Tribute to Charoen Wataksorn, a Thai hero for the planet

Feature story - June 20, 2005
Environmentalist Charoen Wataksorn, who was murdered on June 21, 2004, lived an extraordinary and inspiring life. He was a hero who fought to his death for justice, for the protection of his community and the environment.

Environmentalist Charoen Wataksorn, who was murdered on June 21, 2004, lived an extraordinary and inspiring life. He was a hero who fought to his death for justice, for the protection of his community and the environment.

Born in Prachuap Khiri Khan, Charoen was the youngest of eight children in a family of merchants living in a fishing village. He moved to Bo Nok in 1983 with his wife, Korn-uma Pongnoi, where they farmed and traded pineapples.

 

His decade of fighting for the environment and community began in 1994 when he first found out from some locals that lands in his community were being bought for a planned power plant.

 

In 1997, his peaceful life dramatically changed when he and his wife joined other villagers to protest against the US$ 800 million (34 billion baht) Bo Nok power plant project, which some technocrats promoted as essential for the nation’s energy security. The plant was expected to generate 700 megawatts of electricity using imported coal from Australia.

 

The public first heard of Charoen’s name when around 20,000 villagers mobilized to blockade the Southern Highway in December 1998.  This event sent so much pressure on the government to end the power plant projects in both Bo Nok and Ban Krut. And it led to serious public hearings.

 

From then on, Charoen and his community would be known worldwide as champions of environmental protection, especially in the global effort to stop climate change.

 

But his community’s campaign in Thailand was not about to be won easily. Many leading members of the community movement have been subjected to harassment and persecution including being shot at, receiving murder threats, and being sued by government officials.

 

Charoen and his wife were no exception. Their house was burned, there were numerous murder threats, and he was shot at three times during the course of their campaign against the coal plants. He was also approached several times with huge amounts of money. A company promised to pay him US$ 300,000 (12 million baht) if he stopped protesting. He refused the offers saying he would be content to have three meals a day and be welcomed in any house he dropped by in the village instead of bowing his head in shame if he accepted the bribes.

 

Their struggle finally paid off in 2002 when the Thaksin government announced the postponement of both coal plants, essentially scrapping the whole project.

 

On June 21, 2004, the world was shocked to learn that Charoen was murdered shortly after testifying to a parliamentary committee against powerful figures involved in community land grabs. He told senators in Bangkok how local officials were colluding to transfer public land in Bo Nok to a local strongman.  

 

The fight against the land grab was the latest in Chareon's ongoing battle to preserve the environment and protect his community.

 

An incredible example of grassroots organising

 

The successful campaign to stop the dirty coal plants of Bo Nok and Ban Krut was lead by Chareon in an incredible example of grassroots organising.

 

It is the story of a whole community fighting back against large industrial projects, corruption and bad investments that threaten the local people, communities and the environment. It is an inspiration for the whole environmental movement.

 

This community's struggle against coal projects has travelled the world, inspiring many communities including the Pulupandan community in Negros, Philippines to resist dirty energy development (this community also won their fight against a planned coal plant). Those who have won their local battles now support other battles around the world.

 

Greenpeace pays tribute to Charoen and to the many communities out there who continue to struggle against unsuitable development in order to protect the sustainability of their communities.

 

The cancellation of these two coal-fired power plants marked the turning point in Thailand's clean energy future. Had these plants been built, Thailand would be importing coal from Indonesia and Australia, fuelling global warming, and causing toxic pollution in the host communities. Now, the country has domestic options ranging from greater energy efficiency to developing new renewable electricity sources for its energy needs.

 

Globally, this campaign is probably the first time ever that two major coal power plants have not been developed once the companies involved had committed to them. The proponents of the Bo Nok plant spent millions on greenwashing their proposal with misleading adverts in national newspapers about 'Clean Coal'. They even got the US Ambassador to threaten Thailand's government with 'capital flight' and divestment if such major projects were cancelled. In the struggle to stop global warming, reducing the uptake of coal in economies that largely exist without it is key. Coal is a fuel of the past - renewable energy is the future.

 

For Greenpeace, Charoen represents a community that has chosen a path towards a clean energy future for themselves and future generations. In our hearts, we will always carry Charoen's courage, and continue the fight for a clean and healthy environment we all could live in.