09 December 2008

Human Rights and Beyond

    The striking thing was not the poverty or their problems. It was their dignity and their ways of working together, whether in the home or as a community. The poor do not need sympathy, all they need is support. We were supporting them by taking the time to learn something about their lives, both good and bad, about struggles and joys. The picture that is painted of poverty is false and two-dimensional it does not illicit what is truly needed, which is empathy. Its not about feeling guilty or having more or less. Its about understanding and helping one another as much as we can, in anything from the daily chores to writing a human rights report or even just sharing what you’ve learned with family and friends.  

    What villagers have to say is no less credible than anyone. They are experts on their lives and their struggles. Academics are knowledgeable on their level, but that only extends as far as their experiences. If they have not spent time living with the poor they cannot talk about the lives of the poor. They may be capable of talking about societal structures and oppression, but the words will always be void of life. There are no people. If there are no people then there’s no point. The oppressed are a faceless, lifeless mob, as are the oppressors. At the Thai Baan Research Center, Paw Somgiat said, “EGAT can fool anyone whose here for a day. You only see one moment in time, while we are here living with the problem.” They are the closest to the knowledge, they are the poor and within their realm they are the most credible.

    Being with them has changed me. It has had me examine my fears and my stigmas. Again I am overwhelmed each time by the dignity and warmth with which they live, yet they are still struggling. They are struggling for legitimacy not only as sources of knowledge, but as people that deserve to be treated with fairness and as equals. Their interests are not considered nor is their voice. As students who wish to learn about their lives and their struggles, we are helping to legitimize their voices and their fight through spreading awareness and taking action. 

    NGOs say that their primary concern is educating people about their rights, letting the people know that they deserve fair treatment. Human Rights are not given power by international law, they derive their power from the dignity which is innate to all people. Human rights is a common language that gives voice to this dignity. With this language all people regardless of community, issue, nationality can communicate and stand together to claim their rights, united in the struggle for the recognition of their legitimacy as people.

    However, human rights is not an end. It is a step. Without human rights, justice is not possible. There are still divides between people and in order to heal we must be able to speak on equal terms.

Alvin Sangsuwangul - Pomona College

07 December 2008

HIV/AIDS in Thailand

HIV/AIDS is an issue that has been around for quite some time in Thailand. Though it has recently taken a backseat as a result of numerous improvements, it is still an issue which needs a sincere amount of attention. Our group of CIEE students spent the day talking with Thai Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS (TNP+), where we learned all about their methods of HIV/AIDS education, their company, its goals, and procedures for helping fight a battle against HIV/AIDS.

We learned through readings and discussion with TNP+ that perhaps the largest reason for the spread of HIV/AIDS in Thailand is prostitution. Our group spoke with many members of TNP+ who contracted the disease through intercourse with their spouse. In general, their spouse had cheated and had a sexual relationship with a prostitute who was HIV positive. This is the most common way to contract the disease, with drugs being the second most popular method of contraction. Formerly, in the late 80s, early 90s, it was estimated that about half of all the prostitutes in Chiang Mai were HIV positive. Seeing as many people often have to travel to the cities for work or in order to find work, they will leave their wives for extended periods of time and then “miss their wives” which causes them to seek other means of satisfaction, as we were told by TNP+ members. They then return home to their wives and have sex thus passing on the virus.

Upon hearing this, my first inclination was to think how stupid the men must be to never wear condoms especially when having sex with commercial sex workers who have sex for a living. I then thought twice and realized that the HIV/AIDS education is lacking and the stigmas for those who have HIV/AIDS are horrendous and sweeping incorrect generalizations. The people of Thailand are often completely uneducated or undereducated about HIV/AIDS and believe that it’s safe to have sex without a condom as long as you really love your partner. Although education has gotten better and people are learning, it is still hard to make up for all the years of lack of education and years of people fearing to get close to anyone who is HIV positive.

When you understand the history of HIV/AIDS in Thailand and how far they have come it is not surprising that people do not understand how to interact with people who are living with HIV/AIDS. For example, as we learned from readings and discussions with members of TNP+, the original slogan for HIV/AIDS in Thailand was “If you get AIDS, you will die.” With these messages being distributed by the government, it is all very clear why the people of Thailand would not want to interact with people living with HIV/AIDS. That being said, it is important to see how much Thailand has grown since the time of that slogan. For example, the government sponsored slogan is now “If you get AIDS, you will live” which is a stark contrast to the original. Additionally, the HIV/AIDS awareness has increased and the media has started to advertise safe sex and other positive messages that no longer condemn those with HIV/AIDS, but show that they too, can live a full life.

That being said, there is still a long way to go. With drugs being another big issue in Thailand, there are still more actions that the government could take to secure the future safety and security of the people. For example, needle exchange programs would greatly benefit the people of Thailand. More importantly, however, for those living with HIV/AIDS who contracted the virus through drug use, they are not being allowed access to the appropriate healthcare. In all, Thailand is being remarked as a role model for other developing countries when it comes to the fight against HIV/AIDS for the remarkable progress it has made. Although Thailand does deserve all the credit for the actions taken to fight HIV/AIDS, there is still much to be done as far as eliminating stigmas and providing the appropriate forms of healthcare. There is much to be said for groups like TNP+ however, that spread HIV/AIDS awareness and help those living with HIV/AIDS know and obtain their rights. Indeed groups such as TNP+ have the power to continue the current trend in the right direction providing a hopeful future for Thailand’s HIV/AIDS population.

Suzanne Haggerty - George Washington University

Going Home...Is Building Community Even Possible?

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to make some sense of the units we’ve studied and to identify some of the ties between villages we visited. For me, the most important parallel between all of these villages is the strong sense of community they seem to develop. It’s not a realization I recently came to, but a topic that I came to Thailand hoping to learn more about. I never expected to be as moved as I have been by the relationships villagers forge with one another. During our home stay in Kambon Noi, the landfill community, it was difficult to tell which of the many people coming in and out of our house were actually family. The families there relied on each other for daily survival, helping each other scavenge for recyclables to sell. At the exchange in the evening, I noticed that the women in the village acted more like sisters than neighbors.

