The Collegian
Saturday, March 25, 2023

Fighting against human rights violations after study abroad

Jackie Fan and Cloe Franko
Jackie Fan and Cloe Franko

University of Richmond junior Cloe Franko is beginning research on human rights violations in eastern Kentucky after returning from a semester spent conducting similar research in Thailand.

Franko spent the fall semester studying abroad in Thailand's rural northeastern Isaan region with junior Jackie Fan. Through their research, Franko and Fan discovered that dam and river-dredging projects developed by the Thai government were costing farmers their land and livelihoods, they said.

Inspired by her work in Thailand, Franko's research in Kentucky focuses on the human rights violations created by mountaintop-removal coal mining -- a highly destructive mining method during which entire mountains are razed, damaging the environment and the lives of locals.

In Thailand, Franko, Fan and 23 other students studied and conducted fieldwork on river dredging, HIV/AIDS, agriculture, slum communities and dams, Franko and Fan said.

Franko worked in one of two groups that studied dams, while Fan's group focused on river dredging.

The Thai government initiated the river-dredging project so water could be diverted for crop irrigation, Fan said.

"The dredged landmass would be planted on the farmers' land, so they'd lose land," she said. "They lost their livelihoods because they couldn't farm anymore."

Members of Fan's group published a newspaper article about the dredging, which came at the same time two cases in which farmers were demanding compensation for dredging damages were being heard in court, she said. The article appeared in the Bangkok Post just as the semester ended, Franko said.

Franko's group spent four days in the communities of the Rasi Salai region when conducting the study on the dam, she said.

"We met with different villagers who had been affected by the flooding and who had lost their livelihoods, their incomes; whose families had been broken apart, who had lost land, who had lost their homes, in some cases," she said.

Once the students had completed their reports, they were taken to a conference in Bangkok that included members of the United Nations' Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and various local non-governmental organizations, she said.

"They were given the chance to read them over and discuss their importance and they were all extremely impressed," she said.

Enjoy what you're reading?
Signup for our newsletter

While researching, the students used the United Nations' International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to identify the human rights violations they encountered, Franko and Fan said.

They came to see a great power in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Franko said.

"It has had such a power to unite groups that are dealing with very different issues," she said. "But once you gather different groups under the idea that each of them is facing a violation of the right to work, or that each of them is facing a violation of the right to culture, to food, all of these different issues; all of a sudden people have a common language that they can work together around."

Franko's research in Kentucky applies the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to mountaintop-removal mining, she said.

During the mining process, mountains are leveled to get to the coal underneath them. Once destroyed, the debris from the mountains is often put in the valleys next to them.

"Hundreds of streams have been polluted, if not completely ruined, by these valley fills," she said.

Franko visited Hazard, Ky., two weekends ago to talk to members of the community about the issue, she said.

"Thousands of people are without clean drinking water," she said. "And not just drinking water. So many people live in homes where they can do nothing but flush the toilets with their water. They have to purchase water for the sake of washing dishes, cleaning laundry, showering; everything you have to do in a day."

The highly mechanical nature of mountaintop-removal mining also reduces the number of available jobs, Franko said.

"At least in the past the underground coal mining would bring money into the area because so many people would be working there," she said.

She visited one of the new mines, with its leveled mountain, and found out that only nine people worked on it, she said.

"It's not even bringing that much money into the area," she said.

As a native of Floyd, Va., Franko has been interested in mountaintop-removal mining for a long time, she said.

"We don't actually have mountaintop-removal," she said, "but I do understand the lifestyle in many cases, as well as the importance of the landscape and the Appalachian Mountains in my hometown."

Although her work in Kentucky is in its beginning stages, Franko said she hoped her report would give the community connections to people all over the world.

"It would be the ability to collaborate and not feel isolated in their troubles," she said.

There is always the possibility that her research won't go anywhere, Franko said. She and her group will need to make sure that they have the right support, and most of all, that the communities want the report and want to contribute, she said.

"We're really hopeful about it and we see the power in it, but it's going to be a huge undertaking," she said.

Franko and Fan studied abroad in the Council on International Educational Exchange's globalization and development program.

Franko's work in Kentucky is affiliated with the Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange, or ENGAGE, a network of alumni who studied abroad in programs that dealt with social justice and human rights issues and wanted to continue that work upon returning home. It provides the alumni with opportunities to apply what they learned abroad to the United States and around the world.

Contact reporter Guv Callahan at

Support independent student media

You can make a tax-deductible donation by clicking the button below, which takes you to our secure PayPal account. The page is set up to receive contributions in whatever amount you designate. We look forward to using the money we raise to further our mission of providing honest and accurate information to students, faculty, staff, alumni and others in the general public.

Donate Now