Napat Wesshasartar

Published: June 23, 2022

Topic: Stories

It has been over two decades since the government first raised the idea of transforming the Chana district into an industrial zone, a proposal that would  disrupt coastal communities and local livelihood. 

“We just want to protect our nature, our livelihood, and our home, but the way they treated us was unacceptable,”  Ninab ⁠— a local artisanal fisher in Chana district, Songkhla province ⁠— said as tears streamed down her face.

On the Monday of 6th December 2021, a group of “Chana Rakthin Network” rallied peacefully in front of the Government House to press the claim of the Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) of the mega-project titled ‘Chana, the Industrial Model City of the Future, that would turn the seaside land into an industrial estate. 

The protesters said the government promised to conduct the SEA by the end of 2020, but no action had been taken. 

That night, over 100 riot police lined up in front of the protesters to tell them they were breaking the COVID-19 emergency decree and asked them to move out from in front of the Government House. 

The protesters refused and the situation heated up, which led to a dispersal and the arrest of 36 protesters.

An aerial shot of the Chana district, where the Royal Thai Government had planned to transform this agricultural area into an industrial estate zone. Photo credit: Napat Wesshasartar

Has the local community been added to the development equation?

It has been over two decades since the government first raised the idea of transforming the Chana district into an industrial zone, a proposal that would  disrupt coastal communities and local livelihood. 

Chana is a district in Songkhla province in southern Thailand. Geographically, there are two brackish water canals in the district where residents can fish.

Most of the residents are rubber farmers and artisanal fishers as people have been doing for generations.

Because of the important role that the waters right in front of their homes have played in their lives, the community strives to pass on local ecological knowledge and to take care of the waters to conserve natural resources and to ensure their livelihood in the future.

However, development plans meant to usher in industrialization and development threaten their traditional livelihoods, their health and the waters they grew up living beside.

The tension between the government and local Chana residents started to increase in 2003, when the Royal Thai government constructed the Trans Thailand-Malaysia (TTM) gas pipeline to transport and process natural gas from the gas reserves in Malaysia’s joint development area (JDA). 

The project was initiated without a proper public hearing and led to social conflicts in Songkhla when completed. 

“We were conducting Du Lum, which is a traditional way of fishing by using our ears to locate the fish’s position before catching them. But during the construction, we couldn’t hear anything,” a local artisanal fisher said of that time. 

Rifts in the community from the time of the construction of the project still linger and further plans for megaprojects — especially if done without input from Chana locals — could lead to more polarization over what path development should take.

The fishers pour fresh water to wash the recently caught fish. Photo credit: Napat Wesshasartar

LNG expasion and the Chana crisis

In 2019, as part of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SPBAC)’s peace and economic development effort in the southern border provinces, the megaproject, titled “Chana, the Industrial Model City of the Future” was introduced. The megaproject would convert 26,806,400 square meters of coastal land 

into a smart city and an industrial estate with a biomass power plant, port infrastructures, and light industries.

“In the Southern part of Thailand, we already have a sufficient amount of energy. We have three main power plants that use natural gas to provide electricity for the basic usage of the south. However, when they (the government) want to transform the Chana district, which is now an agricultural zone, into a gigantic industrial zone, it requires more energy to supply the industrial system,” Dr. Supat Hasiwannakit, a medical doctor and one of the activist leaders, said. 

Among the major infrastructure for the megaproject is an LNG power plant to supply energy to the planned smart city. 

“The main reason that they use Liquid Natural Gas is that we don’t have enough natural gas left in the Gulf of Thailand and Thepha Coal Power Plant, an earlier planned megaproject, was cancelled,” Dr. Supat said.

Building an LNG terminal in the Chana district will require dredging because water there is shallow at just three meters a kilometer away from shore. Tankers for LNG need depths of at least 16 meters to dock at seaports.

The project was planned with minimal involvement from local communities and many villagers were barred from attending public hearings on it.

This led to political protests against the project in the Chana district and in Bangkok. Since then, young local activists and villagers have been detained and charged for demanding consultation and involvement in the project, which will directly affect their own homes. 

 As of December 2021, the government has agreed to suspend activities pertaining to the industrial estate development project in Chana in order to conduct a strategic environment assessment (SEA). 

However, many remain skeptical that the government is just stalling and will restart the project when activists’ attention is elsewhere. 

Sunrise in the Chana district.Sunrise in the Chana district. Photo credit: Napat Wesshasartar

What’s next?

Chana’s waters are full of marine biodiversity that provides livelihood to the people. However, the recent Environmental Impact Assessment conducted by the government shows little about how the project will affect this.

The EIA covers an area five kilometers from the industrial estate but might not be accurate. Sediments dug up by dredging the sea floor could be carried by the current and affect coral reefs in the area. If that happens, the area will lose its biodiversity, which could affect the environment  in a natural domino effect.

“We are planning to conduct SEA in our own version as we didn’t see their progress. And if this project pushes through, everything will be completely gone like Map Ta Phut, the industrial estate zone in Rayong, the eastern part of Thailand, where the ecosystem is mostly polluted and degraded,” Kua Rittibon, who is a lecturer at Prince of Songkla University and a researcher, said.

Map Ta Phut is home to a large industrial park focused on the petrochemical industry, according to the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice, which also notes local concerns over health and environmental impacts of factories, petrochemical plants and oil refineries in the area.

At least 35 of 76 industrial plants that the Administrative Court ordered suspended in 2009 were found to be using hazardous chemicals that could affect locals’ health. Most of these plants were allowed to resume operations.

Fisherfolks gather at the beach to spend time with their family in Chana district, Thailand during the sunset. Photo credit: Napat Wesshasartar

The bigger picture of LNG expansion in Thailand

If we look at the bigger picture, Thailand accounts for almost a third of the new LNG import capacity in development in the Southeast Asia region. Its 40.3 Metric Tons Per Annum(MTPA) of new capacity is about four times more than the current operating capacity of 11.5 MTPA. 

Most of the construction for LNG is in the Eastern part of Thailand, where no other development projects can be done.

Despite the fact that Thailand aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, financial institutions with net-zero pledges and Thai local banks are continuing to subsidize fossil gas in Southeast Asia, contributing to emissions at a time when there is an urgent need to cut back on the use of fossil fuels.

Dr. Supat said that looking into developing renewable energy from solar panels and wind farms could be a better solution to meeting Thailand’s energy needs. 

He said using waste from palm oil production for biomass power is also an option, adding, however, that “though it’s clean, it requires a lot of management that isn’t cost-effective compared to Liquid Natural Gas.”

He added, however, that “LNG might be better for investment if we look through the business lens, but if we look through the human rights and environmental justice lens, we all know which one is better.” 

This story was published through the support of a joint ASEAN LNG Journalism Fellowship between Climate Tracker and the Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development