Zhou Sen was the first one who approached me when I arrived in the village. The 13-year-old has an intellectual disability and studies at a special-needs school far from his home. He had just come back to spend the summer with his family. While we were talking, his mood changed and he touched his arm gingerly. "Don't worry," his parents told me. "He is doing that because he is in pain."
Zhou is one of the many victims affected by the lead contamination in Lower Klity Creek, a remote village in Thailand close to the Burma border. For more than 20 years its residents, who are mostly ethnic Karen, have been coping with the contamination caused by a nearby lead mine which has been dumping the wastewater into the main river flowing through the village. People dependent on the river for drinking and fishing have fallen sick; many have been diagnosed with lead poisoning. Although there are no medical reports recording many of these problems, villagers claim that more than ten people have died. The rest still suffer from symptoms such as aches, fatigue, dizziness, loss of memory, and numbness. Some children, like Zhou Sen, have been struck with developmental and mental disorders. Other villagers have been blinded.
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Ma Ong Seang lost her sight when she was 30 years old as a result of lead poisoning. "I am still angry. When I lost my sight, I wanted to commit suicide," she told me. "This damage was preventable. If I knew from the beginning, I would take precautions."
Although the mine shut down 17 years ago, the creek has never been restored and the concentration of lead in the sediment remains 20 times higher than normal, and the consequences for the village have been severe.
"In the past, people in Klity used to lead a self-sustainable life. They have had rice plantations or livestock. When they had to go to the hospital, for example, they would sell a buffalo," said human-rights lawyer Surapong Kongchantuk. "But after the contamination, their livestock could not drink water from the creek and many animals have died. Their life has changed. They cannot fish anymore, they have to buy the fish instead."
In 1998, the mine ceased its activities following the orders of the state agencies, including the Pollution Control Department (PCD), which has found unacceptable levels of lead in the water of the creek. Following the agencies' guidelines, the company that owns the mine, Lead Concentrates, has dredged part of the contaminated sediment but hasn't taken any action comprehensive to restore the creek. In 2003, villagers with the help of Surapong, sued the company, which was owned by former MP Kongsak Kleeb-bua before his death. (The case is still pending.)
The residents also sued the government, and the court ordered the PCD to pay over $5,000 to each of the 22 plaintiffs and clean up the river—but the government agency hasn't fixed the contamination yet.
I asked Zhou's father if he believes that the government will eventually restore the site.
"It doesn't matter what I believe. We are poor and uneducated people living in the jungle. The only thing we can do is waiting" he replied.
"The government continues to say they're studying the problem. But they began studying lead contamination in 1998, so they already know how urgent it is to clean up the site," Richard Pearshouse, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said.
When reached for comment, a PCD spokesperson said that ten years ago the agency thought that the best way for cleaning up the river was the natural rehabilitation; it was also afraid that a dredging operation could have negative consequences for the surrounding environment.
"The problem is the water. We have to use the water from the mountain. But this isn't possible all the time. Whenever there is a big rain, the mountain water gets dirty," said Thanaphol Pengpraderm, the village schoolteacher.
The 22 plaintiffs have donated part of their settlements to build a pipeline, which carries clean water from the mountain. But not all the households have access to it.
Chan Chi Ra falls into this category. The 28-year-old farmer invited me for lunch with two of her friends in her bamboo hut. She told me that she uses the water of the creek for drinking, cooking, and washing. "I have no other choice. I cannot have access to the pipe water."
I asked Chan whether she has done blood tests to check if she has been affected. She said she hadn't; she didn't' see the point. "Even if I had something, I couldn't do anything about it."
"There is no medical treatment for the villagers," Surapong explained. The nearest hospital has no specialized doctors or medicines for those who suffer from lead poisoning. Suraprong and his organization, Karen Studies and Development Centre, raised funds to give the severely afflicted some treatments at a hospital in Bangkok. But that was just a one-time thing, not a permanent fix.
"Five years ago, I have received some medicine from the doctors in Bangkok. But If I need it again, I don't know where to go. And I have heard that the medicine is expensive. I cannot pay for this," Ma Ong Seang, the blind woman, said.
Despite the contamination, there have been some discussion about reopening some of the mines in the area. Kamthorn, 48, is a villager who has testified in court and organizes the others when they have to defend their collective rights. He told me the villagers are reluctant to a new mine opening as long as the first problem has not been solved. Representatives of one mining company asked for a meeting with the villagers in order to listen to their opinions.
"The people cannot trust them even though they claim that they will not repeat the same mistakes again," Kamthorn explained, rolling his tobacco in a dry banana leaf. "After they saw the negative stance of the people, they have started to approach them individually, trying to convince them that their living standards will be improved, as the mine will give money to the district through taxation. They have also approached me personally and offered me money to stop protesting," he added. "I refused."
When I was getting ready to leave the small village, I recalled the words of Thanaphol, the teacher: "Before the mine, this used to be the purest and most beautiful creek in the whole area." Everywhere you look, there are different kinds of trees; tropical fruits and vegetables grow freely. Next to the river, the branches bend gently toward the water. It's hard to think of the river in such a place as being poisonous.
My last question to the residents was whether they have thought of leaving the place, especially after the government has allocated an area where they could move. "No way! This is our home!" one replied. "We cannot leave. No one has."