It’s difficult not to envy the strong bonds that villagers share. My family moved into a housing development a few years ago, the kind of subdivision with a neighborhood association whose primary concern is how long residents keep up their Christmas lights. We still don’t know our neighbors. Big surprise.

I’ve been wondering why it is that this concept of a strong community has been disappearing throughout America. Why is it that we can join online networks to read about the music preferences of acquaintances living across country, but not take the time to know those who live right next to us? Are we just too busy? I’ve been asking myself “why don’t we have community” when really I should’ve been wondering what reason we have that would bring us together.

There are many reasons why the villages we’ve studied have been able to develop a strong community. Each village was united by a common issue. In Surin, it was farming. In Khambon Noi, it was the dwindling economy and poor health conditions. In addition, Thailand has a rich cultural history. Isaan has a culture that is so tight knit and specific.

But what unites us as Americans? In a nation of immigrants, do we even share a cultural history? In “Angels in America”, Tony Kushner calls America “this great big melting pot where nothing actually melted”. It may be pessimistic, but lately I’ve been wondering if it’s even possible to strengthen communities in our nation that is a heterogeneous mix of immigrant cultures.

And while I know this may spark harsh criticism from many, I can’t help but think race is a part of the dissolution of communities. I’m from a small Georgia town, where racism is still very much a problem. I have seen the way it affects communities and feel like I can confidently say it is a dividing line for many. The college I attend also has its fair share of race related issues which have contributed to a rather disjointed student community. Sometimes I wonder if Thai villagers are able to share such close bonds not only because they share a common issue, but also because they come from a similar racial background.

This blog post probably says a great deal about my faith in humanity, which is another post for another time. Disenchantment is not a pleasant experience. I came to Thailand hoping to learn about how to build community and now I’m unsure of whether an attempt at reconstructing it is even possible.

Lane Eisenburg - Wofford College

23 November 2008

A Life Worth Living

As of two weeks ago, I had met one person with HIV/AIDS in my entire life. He was a habitual drug user who contracted AIDS through intravenous drug use, and I was one of the few people he told about his disease. I tried to support him, to be there for him, but I had no idea what to do. When his roommates found out he was HIV+, they kicked him out of their apartment, and within a week, he dropped out of school and started abusing drugs and alcohol even more intensely.

If he was going to die anyway, “what was life worth,” he told me one night while he anxiously puffed a cigarette. I tried to console him, to tell him that every day was worth living, but honestly, I had no clue how long someone with HIV/AIDS could even survive. TV campaigns with emaciated African children dying in overcrowded orphanages were the only human images of AIDS I’d ever seen. I couldn’t help wondering what would stop him from experiencing the same excruciating reality.

A year has passed since I saw him, but in the last two weeks I’ve spent working with TNP+, I have met dozens of people living with HIV/AIDS, and they’re not dying in a hospital bed. They’re living, working, falling in love, and raising families.
TNP+ member P’Gaw, a tall and muscular rice farmer, told me that when he was diagnosed HIV+ four years ago, he didn’t want to live, just like my friend from home. Only a year before being diagnosed, he watched his first wife die of AIDS. When P’Gaw found out he was HIV+, he hid in his house for months, depressed and afraid, until a female TNP+ volunteer P’Sasi visited him.

P’Sasi, a petite spitfire nicknamed for her sassy personality, is not HIV+, but has counseled HIV/AIDS patients for years. Perhaps P’Sasi knew the exact words to lift P’Gaw’s spirit, but I suspect her joyful smile did the trick. Within a year of her first visit, P’Gaw and P’Sasi were engaged and married. Now, four years later, P’Gaw is the Vice President of the Northeastern TNP+ network.

P’Gaw, P’Sasi, and countless other TNP+ volunteers have not only destroyed my misperceptions about HIV/AIDS, but also have taught me about selfless service and the human spirit. Today I know that PLWHA can live normal lives if they receive adequate medical care. Until P’Gaw told me he was HIV+, I didn’t even know he had the disease. He looks just like any other normal, healthy Thai rice farmer, tanned from working long hours in the sun. The only “abnormal” thing about P’Gaw is that he devotes his life to helping others without asking anything in return.

If I had met P’Gaw a year ago, I would have known what to tell my friend from home: that his life was absolutely worth living, and that HIV/AIDS didn’t have to stop him from finishing school, getting a job, or falling in love. I would tell that if he could find the will to live, he could live the worthiest of lives: one dedicated to helping others just like him.

Alex Robinson - Davidson College

HR and Agriculture

To Whom It May Concern:

We have just wrapped up two weeks of craziness here in Thailand. Some of the other recent blogs may have mentioned this, as it pretty much consumed our lives. Everything else: past papers or projects, social lives, even meals at times, came second to the human rights reports we were drafting. As the time has come to a close, we hope that perhaps just a bit of what we have worked so extensively on, will prove to make a difference is someone’s life.

My team, consisting of 3 other members, have been researching the possibility of human rights violations in Surin Province. The area is beautiful…really, just breathtaking. I fell in love with the province the first time we went during the Food Unit, and also fell in love with the family I stayed with. Our Paw was/is an organic farmer who grows almost all of his food: from rice, to livestock, to fruits, to vegetables, and even peanuts and coconuts. He built his (lovely) home, with his bare hands, and with the wood he used from the forest he inherited from his father. He also built the loom our Maa (mother) and Yai (grandmother use to weave silk. Talk about a self-sustaining family.

