Balancing natural resources and coal-fired power in coastal Mon State

30 March 2016 | Nai Saing | Mon News Agency
“We have plenty of natural resources and good incomes in our region; we don’t need a coal-fired power plant,” said Mi Ni Mar Oo, a local activist from Anndin Village, at a press conference and report launch in Rangoon on March 9.
The released report, “Abundance of Pharlain Natural Resources and Community,” is based on a livelihood and resource assessment conducted in Pharlain, the northwestern coastal area of Mon State’s Ye Township. The area encompasses seven predominantly ethnic Mon villages and has been threatened by the planned construction of a 1280-megawatt coal-fired power plant by the Toyo-Thai Company Ltd. (TTCL), a joint Thai and Japanese venture. The Deputy Minister of Electric Power, U Aung Than Oo, suspended the project and its company-sponsored survey at the end of 2015, but residents remain unconvinced the project will not go ahead.
About 100 representatives from media and civil society attended the press conference, along with local residents who spoke about potential harm to their natural resources and traditional culture if the project progresses. The event was organized by members of the Pharlain community, the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM), Paung Ku, and the Thai non-governmental organization TERRA (Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance).
The seven villages, part of the Anndin Village Tract at the base of the Pharlain mountains, are home to about 1,590 households of farming and gardening families that work the surrounding paddy fields and betel nut groves. Incomes in two of the villages, Sanint Krate and Kwan Tamort Pea, are largely dependent on local fishing, while the others – Anndin, Sanint Janu, Saigram, Plaing Sam and Kwan Kaw Kha Raw – grow and harvest rice, orchard fruits, and betel nut.
In May 2014, the TTCL reportedly visited Anndin village to consult with residents about the coal-fired power plant project. At that time, the company pledged to pay the communities a one-time social development assistance grant of USD 2.5 million as part of their commitment to corporate social responsibility. Local Buddhist monks, residents, and village leaders said they were astonished by the extraordinary sum, but did not immediately agree to the construction project. Instead, they told company representatives they would “think about it.”
Since then, several local young people and Buddhist monks have traveled to Thailand to observe other coal-fired power plant sites, attempting to learn more about the industry by attending meetings and workshops in Rangoon and networking with other communities that experienced similar large-scale projects. Residents also received trainings, supported by TERRA and HURFOM, in order to conduct their own community-based assessments of livelihoods, income, and natural resources.

We Don’t Exchange our Resources with the Coal Power Plant

Mi Ni Mar Oo and other local activists at the press conference explained how the seven communities organized to conduct a survey of their natural resources, livelihoods and incomes from three main commodities: fish, rice, and betel-nut. According to the report brief,
“The most common ways for Pharlain residents to make a living are betel nut gardens, fisher folds and rice farmers. There are 712 households who own betel nut gardens. Between 2014 and 2015, the total income from betel nuts is 3,008,520,000 Kyat. There are also fruits in the garden such as durian, coconut, lemons, oranges, pomelos, jering and champedak. The total annual income from 13 common fruits is 458,013,650 Kyat. Rice is mainly cultivated for the family but paddies are also great place to harvest other ingredients each meal and sold to the market occasionally. There are at least 325 households who own rice paddies and they make over 510, 566, 000 Kyat from rice annually. Fishery takes place in the sea, river, mangrove forests, mudflats and rice paddies. Though fishery product, fresh and dried, happens mainly in two villages – Sanint Krate and Kwan Tamort Pea – with around 108 fisher folk households, it contributes most of the total annual income in Anndin village tract: 3,263,400,000 Kyat. In total, the total annual income from betel nuts, fruits, rice and fishery is 7,240,499,650 Kyat.
Using the current exchange rate, this total annual income in kyats is equivalent to about USD 6 million. When compared to the average annual income across the country’s general population, this sum is above average, thanks to functioning local markets for the products. This profitability also supports local activists reasoning that, with an annual income more than double TTCL’s proposed grant, residents cannot be pressured into accepting the power plant project.
Opposition to the power plant also stems from local concerns about air-borne toxins, dust, smoke, waste water, and chemicals produced by the factory that could negatively affect the local environment and marine life, agricultural products and profits, and the health of local people. Some villagers expressed fears that the plant would prompt an influx of migrant workers to the area, making jobs scarcer and affecting traditional livelihood practices.

The TTCL’s motives

Despite displays of community opposition, the TTCL proceeded with plans and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Ministry of Electric Power on April 9, 2015. Less than one month later, on May 5, over 6,000 people joined the Pharlain community to protest the power plant during a ‘No coal, no TTCL’ demonstration in Anndin Village.
The company also employed Win Yaung Chi Oo Company and other local individuals to buy up land from surrounding residents, and reportedly hired CEA Training Co. Ltd. to threaten villagers with government military force that would ensure project implementation and secure construction sites. TTCL also planned to commission its own assessment by the Instant Posts Company, whose managing director visited the coastal area on July 10, 2015, before the survey was suspended by the government.
Nai Kasauh Mon, the Executive Director of HURFOM, has urged the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD) administration to review proposals for dangerous and polluting mega-development projects sanctioned by the previous government throughout the country, particularly coal-fired power plants, and to consider alternative energy sources.
When a journalist at the March 9 press conference asked what the residents plan to do if the NLD government approves the power plant project, activist Ni Mar Oo said decisively, “Whatever any government’s decision, we will keep fighting for ‘No coal, No Toyo-Thai Company Ltd.’”