Strength and String
By Elizabeth Dombrock - CIEE Khon Kaen Student
Ranong Kongsaen, 59, starts her morning at 4 a.m. every day with a smile on her face and her head held high. She is easily the busiest person in Na Nong Bong; the front porch of her home doubles as the village gathering place. She is constantly hosting visitors, family, friends, and fellow activists, showering everyone who enters her door with hospitality and a plate of jackfruit and sticky rice. There is not a person in Na Nong Bong who has not heard of Ranong or her nickname, Mae (Mother) Rote.
Mae Rote is considered the leader of the Radical Grandma Collective. She takes the initiative to gather the women to discuss protesting tactics and the needs of the Collective, including customer requests. She is as skilled a weaver as she is a fierce activist -- a vocal representative of her strong community and the fight against the mine.
Farming is Mae Rote’s main source of income, though she cannot eat her own food due to the already high levels of heavy metals in her blood from the mine’s pollution. To supplement her income and earn more money to fight the mine, she spends a considerable amount of time weaving. When you look around her home, you can see beautifully woven stacks of scarves in every cabinet. Each scarf takes her one to two full days to weave, so you begin to understand Mae Rote’s commitment to her craft and to her activism against the mine. But there is some sorrow in the beauty. Mae Rote admitted, “We are so busy we cannot live our normal lives anymore, and we are struggling to support our families because we have too many meetings about the mines.”
Mae Rote’s boundless compassion for her two daughters and grandchild, her fellow weavers, Na Nong Bong, and her visitors masks her exhaustion. Her dedication to community activism stems from her love for her family. Mae Rote confessed that she has four dangerous chemicals in her body from living by the mine. “I am scared for the health of my daughters and grandchild,” she said sadly, watching her 6 month old granddaughter napping in a handwoven cloth hammock. With fight in her soul and her children in mind, Mae Rote refuses to stop her campaign against the mine.
Mae Rote stays strong and hopeful for the future, despite violence in the village’s past. After villagers constructed a wall blocking the road that leads to the mine, village activists and Radical Grandmas, led by Mae Rote, staged a sit-in to protest the mine. On May 15th, 2014, mine workers tried to transport ore down the mountain and were blocked, so the mining company’s cronies knocked down the wall and beat the villagers. Police have not made an effort to identify or charge any of the attackers. Mae Rote wears a t-shirt proclaiming, "I am scared to eat the rice that grows here" and led her community in a march to the local government office in remembrance of the May 15th attack to show their continued discontent with the mine and TKL, the mining company.
The incident made it clear that the government supports the mine, since the government made no effort to hold TKL workers accountable. “I do not understand why the government is trying to ruin our livelihoods. The impacts from the mine are severe,” Mae Rote said, feeling betrayed.
Villagers in Na Nong Bong oftentimes feel alone in their fight to defend their homes and livelihoods. But this has only made Mae Rote campaign harder against the mine. She embodies the strength of the Na Nong Bong community, radiating humility, pride, and genuine love for her hometown – feelings that are evident in her beautifully handwoven scarves
Compassion Woven in Cloth
By Elizabeth Dombrock - CIEE Khon Kaen Student
Sri Aunasot, 55, watches the sun sink into the abandoned rice and corn fields behind her home. She has lived in Na Nong Bong village her whole life with her husband, son, daughter, and now grandson.
Before the construction of the nearby gold mine, the land around her village flourished with agriculture. Mae Sri used to walk to the field behind her home to collect vegetables and snails for her family to eat, but after Tungkhum Mining Corporation (TKL) came to the area, even the vegetables that once grew in Mae Sri’s backyard were no longer edible. The mine’s tailings ponds broke, polluting local waterways and poisoning the natural resources with cyanide, causing health problems and financial strain for Mae Sri, her family, and the entire Na Nong Bong community. “I fear the chemicals for our children,” Mae Sri said, glancing toward her now-forgotten fields. When kids play in the fields or go fishing Mae Sri has to tell them not to eat what they find because it could be contaminated. She never thought she would wake up afraid there would be nothing edible in the community.
Mae Sri now has to buy her food and water from nearby markets instead of collecting her own. She also lost her once stable income from farming. The whole community has been negatively impacted by the presence of the mine, but Mae Sri says that their struggle has brought the community closer.
“The women are close here. We eat food together and we talk about how to stop the mine,” Mae Sri explained. She is a member of the Radical Grandma Collective, whose anti-mining activism has caught the attention of study abroad students, journalists, and young activists from around the world.
After the mine polluted their fields, Mae Sri and the women she grew up with came together to do something they love--weaving --for the place that they love, their hometown. The weaving cooperative was created to raise money for the women to support their families and to cover the costs of protesting against the mine, including transportation, signage, and food.
Mae Sri has been recognized as one of the most efficient and skilled weavers in the bunch, though she would never admit it. Almost all her free time is dedicated to weaving, and when she is not weaving she is helping with protests. “I am not afraid to protest. I am attached to this village; it is my home,” she said bravely.
Mae Sri’s mother taught her how to weave when she was a young teenager. “In the past, every woman had to learn how to weave,” Mae Sri explained. Women were expected to make clothes for their families in the days when ready-made clothes were not widely available at the market. “Weaving brought me and my mother closer,” she said. She continued weaving as a pastime even after becoming a farmer.
Weaving makes Mae Sri happy and she is hopeful that her contribution to the Radical Grandma Collective will help save her community and share the powerful story of these strong women to people around the world.