This untouched part of the world holds a hazy sort of glow for me. Both the family and the beauty of the area stirred something deep within me. Yet part of what made it so beautiful is the fact that so much of what I experienced and found so touching was the typical life of almost any Thai farmer about 50 years ago (minus the tv and a couple lights).
This is amazing, because to be honest, it is very difficult for farmers to maintain their former way of life in Thailand. Global trends such as capitalism and the Green Revolution, embraced willingly by the Thai government, have severely altered the ability of farmers to be able to make a living off of their land as they once did. The Thai government began in the early 60’s to focus on development, on making its way up the international corporate ladder via international trade and producing goods for export. This, combined with the influence of the Green Revolution, created incentive for Thailand to research its rice varieties to both increase yield and production, and increase its profits. They discovered Jasmine 105, the high-yielding and fragrant rice, which so many of us consume in our homes in the States.

The brand was introduced to Thai farmers everywhere. Add this to the incentives they offerered farmers to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and suddenly the traditional Thai farming system was drastically changed. Farmers switched to harvesting only Jasmine 105, neglecting traditional varieties in the process, as well as neglecting other crops. They also began using chemicals, ultimately degrading the soil, as well as their health. Illness in Surin related to chemicals, as we researched, seems to continue to be a problem.

Our group tackled these massive trends (as have been experienced by most farmers in the northeast of Thailand), and attempted to argue that the government had failed to fulfill its obligations as stated in the ISESCR. Let me tell you, arguing against global trends, against massive things that happened over 30 years ago and whose repercussions continue to exist today, against things that don’t seem possible of changing…is difficult. Furthermore, it was difficult for us as a group to determine what role we even felt they should have played. Sure they made mistakes, but what government hasn’t? And in this case, no one was dying. Was it the private market that was the problem? Or was it the government itself? There was no difficulty in saying that what had happened in Surin was sad, even upsetting and frustrating. But really, when this has happened almost everywhere else in the world…what do you say?

Our group wrestled with these questions as attempted to right the report. The process was long and tiring and more than a little frustrating. Beyond attempting to help people, I know I was also spending hours of time critically analyzing everything from my political views, to my faith, to my practices at home. Was what I was arguing against exactly what I in fact want? How can a beautiful palce like Surin stay preserved? And do we demand that the government be responsible for doing it?

Questions, questions…most of which I still have. Regardless, it is much easier to write a report when you have a face to attach to the issue. And perhaps what has been made even more clear in all of this, is the amazing fact that my Paw in Surin has managed to avoid, if not outright reject, the powerful forces he has faced in the past 40 years. With only a couple gadgets to evidence the reality that modernization has reached Thailand, one might almost be able to believe that he and his family still live in 1940 in Northeastern Thailand. Perhaps my report will make his efforts just a tiny bit easier. Or if not, perhaps it will make others reflect and think about how their efforts can.

Kellyn Springer - Wake Forest University

09 November 2008

Living in the Landfill

I just spent two nights in a landfill in Northeast Thailand. I slept in a community of houses no less than fifteen meters from the gigantic piles of trash, which our tour guide/home-stay mother referred to as “a different kind of mountain.” The people of this community rely on collecting recyclables and selling them to private businesses for their livelihood. The amount of trash that came in, on the one hand, looked good from the vantage point of a community that depends on lots of trash to survive. On the other hand, well I’ll just tell you a story about my only previous experience with a landfill…

I’m from Long Island, NY, which can get pretty rural in some places. About ten years ago, my father and I took down our old wooden fence from the front yard. The town had refused to pick up the old wood for whatever reason so we put it in the back of my Dad’s produce truck and were going to drive it the fifteen miles to our landfill.

I had never been there before and had no idea what a landfill would/should look like. When we got there, I remember being appalled- appalled by the smell, appalled by the site of so much indiscriminate trash, appalled by the massive machines used to lop the trash from one place to another, and, lastly, appalled by the young man’s face that came to the truck’s driver side window. I was in middle school at the time, so acne wasn’t something new. I can still vividly remember this man’s face, scarred and oily and downright monstrous. Like Rocky Dennis in “Mask.” I was ashamed at the way I had stared at him.

After we dropped off the wood and started leaving, my father (very uncharacteristically) said to me “Don’t ever work in a landfill.” He wasn’t saying that it was a condescending job. I think he was just commenting on how it was the cesspool of capitalism.

Maybe that’s a term that I’ve come up with, but this has been troubling me. The goal of capitalism is, in one way, to maximize efficiency. The ways in which it accomplishes this are highly visible- cities functioning with populations in the tens of millions, affordable technological marvels such as cell phones and IPods, spaceships traveling farther and farther out into the universe, the perpetual shrinking of the computer chip, etc. What is not so visible is the ultimate by-product of capitalism- trash.

The landfill community I stayed with in Thailand, Khambon Noi, is a perfect example. The city of Khon Kaen (just a few kilometers up the road) sends all of its trash there, yet Khambon Noi itself lies outside the jurisdiction of the mayor of Khon Kaen. The city is literally severed, politically and regionally, from its trash. How convenient.

We have completed the Human Genome Project. We have put astronauts on the moon and a robot on Mars. We’ve developed warheads that could end ninety-nine percent of life on this planet within a few days. Figure out how to use the sun’s rays to power a television? Check. The worlds largest building (Beijing Capital International Airport) built on top of earth-quake prone land? No problem. But let me get this straight- our best idea of how to dispose of trash is to bury it and/or let it pile up? What the hell is going on here? What are we, cats? I’ve stood on top of one of these landfills, worked an 8 hour day and witnessed thirty or more trucks dumping more capitalist stool. This happens every day.

Have you seen WALL-E? It’s an animated movie about the future, and humans have left our planet for a myriad of reasons. One of the most striking images is that of the barren city which at first looks to have these amazing skyscrapers, only when the camera pans in you see that they are made out of compacted trash. Our global society is growing larger and consuming more every day and there doesn’t seem to be a solution on the horizon as to where we plan on putting all of this waste. I’ll be dead in sixty, maybe eighty years. In that amount of time, I don’t see the current system causing any catastrophic problems. For the rest of you (you know, every human born after August 5th, 1986), choke dee. That’s Thai for “good luck.”

