Thursday, December 19, 2013

Map Ta Phut: Thailand's Minamata?

"In case a new industrial zone arises in rural Dawei in southern Burma/Myanmar, these [Japanese] industries might relocate there. But then this would-be Southeast Asia's largest industrial complex (dubbed "new global gateway of Indo-China") would become another candidate for a new Minamata."

Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center


Fearing the possibility of another leak of toxic chemicals, villagers from Map Ta Phut in Rayong province sued in early 2009 the government of Thailand and demanded the demarcation of areas where the petrochemical industries could be located. In March of that year, the Administrative Court ruled that Map Ta Phut was a “pollution control zone” that obliged the “authorities to measure soil and water quality regularly and to come up with a plan to reduce pollution if [found to be] too high.” In order to hold accountable those who violate the environmental law, the villagers and the People’s Eastern Network filed another lawsuit before the Administrative Court to stop the expansion of the industries. The court decided in September 2009 to suspend seventy-six projects due to absence of health impact assessment required under Article 67 of the 2007 Constitution. The decision was appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court that decided on 2 December 2009 to maintain the suspension of sixty-five projects, but allowed eleven projects to proceed. The companies affected included “Bayer, the German pharmaceutical giant; Aditya Birla Chemicals, an Indian conglomerate; BlueScope Steel of Australia; and two dozen companies belonging to [Petroleum Authority of Thailand] PTT, the Thai energy giant.”
The court ruling shocked the business community in Thailand. The Ministry of Industry of Thailand estimated the losses that might have arisen from the suspension of the projects at a little over nineteen billion US dollars.
The Thai government appealed the ruling and got the court in 2010 to allow seventy-four projects to proceed, while revoking the operating licenses of two projects that were included in a government list of “harmful activities.”The government also ordered a study of the environmental problem, through the National Environment Committee headed by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, that found eighteen types of industrial projects that might harm the environment. But this list was subsequently shortened to eleven types of industrial projects deemed harmful to the environment and subject to environmental and health impact assessments.

Pollution and Health Concerns

A 2010 analysis by Silpakorn University of the “environmental and health impact studies” made by the companies concerned found that thirty-five of the seventy-six industrial plants “suspended [in 2009] in Map Ta Phut industrial estate [would] use hazardous chemicals that [could] cause several ailments.” Twenty-one plants would use carcinogenic substances in their production process. Other toxic substances to be used would be harmful to the respiratory system (thirty-four projects), neurological system (twenty-four projects), reproductive system (ten projects), foetus (four projects), blood system (eighteen projects), liver and renal (twenty-five projects), skin and eyes (thirty- three projects).  Since Map Ta Phut has been declared a pollution control zone, pollution emissions must be limited.
The serious health and pollution problems in Rayong province were not new. Several studies had shown the rise of cancer cases in the province many years before the court cases came about. One report explains:
Thailand's National Cancer Institute found in 2003 that rates of cervical, bladder, breast, liver, nasal, stomach, throat and blood cancers were highest in Rayong Province, where Map Ta Phut and other industrial zones are located. A study led by Italian researchers and released in 2007 found that people living near Map Ta Phut had 65 percent higher levels of genetic damage to blood cells than people in the same province who lived in rural areas. Such cell damage, which is a possible precursor to cancer, was 120 percent higher for refinery workers than for residents of Rayong Province's rural communities.

Petrochemical Industrial Zone

Map Ta Phut was a swampy area with about eight thousand people in the late 1970s. But with industrial development under the Eastern Seaboard Development Plan from early 1980s, Map Ta Phut became a town with the number of residents increasing to 36,000 and over 100,000 migrant workers by 1992. In 1997, serious cases of health problems started to occur, symbolized by the case of students and teachers in Map Ta Phut Pan Pittayakarn School who were hospitalized for inhaling toxic air.
The industrial zone of Map Ta Phut includes a port that is now considered to be a “high- volume, high-capacity industrial port serving the area's heavy industries.” Being Thailand's biggest industrial port, it was built to accommodate a wide range of vessels, equipments, and cargoes, and to boost the country's export capacity.

Japanese Companies

In early 2010, Japanese companies raised concerns about the Map Ta Phut court decision and the lingering lack of resolution of the issues. The Japanese Chamber of Commerce (JCC) warned about the possibility of having the operations of Japanese companies transferred to other countries due to the then prevailing situation.
About one-third of the JCC's more than one thousand three hundred corporate members in Thailand were affected by the Map Ta Phut court rulings. These companies operate in the chemical, steel, construction and financial sectors.
In response, the Eastern Peoples' Network and residents in the Map Ta Phut vicinity submitted a letter to the Japanese Embassy, calling on Japanese investors to stop pressing the Thai government to resolve the Map Ta Phut problem within five months. The coordinator of Eastern Peoples' Network criticized the stance of the Japanese companies considering Japan’s experience in industrial pollution, particularly the Minamata case.
In January 2010, the Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office of Thailand visited the Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications of Japan to explain efforts to resolve the Map Ta Phut problem. In March 2010, the Thai Finance Minister led a high-level government delegation in a visit to Japan to “explain the strategy in dealing with the Map Ta Phut problem to the Japanese public and private sectors.” In July of that year, the then Thai Prime Minister (Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva) met the members of the Japanese business community in Thailand and explained what the government was doing on the matter. He stressed the prospect of resolving the Map Ta Phut issue in the next four months (including the resolution of court cases).

