That changed when Dr Orapan Methadilokkul agreed to treat eight Karen patients and issued official papers certifying lead poisoning diagnoses. With pro bono legal assistance from the Lawyers Council of Thailand, the EnLaw Foundation, and the Karen Development and Study Centre, the legal justice process started in 2003.

It took forest dwellers one whole day to come to Kanchanaburi Court, and another day to return home. Often, they arrived just to learn that the ruling had been postponed.

Pooling what little money they had for transport, the Klity Karen made the arduous journey for 13 years before the court finally ruled in 2016 that the mine company must pay the plaintiffs 29 million baht for health damage and medical treatment and rehabilitate Klity Creek.

It must also be pointed out that legal battles went on while the forest dwellers had to defend their ancestral land from forestry officials' constant efforts to evict them. In 2004, the Administrative Court case against the Pollution Control Department began. It took the court nine years to rule that the pollution control authorities were indeed negligent. The court ordered immediate measures to clean up Klity Creek. That was in 2013. Four years have passed and the creek remains deadly.

In 2007, 151 lead poisoning patients at Klity filed lawsuits against the mining company. After 10 years, the final ruling was issued early this week. Like the previous verdicts, the ruling that awarded the plaintiffs 36.05 million was hailed as a victory for the downtrodden. It is and it is not.

True, the ruling sets many legal precedents. It reconfirms the polluter pays principle. It has made it clear the company's board members must be personally accountable when the company has ended the business. Even if the company owner dies, the heirs must also be responsible for compensation and environmental rehabilitation.

The newspapers headlines focused on the seemingly huge amount of compensation and equated it to victory for the lead poisoning patients. But 36 million baht for 151 people comes out at only about 238,000 baht a person. Is it worth the damage to their health, their loss of relatives, their difficult journeys for the delayed justice during the past 10 years?

And have they really received justice when Klity Creek remains lethal and sick forest dwellers are still denied medical treatment?

"All we want is to have a clean creek back for our children and to protect them from the illnesses we suffer," he said in his heavily accented voice.

Asked what else the villagers want, he said quickly without a pause: "I don't want to see other people suffer like we do."

His wishes will not be answered. The new mining bill makes mining concessions even easier than before with little say from locals. Mineral authorities also have the powers to declare mining zones for auction, again with little say from residents. Moreover, the mining companies, if they win the concessions, are not required to have licences for their mineral processing plants, which makes polluting activities even easier amid state negligence.

So much damage has been done at Klity from environmentally destructive mining. Winning the lengthy and costly lawsuits does not guarantee that people will get their clean environment and health back either. "Our kind of misery should not happen again anywhere," said Mr Yaseu.

It's a pity the Klity lessons have not been learned.

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