Dan Masciello - Northeastern University

08 November 2008

The Right to Lease

Living on land that isn’t really yours, or being denied access to fair and simple human needs such as water and electricity, or knowing that your education can’t be furthered only on the basis that you don’t have a paper for legal housing registration are common problems for many inhabitants of the slums in Khon kaen, Thailand. The poor poverty levels and bad hygiene lead to poor health, however adequate health is not provided to these citizens of Thailand on the mere fact that they do not posses housing registration because they do not have leasing rights.

Many villagers in Khon kaen have been protesting and fighting to get leasing rights. A couple weeks ago the villagers in aid with the four regions Slums Network marched on the streets of khon Kaen and self delivered letters to the mayor in order to grant them leasing rights. Some communities were successful whereas the others continue to fight. Many of the communities that that received leasing rights we also involved on a big march in Bangkok a few weeks prior to the march in khon kaen. Many community members of the slums say that they will continue fighting till the bitter end.

Take for example, Paw Gahn, he said, “The motivation that keeps me fighting is our children and grandchildren who are living on the land that we have invaded. They will not have any security in life because the land that we are living on does not belong to us. I have been fighting in order to be able to rent this land and make it more secure. Paw Gahn has been fighting for his community; he is 70 years old and still fights with great vigor. He is not sure what the future of this community entails but he wants to live in a secure community and in order to make a community secure people must come together in harmony. He says that, “Happiness will eventually happen if people are living in harmony.”

Like Paw Gahn, there are many. They hope to see their community’s become a place of peace. They want security. They understand that they are intruding on land that isn’t theirs however, they recognize that and want to rent the land so they can be given a housing registration because without such, many social services from the state are denied, limited and or have inflated prices. They believe that they have a right to fair prices on water and electricity and a fair opportunity in education and healthcare. They pay taxes for purchased goods thus they should at least be treated and cared for as a citizen of the nation.

The community members don’t want to leave their lands they have been living there all their life. Their parents died there and they were born there and it is legacy that remains in these communities. They love their neighbors and enjoy community interaction. They don’t want to leave but, they are conscientious of the fact that they are do not own the land that they are living on and because of that they want to be on the right path and lease the land. They want to do things right. That is why they continue fighting for leasing rights until it is granted and they can have equal access to public services. They will do what they have to, to reach the goal

Sara Saavedra - Hope College

Slum Communities in Khon Kaen: Development and the Depletion of Natural Resources

"Two women from a slum community in Khon Kaen pick vegetables from a field located next to the highway. The sign reads 'Land for Sale', and although the women are not the owners of the land, they take advantage of its natural resources to gather vegetables they can eat or sell to community markets."

The United Nations defines a slum as a dwelling that lacks one or more of the following: access to improved water, access to improved sanitation, security of tenure, durability of housing structure, and sufficient living space in which no more than two people are sharing a room. Last week my classmates and I had the opportunity to live with families residing in Khon Kaen slums, and after meeting with government officials, community members, and NGOs, we became more aware of how development directly affects slum residents. Specifically, we discussed how the path of development that the city of Khon Kaen is on right now may ultimately lead to such a depletion of natural resources that families living in slum communities will not be able to maintain their current livelihoods.

It was a Sunday, and my classmate and I were scheduled to spend the day with our host family working on the golf course that neighbored their slum community. However, as soon as we finished our breakfast of Chinese donuts and coffee, some neighbors of ours stopped by our house on their way to work and asked if we wanted to join them. My classmate and I had no idea where exactly we would be going, but we hopped into the cart attached to the side of the motorcycle and away we went. After driving for about twenty minutes and making stops periodically, it seemed we had reached our final destination: the side of a highway?

Our neighbors are just a few of the many urban dwellers in Thailand who take advantage of the wealth of natural resources available even on the side of the highways. During our short home stay with the slum community, we went fishing at a permanently flooded community rice field, saw a herd of cattle marching through the city, and watched our host family gather crabs that would later be eaten for dinner.

Natural resources still make up a large part of the developing city of Khon Kaen, but as we watched our neighbors pick vegetables and other plants from a small pond, we couldn’t help but to notice the huge construction zone next to us that seemed to be paving the way for a new high-rise apartment complex. As more-and-more construction zones are being established, natural resources that were once available for city residence to live off of are being destroyed. It seems that Khon Kaen’s landscape resembles that of Bangkok’s three decades ago, so if Khon Kaen continues its current trend of development, the depletion of natural resources will most certainly continue.

During a conversation my classmates and I had recently with an NGO representative, the representative claimed that slum communities in Khon Kaen live lives that are half rural and half urban. After experiencing the way of life that I described above, I see that this is very true. It is clear that a depletion of natural resources caused by the current trend of development in Khon Kaen would gravely affect the self-sufficiency of slum and like communities.

Yet, will it matter in thirty years if slum communities are no longer able to pick vegetables on the side of the highway? Will their way of life gradually be affected by city development anyway to the point that natural resources are no longer crucial to their daily survival? I believe that examples of slum communities in other large cities around the world are proof that access to natural resources is crucial to subsistence, and in situations where natural resources are not available to live off of, slum and like communities take a hit for the worse. Such may be the fate of Khon Kaen slum communities if Khon Kaen continues along the path of development it is currently taking.

Katie Jenkins - Indiana University

Urban Unit

The CIEE group just ended our final official unit. The urban unit consisted of a slum community home-stay, landfill community home-stay, and a day with HIV/AIDS victims. It was all connected because of the influx of migration toward urban areas. It was really awesome to live with the people and experience their lives. In the slums I went with my family to go fish in a pond near the city. They did not have much success which was sad because that is not just a pastime for them it is a mode of sustenance. My family’s main source of income though was picking recyclables out of trash. They travel all over the city and collect recyclables to redeem at a recycling facility. This has proven to be a relatively sustainable profession for them and they love not having an employer. After leaving the slums I went to live with a landfill community. Here they do a similar job. They pick the recyclable items out of the landfill, which they live right next to. Both communities have been hurt by the financial crisis in that they can’t get a good price for their goods. The collection centers have stopped taking cans all together right now and prices in other goods have dropped as far as 500%. This has made life very hard on the scavengers in Isaan.

