Response from Peter McCaslin to Mr. Forbes West, representing Asia Pacific Resources, and his 2 August 2005 letter in response to McCaslin's recent articles published here and by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.
5 August 2005
To: Forbes West
Investor Relations Advisor
The Sherbourne Group
I understand that the author of the response was unaware of my interaction with the company, but I must correct him on his statement. I have in fact had direct communication with the CEO of Asia Pacific Potash Corporation, Mr. John Bovard, via email and once at a meeting in Bangkok in the months of November and December of last year while doing the bulk of my research for this report. I would suggest contacting him if you would like more details of our exchanges.
This small error epitomizes the Sherbourne Group’s detachment from the reality of the situation in Thailand, and such detachment makes their responses problematic. I would like to ask the author of the response and any of his coworkers in the Sherbourne Group, whose offices I believe are located in Toronto, how many times they have visited Thailand to work on this issue, and more importantly how many times they have personally interacted with any villagers in the area who are raising such emotional complaints?
For employees of the Sherbourne Group to make statements about the best interests of these villagers without having met them is rather presumptuous. One would hope that given the gravity of the charges raised with the police and the detailed concerns raised by environmentalists, the employees of the Sherbourne Group working on this case would feel compelled to treat complaints with an appropriate level of diligence by going into the field to get answers, rather than making assumptions based on paperwork or emails. Every word written by Mr. West and his coworkers affects the lives of thousands of people, and such responsibility should not be taken lightly.
With that in mind, I would like to disagree with the “errors of fact” which Mr. West has mentioned. I will address them point by point.
• Support for the mine is not high amongst residents. Although the population count for the area above the mining site seems to be disputed, the estimate that I have heard most often and which seems reasonable after having visited the area myself, is 20,000. In December, a petition against the mine had already been in circulation and had accumulated over 10,000 signatures. It was still in circulation when I left, and I have not heard the final count yet. However, this clearly shows that a majority of the residents are not in “support of the mine” as Mr. West suggests, and at the very least there are enough people against the project to warrant a serious investigation by an independent body.
In any case, Mr. West has exaggerated the benefits the mine will bring to the community. The number of jobs that will supposedly be created according to Asia Pacific Resources’ website is 1000 during the first 3 years, and 900 during the 22 year lifespan of the mine; but for a town with a population of 20,000 this will hardly provide the “majority of the residents” with any kind of job security and will not curb the growing problem of urban migration from the villages. Moreover, of those limited jobs that will be available, a large number will be designated for skilled workers to be recruited from places other than Udon Thani.
• Evidence for the death threats was credible enough to warrant the investigation from a high-level task force, so it is wrong to say that no “credible” evidence has been found or there would be no such investigation. Assassinations related to other projects around Thailand have not been uncommon; therefore it is reasonable to assume that the recipients of the threats in this case should be concerned for their lives as well, particularly because some of them have strategic positions in the local government and can impede the progress of the project.
• Regarding the illegal benchmarking incident, the evidence is officially documented in police reports and is indisputable. The men were caught in the act, they were not government officials, nor did government officials have any awareness of their actions, and they explicitly named Asia Pacific Potash Corporation as the company who had contracted them out. Later, government officials did finish the benchmarking through legal channels, but without consulting residents first, and conveniently doing so during the rice harvest season when most of the residents were too preoccupied with their farms to stop the process.
• The payment of 3000 baht was not an adequate compensation for the owners of the land which was drilled. It cost 8000 baht to fix some holes. The company had not repaired all the holes as of January of this year, even though the holes were dug in the mid-late 1990s. If something that dramatic has changed in the last 5 months, please explain with exact dates and names of land owners. In any case, the land owners interviewed for my article said that they were not extended the invitation to raise questions directly, and even so, many are not well-educated and would have great difficulty challenging APPC in such a legal format.
• APPC has not offered adequate forums for discussing the project. In APPC’s own Environmental Impact Assessment, as I mention directly in the article, from 1998 until the December 2000 only 2 public consultations took place in any of the four sub-districts above the proposed mine site other than Nong Phai, where the above-ground facilities would be located. Of those 2 other consultations, one was held with a single village headman. There is an “information center” located in Nong Phai, but my own experience confirms villagers’ descriptions of the attendants at the center as “unhelpful”, and “uninformed”.
• The “detailed technical studies” to which you are referred are unbeknownst to me; however, if the reference is to the Environmental Impact Assessment conducted for Asia Pacific by TEAM Consulting and Management Co., then the credibility of the studies is highly dubious since TEAM also conducted the EIA for the Pak Mun Dam project (also located in Northeastern Thailand), which became an environmental disaster. APPC’s EIA was strongly criticized by an independent team of experts.
• The Saskatchewan and New Brunswick mines cannot be compared to the proposed mine in Udon Thani because (1) they were built 3 times as deep as the Udon mine would be so land subsidence is not a threat; (2) they are located under much more sparsely populated areas; (3) they are located in an area with freezing winters which means that the tailings piles are not a threat; and (4) the Canadian government strictly monitors and enforces its environmental regulations, while the same can hardly be said for the Thai government.
• The public hearing procedure is highly dubious as a means of fair and just public participation, as I document in my longer report. The laws are unclear, and various government officials themselves have given different descriptions of the appropriate procedures. It is highly possible, as happened in the Pak Mun Dam public hearings, that the company and/or government may hand-select the residents who are allowed to challenge the project. In Pak Mun, no villager living within 40 miles of the project site was invited to speak at the public hearing, so there is a real possibility that this case will not be different. Even if villagers can speak at the hearings, all complaints brought up are only “taken into consideration”, but the final decision to approve or disapprove the project remains in the hands of officials from the Ministry of Industry whom have shown over and over again their lack of concern for the rights and interests of villagers. Villagers have absolutely no reason to feel protected by the public hearing procedures in any way.
• The mine may very well have some positive benefits for some people, but if there are environmental damages such as land and water salination, or land subsidence, then no amount of money will be able to compensate for the losses sustained by these farming families who depend on the natural environment for survival.
As for the environmental award recently given to Asia Pacific Potash Corporation, it is odd that a company whose project has not yet broken ground, whose Environmental Impact Assessment left out critical information and was condemned by an independent team of experts, whose project has drawn criticism from local, national, and international environmental NGOs, and who has been implicated in police reports for illegal activity surrounding the project, was deemed fit for such an honor.
I must reiterate, there is only one way to speak intelligently about this case, and that is to get information on the ground-level. While the Sherbourne Group works from their Toronto office screening complaints such as this article, the employees of Asia Pacific Resources and its shareholders are being relieved from having to publicly acknowledge their social and environmental responsibilities. Why haven’t the Ziff brothers, a trio of American billionaire brothers who have made great financial contributions to Asia Pacific Resources through the investment firm Olympus Capital Holdings Asia, addressed any of the concerns raised about the project? Olympus Capital Holdings Asia owns around 53% of APR’s shares, and yet the Ziff brothers remain detached from its controversies.
If the employees of the Sherbourne Group do not visit the site, they cannot adequately represent Asia Pacific Resources in this case. It is critical for the Sherbourne Group, as APR’s public relations firm, to facilitate communication and understanding between the villagers, Asia Pacific Potash Corporation and its parent company Asia Pacific Resources, and APR’s many shareholders.
If there is no compromise with the villagers who have raised concerns, it will be hard to blame them for taking the law into their own hands, which would be a disaster for all parties involved. The residents in Udon Thani have tended to that land for generations, and it is not right for group of foreign entrepreneurs to be able to suddenly show up and upset that harmonious relationship without the blessings of the people who live there.