Thailand’s potash production push causes unease in Isan

application of nitrogenous fertilizers in soil in early spring, plant care

Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s initiative to position the country as a leading player in the global potash industry is causing growing concern among the residents of the northeastern Isan region. Critics say that the government’s plan to reduce fertilizer costs and stimulate economic growth by establishing three new mines overlooks the possibility that these projects could cause irreversible damage to the environment and local livelihoods.

Opponents of the initiative have pointed out that the country’s only active mine, the Thai Kali mine, which has been operational since 2017 and holds a 25-year license, had to suspend operations in 2019 due to an accident in which saltwater leakage from mineshafts contaminated the surrounding soil. Local farmers and environmentalists say that the mine has killed their crops, polluted the local water supply, and caused trees and vegetation to wither.

Despite these concerns, the Thai government, under Srettha’s directive, has stepped up efforts to expedite the country’s potash mining activities, and has even warned that slow-moving projects could have their licenses revoked. Thailand estimates that it has the world’s fourth-largest potash reserves and appears to be determined to reduce its reliance on potassium imports, which currently stand at 700,000 tonnes per year and cost nine billion baht ($250mn). Officials say that increased domestic production would also lead to a 15-20% reduction in potash fertilizer prices for local farmers.

The minister of industry, Pimphattra Wichaikul, recently mandated a three-month deadline for companies with potash mining licenses to outline their investment and operational plans, emphasizing the dual goals of supporting Thai agriculture and the enhancing national income.

As the projects pick up pace, critics are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to Thailand’s potash mining ambitions and demanding that the government carry out comprehensive assessments of the associated environmental impacts and engaging with all stakeholders. Their resistance to the mines, driven by the potential threat to organic farming practices and the broader ecosystem, again highlights a growing disjuncture between economic aspirations and environmental sustainability.

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