Scavengers are not something I have really witnessed at the same degree in America. I know its illegal to pick other’s trash for health reasons or whatever but it’s interesting that people in Thailand are making enough money for a live off of scavenging while people in America are homeless and without a way to make money for themselves.

Today Americans are putting a lot of environmental focus on the need to recycle. This is a costly expense for taxpayers but it is necessary. Recycling can considerably cut down the need for minerals such as aluminum, steel, copper, or even plastics and cardboards. Recycling also gives the consumer the illusion that they are not being so wasteful.

While in Thailand it has really frustrated me that there have not been recycling bins or places where I can gain the illusion of reduced wastefulness for myself. I did not know what to do with bottles and cans. The only bottles I would buy if I could help it would be glass because they were reused and the storeowners would get a redemption refund. What I found while living in the slums and in the landfill community was that some of the trash I threw away was actually benefiting someone and the scavengers were sustaining themselves off of what I had discarded. I did not need to worry about the bottle I threw away because hopefully a scavenger would pick it up and make enough money to feed his or her family that night with my bottle’s help.

All this got me thinking while I was picking trash in the landfill. What would a recycling program mean for Thailand? If everyone was separating out most of their recyclables would there be a way for scavengers to make money? I’ve always thought of government run or private recycling companies taking a large role and picking up recycling as a good thing. But where people are allowed to scavenge and there is a reasonable way to make a living maybe there should not be a large recycling system in Thailand. What these scavengers do is a great service to the Thai people and to the planet through taking our waste and putting it back into the manufacturing system.

Wes Mills - Colorado Christian University

23 October 2008

The Land Unit

The CIEE Thailand “Development and Globalization” program continues to study the issues and themes regarding the human perspective on development and the environment. The third unit focused on issues in the Isaan area of Northeast Thailand, and the relations between river dredging, dam, and mining projects proposed by corporations and the government for irrigation schemes to benefit the country and the people. This unit, the land unit, continued to use an array of different perspectives on development and the environment by traveling and residing in the province of Udorn Thani, researching and learning about the livelihoods of the villagers affected development projects. As CIEE students we were given the opportunity to exchange with communities affected by government-initiated irrigation, electricity grids, and mining projects. We also met with local NGOs, the Ministry of Primary Industry and Mining, a multinational mining company seeking rights to extract potash from under the land of sixty villages also known as APPC and pro and anti mine affecting villagers and groups.

The past week, the CIEE students met and exchanged with different speakers and organizations involved and affected by the issues of irrigation and mining projects, asking questions to gain knowledge through the person-to-person social research human perspective approach. Learning directly from the source of the affected groups or the groups behind the schemes CIEE students are able to get different sides of the story apart from what we could read in texts.

The first exchange involved the communities of Nongbualamphu and the villagers residing along Lampaniang River, those affected by the government initiated irrigation project. The project involved the dredging and widening of rivers, causing the rice fields to be dug up and farmers to loose farmland, vegetation, and buffalo, with out receiving any compensation. The CIEE students met with community leaders, members, and a local NGO, P’Suwit, exchanging information by inquiring the villagers about their view of the issue in which they responded problems of miscommunication between the government and the people and the lack of awareness and knowledge of Thai people. Currently, the villagers are waiting to hear the decision from the court case now in Bangkok, their compensation, and also the end of the river dredging project.

A Villager Describes how the River was Dredged by the Government - Photo By Jackie Fan
Along with affected villagers of irrigation projects, CIEE students exchanged with the community of Baan Paw Liang, villagers affected by electricity towers and high voltage power lines that have been built and will be built more on their land, preventing them from using part of their land, affecting their health, and decreasing land value and property as a result of the power lines occupying their land. The villagers believe that their rights were violated by the government because of their low education status, and the power structure of the government focusing a lot upon money. Some villagers have not received any compensation and also believe in the need to build a strong, informative, and knowledgeable community with a leader to create a voice for the people and fight against the power structure.

By mid-week, we were getting ready for exchanges taking a different side and perspective. Exchanging with representatives from Ministry of Primary Industry and mining showed a separation and difference in opinion between the representatives of the Ministry separately from the representatives’ personal viewpoints. The Ministry discussed mining regulations, Environmental Impact Assessments that are still needed to the completed to continue with mining projects and concessions, mining benefits and the public responses to mining, pro and con groups.

Exchanging Gifts at the Ministry of Mining - Photo by Jackie Fan

Shortly afterwards, the CIEE students exchanged with the Asia Pacific Potash Corporation’s (APPC) public relations manager, a senior geologist, and pro-mine villagers, discussing the positive purposes of the mine, such as creating an opportunity for extended incomes, jobs, other industries, especially development. The pro-mine villager believe the benefits of the mining project including compensation and development will aid the education sector of Thailand, enabling their children to study abroad and see the world. Going into the exchange knowing the costly effects of potash and mining projects, APPC provided geological and technical solutions of the harms on the environment and the assurance that APPC will not back down in the fight against the mining project. Yet the anti-mine villagers, participating in protests against the corporations, and refusing to talk to any party appear that they will not back down and have caused a hiatus in the completion of the project.

Wrapping up the week, students were divided into exchanges between multiple focus groups with villagers whom all opposed the mine for years, including core leaders of the Conservation Club, the Iron Ladies, and members of the Youth Conservation Club. These focus groups emerged in solidarity to form the People’s movements opposed to the development projects because of the long-term environmental effects, lost of livelihoods, and the fear of land subsidence. Meeting with the Youth Club was pleasant to see three teenage members interested in exchanging with us. As we learned about the history and process of the youth club group and their aspiration to follow their parents’ and the Conservation Club, we also gained their perspective of development. All of them saw the advantages and disadvantages, and yearned for development if it brought happiness to their community. They also only wanted “good” development in parts of their society in fear of useless and overwhelming development that results in losing their culture.

