Somporn Pengkam uses the word “lucky” frequently in conversation. She says she was “lucky” that she began her work in health impact assessment (HIA) just as the Thai government was making health system reforms. She says she was “lucky” to get support from friends in different fields when she took on a multinational company that was illegally dumping waste. And she says she was “lucky” to have been chosen as a consultant to help create an HIA framework in the Philippines, beating out numerous other candidates for the role. (This last project would lead to her winning the inaugural Atlantic Senior Fellows Award with Beverly Ho, another Equity Initiative fellow—a feat Pengkam would also likely describe as “lucky.”)
While it’s true that good fortune may have played a part in all of these, Pengkam seems to gloss over the main reason behind her achievements: her initiative, hard work, and commitment. A nurse-turned-HIA champion, Pengkam saw the need for a greater understanding of how development can affect communities and took it upon herself to learn everything she could to help protect their rights.
Pengkam, 48, is currently the director of an independent CHIA platform in Southeast Asia, a nonprofit organization that she established in 2018. CHIA has long existed in one form or another in Thailand, as Pengkam writes in a paper entitled “Revitalizing Thailand’s Community Health Impact Assessment”:
“Community Health Impact Assessment (CHIA) has long been conducted in Thailand. The methodology is social norm and belief oriented. We believe in interconnectedness and pay respect to our ancestor’s spirit and nature. We consider natural resources as Divine God such as Mother Earth, Water God, Rice God and etc. Some part of Thailand, for example northeast, has its own traditional rule that no one dare to violate because it may cause disaster. With these beliefs, whenever a community initiates activities, villagers will discuss until all sides satisfy. The process of discussion invites villagers to participate in policy decision making at their community.”
In the succeeding paragraph, Pengkam rues the movement away from these roots in modern times: “Since Thailand has geared up to modernization, the social norms and beliefs of the community have been devalued. High and complicated technology has replaced local wisdom. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been introduced with a scientific base. Hence spiritual belief of the community has been gradually ignored. It is led [sic] to conflict in communities.”
Pengkam thus ventured into CHIA out of necessity. She says that it started around 17 years ago, when a Canadian Potash mining company tried to obtain a license to start operations in Udon Thani, her hometown. She narrates, “I was working for a nursing college there and the villagers asked me about the health impact assessment, and I cannot answer the question. I said, ‘Oh, I’m from nursing, I don’t know about the impact from Potash mining; I know only to care [for] persons in hospital.’ And the villagers said, ‘You are academia and a health professional. If you don’t know, how would we know and how would we make a decision, if it’s good or bad for us?’”
That spurred Pengkam into action. “I started researching about what is health impact assessment and how to do it, what is it about, the timeline,” she says. At that time, there were no laws or guidelines in Thailand so she largely had to rely on self-study.
“I’m so lucky that I got funding from the Health System Research Institute to do the pilot project about the health impact assessment,” she says. She reviewed the guidelines from Canada, adamant that a Canadian company should be held to the same standard in Thailand.
Her work on this project made her realize the importance of setting guidelines and disseminating information to communities that may be affected by mining and other similar industries. It also caught the attention of a medical doctor who was putting together a team for the National Health System Reform Office, at a time when the National Health Act of Thailand was being drafted. He asked Pengkam to join his research team and she agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to include HIA in public policy.
Once the law was passed, the National Health System Reform Office became the National Health Commission Office. Pengkam resigned from her post at the nursing college and worked at the office as Director of the HIA Coordinating Unit.
At first, things were going well. Pengkam could do her work with the support of cabinet and even the prime minister. But a particular case seven years ago caused a shift in Pengkam. She was asked by a local university in Chacheongsao province to assess the illegal dumping of waste in a well by a company. A committee was sent to investigate but the villagers were distrustful of the results. “The villagers tried to call police and every regulator, but they did nothing. There was a very bad smell and many people got sick,” says Pengkam.