Japanese Support

During the 1982-1993 period, Japan provided loans for the implementation of the Eastern Seaboard Development Program. The loans were meant to develop industrial estates, ports, roads and highway, railway, water reservoir and pipeline, etc. The loans recognized the strategic value of the Eastern Seaboard in the over-all economic development of Thailand. Several of the loans involved projects in Map Ta Phut area, which was planned as the place for heavy chemical industry.
A 2000 evaluation study sponsored by Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) noted the need to look at measures for limiting environmental impact particularly at the Map Ta Phut area. A 1988 survey of the environmental condition did not reveal serious problems due to the modern technology used by the industrial firms in the area. But at that time, the “current primary environmental issue [was] the odor which has attracted attention in Thailand, in connection with complaints from residents around the complex made in the past two to three years.” The complaints started to come out in 1996. The 1997 case of students and teachers in a school in Map Ta Phut area, cited earlier, suffering from the industrial odor became the main example of the problem. The Thai government took countermeasures to minimize the odor, according to the study.

The Issue

Paragraphs 2 and 3 of Section 67 (Community Rights) of the 2007 Constitution of Thailand provides the following:
Any project or activity which may seriously affect the quality of the environment, natural resources and biological diversity shall not be permitted, unless its impacts on the quality of the environment and on health of the people in the communities have been studied and evaluated and consultation with the public and interested parties have been organised, and opinions of an independent organisation, consisting of representatives from private environmental and health organisations and from higher education institutions providing studies in the field of environment, natural resources or health, have been obtained prior to the operation of such project or activity.
The right of a community to sue a government agency, State agency, State enterprise, local government organisation or other State authority which is a juristic person to perform the duties under this section shall be protected.
The local residents, the courts and the government have all used Section 67 of the Constitution.
This constitutional provision is novel in recognizing the right of the community to sue the government and other State agencies. The residents of Map Ta Phut used this constitutional provision to protect their right to health and sound environment.
The Map Ta Phut case is a complicated issue for a number of reasons: a. It involves heavy chemical industries concentrated in one region (Eastern Seaboard region) which are by nature high-risk industries; b. It is part of a major project of the government that involves major domestic and foreign companies, requires huge financial investment, and therefore has huge role in the over-all economy of the country; c. It involves documented health problems suffered by the residents around the factories.
The statement made by Anand Panyarachun, former Prime Minister of Thailand and head of the National Environment Committee cited earlier, to foreign investors in the Map Ta Phut industrial zone captures to a large extent what the affected people want to say:
You cannot equate your [financial] book losses with the loss of lives and the deterioration of the health of the individuals. They bear no comparison.
The main issue is: Can the health of the people and the protection of the environment be guaranteed in maintaining a huge petrochemical industrial zone?
It seems that the industrial pollution and the consequent health problems (not to mention the documented adverse effects of industrial pollution on the land and water resources in the area) cannot be denied.
The constitutional provision on community rights, the action of the local residents to protect their rights, and the court decisions (which may not resolve the problems completely) are essential in preventing the situation from turning into a Minamata-like situation.

Next scene

Strong explosions preceded the fire at the Bangkok Synthetics Co. (BST) factory in the Map Ta Phut industrial estate on 5 May 2012. Twelve workers died, while one hundred twenty-nine others were injured. Hundreds of residents in the area evacuated. The government ordered the closure of the factory, while other factories in the industrial estate were instructed to recheck their security systems since more than half of them use chemicals. The Thai Prime Minister visited the victims and the factory area. She met with “relevant agencies at the Map Ta Phut industrial estate office where she ordered the committee to be set up to look for toxic residue in the environment. Workers and the people around the factory feared the leak of chemicals and fled the area. The government has warned that inhaling chemical toluene, suspected of leaking from the factory, would be fatal.
This recent industrial accident raises once more the question: Is a Minamata-like situation in Map Ta Phut preventable?
In case a new industrial zone arises in rural Dawei in southern Burma/Myanmar, these industries might relocate there. But then this would-be Southeast Asia's largest industrial complex (dubbed "new global gateway of Indo-China") would become another candidate for a new Minamata.