In our final exchange for the unit, we met with Mr. Suwit Gulabwong, the primary NGO serving as an advisor to the Conservation Club. He has been working and living in the community for about three years and helped to provide us with a large context of the issues in the area we were studying and also the challenges of globalization in Isaan and in general. He provided us with a lot of information about the grassroots approach of NGOs stressing on the movements in addition to the necessity for an organized, participatory, aware, and informed community or group to create change. This method of movement and its components practiced by the villagers has already halted the mining project in Udorn Thani. Mr Suwit left us all with thoughts on ways of contributing as global citizens to the issues in Thailand and also back home in our communities in the United States. There is a hope and the power of one and the benefit of more to help in understanding each other and actively learn.

Jackie Fan - University of Richmond

A Rebel

With a low ponytail, a wicked looking half-goatee half-scraggly beard, and a dark olive complexion, our first physical impression of Mr. Supad** was that of a traditional Thai drug dealer rather than an NGO spokesman respected throughout Udon Thani province.
Despite our initial perception of him, NGO spokesman he definitely is. As one of the overseers for the Peace and Human Rights Center of NE Thailand, P'Supad has traveled throughout the region supporting people's movements and counseling villages affected by development projects in Udon Thani. "Which villages do I go to?" he laughs. "I have a beat up old Chevy – I go wherever it has the strength to take me."

It became increasingly apparent that P'Supad is not your typical NGO or even your typical guy. It was the clear after our group's first exchange with him present – that with villagers affected by river dredging – that we were on completely different wavelengths. After a lecture on Isaan ecology and the largely destructive effects development projects various ministries were planning would have on it, we began peppering the lecturer and villagers with questions.

"What do you mean, they might put nuclear waste underground if the mine is built?" I sputtered. "And since those contracts are completely government-backed as opposed to the mine being a private enterprise, would potential protests be better heard?" Other students questioned about how he proposed to get information and education about development projects out to affected villagers.

All of Mr. Supad's answers were frustrating – they were whole other questions and topics to themselves. "You must not think that the government is good," he chided us. "Words like 'nuclear' and 'benefits' are not those that villagers understand, and the government won't tell them about it anyways." Problems need to be framed relative to villagers' lives in order to mean anything to them.

He talked about the problems with the governing system, democracy, and capitalism in general: "Democracy is a tool of capitalism." Things like potash, nuclear, and development are all trends fashioned by the current system. The exchange was unlike any other we've had with other NGOs – where we were able to control the direction of the discussion in accordance to the nature of our questions. Here was a man who had his own agenda in speaking with us and was clearly trying to lead us on a certain train of questions.

Where could this anger against the government and the powers of capitalism have come from? What little information we have on Supad's life is interesting and thought-provoking to say the least. The first impression of him being a drug dealer is not too far off the mark – the man started off as a Bangkok gang member and later a drug dealer and gambler in southern Thailand. Even after giving up on illicit activities and turning back to schooling, Supad refused to pick up his diploma from the king (making him appear to not support the much-revered figure) and quit jobs that paid him too high of a salary. Many of his actions show a life against conventional traditions and concepts. These concepts were those that we as American CIEE students had attached ourselves to as part of our lives. A 'democratic' government, a highly economized market world. It was certainly difficult to take ourselves out of that background and perspective.

However, the group went back to Supad in our last exchange of the unit trying hard to absorb and ask 'big, systemic' questions rather than specifics caught up in the details. Did it help us understand this enigma of a man? Perhaps. While we may now see why people like him in Thailand are wary of working 'within' a governing system as I am certainly more wont to do, I still find the things he says contradictory and strange. For instance, explaining away villagers' exclusion of pro-mine villagers by saying that they have not gone along with the majority decision sounds far too much like the conformity he tries so hard to avoid for comfort. Regardless, I think exchanging with this man has forced us to re-evaluate and think deeply of our own perspectives and values – something that is almost always needed when dealing with such different cultural and political backgrounds.
**name changed for privacy

Emma Htun - Georgetown University

Making Mining Connections Abroad

Mountain Top Removal
(Taken from baldwinbrothers.wordpress.com)

How do the issues I’m learning about in Thailand relate to issues faced at home? As a student studying in an environment so different from my own, I have found this to be a crucial question in my search for knowledge. Udon Thani residents against a potash mine proposed to be built below their villages have been organizing for seven years under the title of the Conservation Club. Coming into the region, I assumed I would see some concepts to which I could relate, given my experience dealing with mountain-top removal mines in coal country, Virginia. What I did not expect, however, was for the different mining practices in the respective situations to create a divide between the issues that created a barrier through which I felt unable to connect issues using my knowledge of the subject.

I did not begin actively fighting coal mining until college, when I learned of another proposed coal-fired power plant in my home region. I felt strangely drawn to the issue, especially when I pictured my home, surrounded by the beautiful Appalachian Mountains and then pictured those same mountains, just miles to the West, with their tops blown off by mountain-top removal.

Mountain-top removal is a method of leveling mountains to gain access to coal that lies in even seams around the mountain. The soil and rock removed from upper portions of the mountains are dumped into the surrounding valleys, thus, polluting or burying rivers.

Because the actual explosion of the mountains uses dynamite, it sends rocks, dust and debris soaring into the air at the expense of nearby landowners. Often, home foundations and wells are compromised from the blasts.

Liquid coal slurry, from the coal-washing process, containing carcinogenic chemicals and heavy toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury is stored behind dams at the headwaters of streams. This has the chance of breaking through the embankment to the devastation of homes below, such as has happened in the past. Moreover, the chance for flooding and erosion around mining areas is dramatically increased due to the lack of vegetation and foresting on the mountaintops after strip mining.

Coal-mining companies claim to bring development, money and jobs to the area, but set up a system where this is impossible. Dynamite does most of the work for the mountain-top removal, so very few jobs are necessary. The money from the mine profits the coal companies, while local families are often forced to relocate due to unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and businesses leave the region.