She had dialogues with the community, checked the dump site, and collected samples for analysis. The situation turned out to be quite dire as it affected not just the residents but also the farms. “It’s about food security… It’s not only for the people in the community, but you do agriculture, you produce food, you export to somewhere. If this area is contaminated, it means the food is contaminated. Other people who have the food will get sick,” she explains.
Pengkam got to work and didn’t think there would be any major repercussions as they didn’t put on a protest. But one morning, a community leader was gunned down and killed at the market, a clear message being sent to those who were working on the case. Pengkam was shaken.
“I was shocked when I arrived at the community, at the temple—many people came to me and hugged me. And I said, ‘Are you scared? If you’re scared we can stop.’ And they said, ‘No, no, no. The community leader passed away already…We should follow his lead, how to treat this area, how to make this safe for everyone, for our children.’ [And I said] ‘Okay, I will not leave you. I will fight everything, do everything with you.’”
Normally a behind-the-scenes worker who shies away from the media, Pengkam resolved to shine the spotlight on this case. “After that, I told the media, ‘I will be a speaker for this case. Interview me,’” she says. She collected more data, despite warnings that she would be sued by the company. And this is where some of her luck came into play: A friend who was a lawyer working for a non-profit organization got in touch with her to say that she had their support. Then experts from various fields, including medical faculty at Chulalongkorn University, looked at the data with her and helped formulate solutions.
Pengkam submitted her well-researched, science-backed findings to the higher-ups. But the day before it was to be passed for review by the National Health Commission, the secretarial team told her that it would be withdrawn, saying the research was unclear and did not consult all stakeholders. Pengkam kept asking “Why?” All stakeholders had come together to propose the best solution, and previous recommendations for other cases had made it through the commission to the cabinet and ultimately to the prime minister without a hitch.
“He kept quiet and I said, ‘I will not see anyone die [any] more. I need to solve this problem now. A community leader was killed. I need to protect them, it’s my duty,’” she says. “Everyone kept quiet. So, I walked out of the meeting.”
Together with the governor, Pengkam worked on a proposal for cleaning the well and rehabilitating the area, which they submitted to parliament. After that, she resigned from the National Health Commission Office, disillusioned. “[I believed that] if the policy makers have strong evidence and the right information to support their decision making, I thought they would make a decision to protect everyone. But it’s not [the case],” she says. “If I cannot protect the community, [there is] no meaning for me to work here.”
The community eventually sued the company and won.
Pengkam feels like she has grown since her experience with the government, especially after joining the Thai Leadership Program and the Equity Initiative (EI).
“When I was working for the National Health Commission Office, I was quite self-centered. I had high self-confidence and a lot of ego because I thought I worked so hard, I tried to protect everybody, I had strong power,” she says. “But when I joined the [Thai Leadership] program, I [had a] more open heart. I [became] open to connecting to others different from me. I learned to listen.”
Joining EI in 2017 took her leadership skills to the next level: “I learned a lot about adaptive leadership. I learned how to deal with difficult situations… how to [go] step by step. And I learned how to work with others… not too fast, because if I work too fast, I leave many people behind. I learned to work slow and [with] care, with a team.”
Having grown as a leader, Pengkam now heads an organization that works with various communities around Southeast Asia. “I do this to empower people to do HIA by themselves and can negotiate with policy makers by themselves,” she says. “I would like to see equity in terms of every sector, especially the community [to] have the right to engage in the decision making, and have the right to determine their future. Not a top-down policy but they have the right to have a choice [when it comes to] what kind of development they would like. Because for me, people [on the] community side are powerless in the public policy process. The powerful [ones are] from the government or the business sector.”
She stresses that she isn’t against development but that everyone should have a say. “My life’s mission is to make it equal.”
Pengkam may feel like she’s the lucky one, but it’s the communities who are lucky to have her tirelessly fighting for their rights and protecting their welfare.