The saying “Grandma knows best” carries a lot of weight in the Radical Grandma Collective, an organization composed of Isaan women from Northeastern Thailand. The radical grandmas who make up this collective are both activists and organizers who, over the last 15 years, have been fighting against the presence of the Tungkum Ltd (TKL) gold mine in Na Nong Bong village in Loei, Thailand.
TKL began mining gold less than a kilometer from the villagers’ homes in 2006, and shortly after villagers began to notice changes in their health and the environment, primarily in the form of polluted water, skin rashes, lower rice yields, and the presence of dead fish and crabs in their rice paddies. As a result, in 2008 Khon Rak Baan Kerd was formed to learn more about the problems caused by mining. Members from the six villages directly affected by the mine soon began a campaign to close it. Those members included the Radical Grandmas, although at the time they weren’t known as radical grandmas at all— rather as a group of women weavers, who, since 2008, had been selling their weaving products locally to raise money for the costs associated with protesting the mine.
Leng Wongkhamsom prepares yarn to be attached to the loom for weaving.
Throughout their struggle to close the mine, TKL has sued villagers more than 20 times. They have tried to discredit human rights defenders, claiming that the villagers are threatening national security by protesting the country’s development. There have also been considerable violent attempts at intimidation on the part of TKL, such as on the evening of May 15, 2014, when 300 masked men came into the village and attacked villagers who were guarding a blockade built to block the access road to the mine. The villagers were tied up and beaten while trucks illegally retrieved extracted gold and copper ore from the mine.
The villagers’ efforts have kept TKL from actively operating the mine since 2013, and environmental conditions are improving in the community. Now, the community has refocused its fight on community relationships, mental and Radical Grandma Collective physical well being, and the economy. The effects of mining and the trauma of being engaged in protest for over a decade has left scars on the community, which is ready to embark on the long road to healing.
Kiang Suthison weaves at her loom.
The Radical Grandmas entered the scene in 2016 when one of the grandmas, Ranong Kongsaen, began a conversation with U.S. allies about the role of foreign support in their anti-mine organizing efforts. The idea for the collective grew out of a collaboration between the radical grandmas and a group of women from the U.S. who were introduced to Na Nong Bong as undergraduate students on a study abroad program focused on human rights and the environment. Ranong suggested that the women could sell the scarves that they were weaving on the international market to help generate extra income for the weavers and further share the story of their anti-mining efforts. From there, the Radical Grandma Collective was born into a community-driven project in which the grandmas set their prices and their U.S. counterparts work to share the community’s story and help sell the items.
The grandmas weave their vibrantly colored scarves and other products on wooden looms. They have also recently begun to grow cotton to spin and dye with natural materials to make their scarves. Once produced, the U.S. women buy the scarves directly from the collective and sell them in international markets, donating additional proceeds back to the weaving collective. This collaboration allows the Radical Grandmas the ability to earn income for their community while maintaining local traditions and supporting community-based development.
To learn more about the Collective, visit: www.radicalgrandmacollective.com.
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All photos by ColorFour.
Top photo: Ranong Kongsaen, Founder of the Collective and a leader in Khon Rak Ban Kerd, the organization formed to stand up for community rights against the gold mine.