While mountain-top removal includes removing the land above mineral deposits, underground mining, as seen with potash here in Thailand, involves digging below the surface for minerals and leaving the upper levels of the land intact. Villagers are concerned mainly with three effects of mining: land subsidence, rising salinity in the surface and groundwater, and dust. Udon Thani villagers have been able to provide for themselves off the natural environment around them for centuries with the use of land for growing rice, grazing buffalo, planting fruit trees, and other activities. Some villagers also get much of their water from a local lake. If salinization of the surface and groundwater were to rise and dust were to spread constantly cloud the air, the villagers’ way of life would be drastically altered, possibly forcing them off the land.

Regardless of the special methods used and measures taken by the mine builders to prevent subsidence, villagers have seen the devastating results of other mines throughout Thailand and fear effects will be worse than the company predicts. According to villagers, uneven and abrupt subsidence will logically follow the removal of thousands of tons of potash from the land below their homes; hence, they will constantly feel in danger of subsidence if the mine is built below them.
A pond in Udon Thani was filled in with salty soil from digging in the area. The soil is dry and cracked and the runoff killed all of the fish in a nearby pond. - Photo Taken by Cloe Franko

During the first day of my Udon Thani homestay, I was exchanging with my host mother, a member of the Conservation Club, about her ongoing struggle for her rights. At this point, she questioned if we had mines in America. “Yes, actually,” I responded. “Mining is an issue I care strongly about due to its effects in my area.” I began to describe how I thought I could begin to understand her struggle due to its relations to what I see at home when she interjected to ask whether the coal mining in my area was above ground. When I answered that it was above ground, a process known as mountain-top removal, she immediately disregarded my attempt at describing the situation with a steady gaze and her opinion, “Strip mines are less dangerous than what we’re facing here.”

I was stumped, how am I to respond to this? Should I shut my mouth, or voice my opinions in an attempt to help her understand that I’m not here to compare struggles but to understand her issues and be an aid in any way possible? “I’m going to have to respectfully disagree,” I tentatively peeped, probably reddening as I spoke. I began to impart my understanding that both forms of mining are equally devastating to the lives of humans and the surrounding environment in their own ways, but could sense a bit of hostility coming from my host mother as I spoke. After the conversation ended, I felt like my host mother had taken a step back and distanced herself from me and it took a lot of effort for me to reverse this throughout the week.
How is it that in my attempt to shed light on the fact that issues being faced in Thailand are issues Americans continue to face today as well, I successfully alienated my host mother into believing I felt issues at home are more important than those here in Thailand? In my educational search for connections between issues, am I best off making these connections in my head, or is there a better way to link issues that I have yet to find?
Cloe Franko - University of Richmond

22 October 2008

What is Development? How Can we Regain our Hope?

"Where do we go from here?" - Photo by Emma Htun
Going into the land unit, I guess you could say the expectations of the group were mixed. We’d been through two units before, and were beginning to feel more and more confident with the structure of the week, which eased our minds a little. As far as the issues go, our initial impression was that the main issue we would see villagers affected by was the potash mine, although we soon found out that this unit’s issues would not be so easily confined. Amongst other things we learned of the struggles against electricity grids and dredging, but beyond that, we began to make connections to the past units and realize how interconnected the plights of Isaan villagers are.

As we push ourselves to see things from a “big picture” perspective rather than polarize issues we study, the group seems to be stuck in a pattern of trying to distinguish between black and white, afraid to forge new territory that may not currently exist. In my opinion, to settle for simply black or white is to perpetuate problems that we already see in the world, absolving ourselves of the realization that we have a position of power as a group of well-intentioned students. But reflecting on our group’s perceptions, it is very evident that collectively, we are hitting some sort of emotional wall. Re-addressing issues in light of a bigger picture can easily become a task that is depressing, overwhelming, and discouraging. Our awareness is raised, but our struggle is to utilize the information and experiences here; to be challenged rather than discouraged.

During our last exchange of the week, this very struggle was well articulated and addressed. We each wrote a letter to a person of our choice, explaining our perceptions of issues we’ve studied and how we’ve internally processed our thoughts in response. My letter is as follows:

To Whom It May Concern,

As I learn more about issues of development across Thailand and how they relate to the rights of villagers, my thoughts are pulled in many different directions. I am confused because it almost seems that there is no good answer, or a clear way to solve most of the issues at hand. But I am still hopeful that if more people become aware of these issues, we will value humans more and change can be made. I think it is important to know that most people struggle with rights issues, and we have to find a way to understand each other and work together so that we will all benefit.

While I can’t say that my perspective is entirely indicative of the groups current status, much of what was said by my peers drew parallels to my own insights. Some feel empowered but unsure of where to start; others feel that the burden of villagers and people we’ve encountered is too much to carry; and many people are stuck wondering how and to what extent we should determine right from wrong. With so many elements entangled into the seemingly simple idea of development, it is hard to analyze what we have grown up with. For most of us, we’ve never been forced to address the immediate effects that come with development, because for our generation most of the “kinks” have already been worked out, or at least brought to a point where we accept the changes rather than fight them.

My most difficult questions are these: How can we move past feeling helpless and regain our initial hope and belief that positive change can be made through us? And how can we challenge the information we receive in a positive way that initiates action instead of suppressing hope?

Caitlin Ryan - Northeastern University

How do you Determine the Success of a People's Movement and their Protest?"

Villagers in Udorn Thani that will be affected by a proposed Potash Mine - Photo by Emma Htun
CIEE students recently spent two weeks in Udon Thani province, learning about issues surrounding a potential potash mine that would be carried out by a private company known as the Asian Pacific Potash Corporation (APPC) and endorsed by the Primary Industry and Mining Department of Udon Thani. If implemented this mine could possibly devastate the livelihood of hundreds of villagers. Villagers already feel that their right to community land, their own property, and their rights to be informed about the mining project have already been violated by the mining company and the government.

