When Samrit Boranmun heard that a Chinese company was planning to open a potash mine near her village in northeast Thailand she was determined to stop it.
“I’m not going to allow that to happen,” the mother of two said.
In environmental terms, such a project would be disastrous for the community, she said.
Locals had already had to suffer a contaminated water supply and subsidence after salt mines were opened in the area, and the scale of the potash project was much bigger, she said.
Samrit’s fight has been going on since 2015, when the Thai authorities granted state-owned China Ming Ta Potash Corporation an exploration licence covering more than 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) to study the feasibility of opening a potash mine in Wanon Niwat, a district of Sakon Nakhon province. In that time local protest groups have done all they can to stymie the company’s efforts.
“Our lives depend on the environment,” said Sompan Srimarat, 50, a rice farmer and mother of two. “We need to stop it.”
Villagers in Wanon Niwat are not alone in their concern about the environmental and social impact of Chinese investment in Southeast Asia, which has soared in recent years. Groups in Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia have all protested against Beijing-backed schemes, many of them large-scale infrastructure projects like dams and ports, or concessions granted to mining and logging companies.
And in some cases, their efforts have paid off.
China recently shelved a project to improve the navigation of the Mekong River in northern Thailand due to the environmental impact that the blasting of some of the islets and rocks in the area would have caused, while in Indonesia, Bank of China said on March 4 it would reconsider its involvement in the controversial Batang Toru dam project in response to an international outcry over its impact on the local orangutan population.
Panut Hadisiswoyo, a conservationist and founder of the Orangutan Information Centre, an Indonesian NGO that works for the conservation of the great apes, welcomed the Bank of China decision.
“Communities are being ignored, so it’s a positive step that they are listening to public opinion,” he said.
Anqi Yao, an analyst with the China-based NGO Greenhub, said community groups and environmental organisations in the region had become increasingly concerned as Chinese foreign investment had spiked.
“China’s overseas investment only started recently,” she said. “Before 1992, it was highly restricted.”
In the 2000s spending began to increase, but a lack of guidelines and coordination meant it was “a wild growth period”, she said.It was only after the launch of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” in 2013 – Beijing’s ambitious plan to use infrastructure development to boost interconnectivity across Asia, Europe and Africa – that investment became “more strategic” and coordinated, she said.
According to figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, China’s foreign direct investment rose from US$5.5 billion in 2004 to US$196 billion in 2016, before slipping back to US$124 billion a year later.
Pranom Somwong, Thailand coordinator for Protection International, an NGO that supports human rights defenders, said the problem was that because regulations in China were weaker than in Europe and the US, the spike in Chinese investment had not been matched with the proper level of concern for environmental and social issues.
“All companies are the same, their ultimate goal is profit,” he said. “But with the Chinese we don’t have any leverage.”
According to a report titled “Safeguarding People and the Environment in Chinese Investments: A Guide for Community Advocates” by the NGO Inclusive Development International, another problem is the lack of transparency.
“Communities that have been harmed by Chinese investments, and the civil society groups that seek to support them, often encounter difficulties obtaining project information and engaging developers and financiers to influence the project design, prevent harmful investments or seek redress after the fact,” it said.
But Yao said Beijing was catching up with international standards on the social and environmental implications of its overseas projects.
“The government does seem to realise the importance of regulating these investments,” she said.
Beijing made a significant commitment to sustainable foreign investment after the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015 and more recently the ruling Communist Party had made environmental protection one of its top priorities, she said.
“This has not only raised awareness of the need to control pollution within China … but has made more people think about the impact China is having overseas.”
Despite Beijing’s efforts, Chinese private companies working on foreign soil were less committed to environmental concerns and therefore harder to monitor than state firms, Yao said.
Samrit said she had a low opinion of Chinese companies and did not trust them.
“I heard there is a lot of corruption … They don’t listen to communities,” she said.
According to Tavivat Puntarigvivat, a researcher at the Centre for Chinese Studies at Mahidol University in Thailand, Samrit’s opinion was not uncommon among Thai people.
“They look at [Chinese investors] … as being too focused on their own benefits,” he said. “They don’t share with Thai society.”
There was a similar animosity towards Japanese investment in Thailand in the early 1970s, which led to protests and forced Tokyo to change its approach, Puntarigvivat said.
“They started to increase humanitarian aid and in time the Thais started to see Japanese investment in a more positive way.”
While China had taken some steps to win over the Thai people, its efforts had mostly been directed at the higher classes and would have to become more universal to be effective, Puntarigvivat said.
Hadisiswoyo said that while there was there was “growing concern about Chinese investment” in Indonesia, the origin of the funds was of no concern to local interest groups.
“This is not about China, Europe or Japan,” he said. “We look at the environmental concerns, no matter where the money is coming from.”
While the villagers of Wanon Niwat have yet to convince the government to withdraw the exploration licence granted to China Ming Ta Potash they are determined to fight on, and Yao said they might just win.
“The public discourse will definitely be a very strong point [for the investors],” she said. “Chinese banks have been more sensitive to public opinion in recent years.”
Samrit has no doubt that she and her fellow protesters will prevail.
“We are going to stop the mine and keep fighting forever,” she said.