Bancha Noppawong is a very rare kind of man, simply because we know his name. He hit the headlines in October 2000, in Phuket, Thailand, when he drove a pick-up truck into a motorbike and knocked the two people on it into the road.
The passenger, an 18-year old woman, sustained minor injuries to her face, knees and arms. Her uncle Siripoj Cheechang, the motorbike’s driver, lay unconscious in the road.
This was no ordinary accident. Bancha turned his truck around, accelerated and drove over Siripoj’s left leg as he lay prone. He then sped away.
Siripoj is lucky to have survived what appeared to be an assassination attempt. He was the managing editor of a local newspaper, a man with powerful enemies. They included the owner of a nearby shrimp farm, which Siripoj had campaigned against when it had expanded into the Pa Klok mangrove forest.
Was it just a coincidence that Bancha worked for that shrimp farm, or are these facts connected? Consider events just three months later, and the fate of another local man.
Jurin Ratchapol was a member of the Pa Klok Mangrove Forest Conservation Group, which had accused the shrimp farm of clearing parts of the forest and polluting its waters. On 30 January 2001 Ratchapol was collecting cashew leaves in the forest when he was shot dead. The man convicted of pulling the trigger was Bancha Noppawong.
I heard these stories more than a decade ago when I wrote a report that documented how people in at least 11 countries had been murdered for opposing shrimp farms near their communities.
It’s perverse that mere shrimp could cause such misery. Shrimp are not alone. They are members of a list that includes logs and diamonds, palm oil and beef, and other commodities produced in poorer countries for consumers in richer ones.
Last year, Global Witness published a report showing little has changed. It said that in the past decade close to 1,000 people have been murdered for defending their local environment from polluters and miners, land grabbers and loggers. The numbers of killings have risen in recent years.
A follow-up report Global Witness published yesterday confirms the trend: at least 116 more environmental activists were murdered in 2014.
In only six of the murders Global Witness documented has the killer been tried, convicted and punished. That’s what makes Bancha Noppawong so rare. He is still in jail, serving a life sentence for murder.
Perhaps he was convicted because he killed someone with a public profile. The Queen of Thailand had presented Jurin Ratchapol with an award for his efforts to protect the local environment just months before he was killed.
Most other environmental murders don’t get such attention. But as the Global Witness research shows, there are a thousand stories waiting to be told.