By Malini Hariharan
Penchom Saetang of Ecological Alert and Recovery - Thailand (Earth) is not a typical activist vociferously denouncing companies for their environmental misdeeds. She is soft spoken and rational in her criticism of the state of affairs at Map Ta Phut, Thailand's premier industrial zone and a major petrochemicals hub.
After spending over ten years studying and documenting the pollution problems at Map Ta Phut she was not surprised to see the local population take legal action last year to block implementation of new projects at the industrial estate.
She is hopeful of a compromise that will enable completion of projects already underway but warns of an anti-industrialisation wave that is spreading across Thailand, especially in the southern provinces where the government would like to create a new industrial zone.
"People of every province have networked to resist investments; now it is almost too late to recover. People are opposing any king of factories, even power plants, as they fear pollution and loss of livelihood; the feeling is very deep," she warns.
And she admits that even she has problems discussing the matter rationally with the local people.
"It is not easy to communicate; if my group acts neutral we will be resisted. It is a very sensitive issue," she says.
The roots of this crisis can be traced to the mistakes made by the government and companies over the years at Map Ta Phut which has generated bad feelings and an antagonistic stance towards industry, says Penchom.
"Map Ta Phut is a modern industrial estate but some local communities don't have supply of clean water; they have stopped using rain water because of contamination
"There was a big incidence of air pollution in 1997 when thousands of students were taken to the hospital. But no one from the factories walked out to acknowledge their fault. The following year there was another incident.
"Local people set up their own smelling group to use their nose to walk around Map Ta phut to detect the source of air pollution. They found 7 factories responsible and requested for a temporary closure.
"Every year since 1998 there has been lots of illegal dumping; the erosion of the coastal area is still going on. The local people have demanded several times to stop expansions but this voice was ignored by the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand, "she says.
Pic Source: Bangkok Post
The first proposal to declare Map Ta Phut as a pollution zone was made in 2003-04 but this was rejected a couple of times.
There was a conflict of interest as some government officials held positions in companies with operations at Map Ta Phut, points out Penchom.
Today Map Ta Phut is in urgent need of a big environmental cleanup and the government needs to focus on this rather that talking of further expansions, she advises.
Penchom also dismisses claims of Bangkok city being more polluted than Map Ta Phut and Thailand having better environmental standards than some developed countries.
"There is a difference in the air pollution cocktail; benzene content is high in Bangkok in areas of traffic congestion but the air does not have as many compounds as Map Ta Phut," she points out.
As for environmental standards, it is only on some parameters that Thailand is better, she says.
"The big problem is VOC and Thailand did not have any regulation before 2009".
But Penchom has a positive attitude and would like to work towards solving the environmental problems.
"It is not easy to change but we want to let them [the government and companies] know that civil society is keeping a watch on them," she warns.