KHAO CHET LUK, Thailand (AFP: A controversial gold mine in Thailand restarted operations on Thursday (March 23), more than six years after the government forced it to close over health and environmental concerns.
The Chatree complex, which straddles three rural provinces in the kingdom's north, had been dogged by legal disputes and protests by villagers who said it poisoned crops and livestock.
The Thai government, at that point a military junta, ordered the open-cut mine to halt operations in May 2016 in a rare win for environmental campaigners.
The mine's Australian owner, Kingsgate Consolidated, launched arbitration proceedings seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation but, after negotiations, the government agreed last year to allow the reopening.
The mine, operated by Thai subsidiary Akara Resources and billed by its owners as Thailand's largest, poured its first bars of gold-silver alloy, processed from ore stockpiled in 2016, on Thursday.
Akara Resources mining manager Rob Kinnaird said the reopening would be a boost for the area.
"It means we can expand and employ more people. There are more opportunities to help the local communities by investing in their livelihoods as well," he told AFP at the mine.
Its current workforce numbers 280 but could more than double in coming years.
The reopening coincided with the gold price rising to US$2,000 an ounce for the first time in a year.
There was widespread alarm in neighbouring communities about a decade ago when mass blood testing found some villagers had elevated levels of heavy metals, including arsenic, manganese and cyanide.
The mine denied responsibility, saying arsenic and manganese occurred naturally in the area.
Thailand's industry minister at the time said an inquiry could not conclusively link villagers' health complaints to the mine, but recommended it be shut for the "benefit of society".
The mine, some 280km (170 miles) north of Bangkok, was a big economic player in a poor rural area, directly employing 1,000 people.
Rehired workers say losing their jobs took a devastating toll. Many were forced to leave children with grandparents to find work far away, while scores of small businesses shut.
Akara senior human resources officer, Chalita Kongpradab, was pregnant when she was made redundant and had to scratch together a living as a fish and noodle vendor.
"It barely helped me to survive. Some days I could only sell one bowl of noodles," she said, crying.
While many in the area welcome the economic boost, some told AFP anonymously that they were still worried about chemicals and metals.
Others were concerned about blast noise and dust causing respiratory illnesses.
"For the people living close to the mine like me, I'd like to be moved out first," said Dao Seehawatr, 59.
Kinnaird said the company would be more responsive and closely monitor noise, dust and locals' health.
Thai academic Nattavud Pimpa characterised the mine in 2015 as a "lesson in failed community management". He told AFP this week there were signs the company had "learned to engage deeply with the community".
Akara general manager of sustainability Cherdsak Utha-aroon said some royalties would go to a community support fund, as well as a health-monitoring programme.
Chatree produced more than 1.8 million ounces of gold and nine million ounces of silver between 2001-2017.