Currently, the mining project is on hold and the government is in the process of re-evaluating the project to allow room for villager participation in the decision making process, including villager participation in the EIA and SIA (Environment [Social] Impact Assessment).

We had the opportunity to discuss the project with all parties, including the villagers who will be directly affected, the government mining department, the mining company APPC, and pro-mine villagers. We particularly paid attention to the tactics the protesters are using to protest the mine. Because the mine has yet to be implemented, the tactics and methods the protesters are using to express opposition for the mine are different from the tactics that protesters throughout Thailand are using against projects that have already been built and executed (such as the protesters against the Pak Mun Dam in Ubon Rachathani, Thailand).

There seems to be a disconnect within the parties, predominantly within the villagers' movement against the mine. Based on our conversation with the youth conservation club (a club made up of youth who are against the mine), some of us discovered that "the villagers who are protesting the mine have lost respect and trust for the companies and government who are encouraging the mine project." This is understandable since the companies and government originally began the project without acknowledging the villagers nor providing accurate and complete information about the project. Nevertheless, villagers have succeeded in putting the project on hold and even forcing the government to re-evaluate the process in which the project should be carried out. Moreover, it seems that villagers believe that their success in putting the project on hold will continue to be successful, even so much that the companies and government will eventually abandon the project, at least in Udon Thani.

However, the impressions we received from the mining industry and APPC was that the project will continue in a matter of time. Currently any effort by the company and government to negotiate and discuss the project with the villagers have been rejected and declined by villagers protesting the mine. They believe that any sign of cooperation with the companies and government will mean that they agree to receive the mine, and they undoubtedly want to emphasize that they do not want the mine. In fact, protesters have gone so far as to instill fear within representatives of the company by using small amounts of "hostile actions," delaying diplomatic negotiations even further. While the motives behind the protests and negotiation refusals are understandable, perhaps the intensions are unclear.

Did villagers originally protest the mine project because they felt that their rights to information and consultation were violated, or because they did not want the mine? Do they view their success in putting the project on hold as an opportunity to gain information about the mine project and to practice their rights to consultations about the project, or do they see it as a victory in which they have defeated the "mine project" battle and they will continue to fight to win the war, when the government decides to renounce all plans of mining potash in Udon Thani?

The fact is, despite however successful these protesting tactics have been in the past few years, because of a global increase in demand for potash, Thailand still plans to mine potash in the targeted province of Udon Thani. The outcome of the mining project will make Thailand internationally recognized as one of the top exporters of potash and this national benefit is not something that Thailand will easily turn down. Are villagers simply giving the company extra time to polish their project by refusing to negotiate with them? Will protesters continue to refuse negotiations with the companies to avoid cooperating with them and will they have to resort to more forceful "hostile actions" if the company or government retaliates? Furthermore, considering the fact that for every protester, there may be one pro-mine villager, how long will these tactics continue to be successful?

Sue Veerasaeng - College of Saint Catherine

10 October 2008

Discovering Dams: Education through Experience

Education has traditionally been defined as the transfer of information from the teacher to the student. Universities, even lecture halls themselves are structured so that individuals are presenting “facts” to large numbers of uneducated people. On occasion, the traditional educational model will use field-trips to supplement formal lectures, power-point presentations, and research projects. Is this educational model working for you? Have you felt personally connected to the topics and the issues you have studied thus far in you collegiate career?
This past week here at CIEE-Thailand we students experienced emotions and feelings that are all but forgotten at today’s schools and universities. Two distinct, but equally exciting realizations occurred as we completed our study of dams in Northeastern Thailand. First, every student became energized around the idea of changing the current global system that has led to the need for creation of dams for energy and irrigation. Individuals who were not necessarily interested in dams, dam construction, or the effect of dams were still able to seek out what intrigued them, and contributed to group discussions. Every single student ranging from Economists to Environmentalists were charged-up and ready to tackle the issues surrounding dams and the local communities they devastate. 

Along with this newly found desire to be more engaged students here became aware of the positive impact of learning in large groups and utilizing the “group process” educational model. When I say “group process” educational model I am basically referring to studying a subject or theme through the use of a large group. Ideas are circulated amongst individuals, the collective conscious is used, and people learn both from and with each other.

Through collectively visiting and researching dams we as a group combined the interest of 27 people into the overarching ideas of discovery and engagement. Beginning this week, a week we were to be studying dams and river-based communities in Northeastern Thailand individuals in this group of 27 were alone and indifferent. 

Until recently I had never heard the term “group process,” or personally toured a community whose livelihood and culture was destroyed by a dam. Last week, 26 individuals and I experienced education by living with the communities affected by dams, not simply studying them. We had already completed a course that focused on food rights in Thailand; however, our group had no unity, and lectures on dams’ construction had failed to focus the energy of these many individuals. Personal issues were creating animosity within our group, and a lack of interest in the subject matter made large discussions difficult and unproductive. So, we began our five day “field trip” under a cloud of uncertainty. Was this large group education model going to succeed? Does anyone here really care about dams?

One of the first stops on our trip involved interviewing a member of the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). The students had practiced their line of questioning, and were mentally prepared to prod this person’s mind to determine the government’s reasoning behind building dams. For me personally, during this interview is when I began to feel creativity and excitement flow from my classmates. One of the defining moments in triggering our group process was when the EGAT official responded to a question about villagers by saying, “If they don’t understand, we make them understand.” In an intermission break, students began to confront each other and share opinions about the EGAT official’s viewpoint. I watched my classmates begin to unite their individual interests around a single topic. What days of lecturing had failed to produce, a quote had done in mere seconds. Twenty-seven minds bounced ideas back and forth like a pinball machine, and our group finally began to learn together. 

Following the EGAT interview we visited local communities, witnessed heated discussions between those benefited and those affected by dams, and viewed government corruption and exploitation first-hand. Members of our group pursued what topics interested them most, but since we were learning together every person was exposed to everyone else’s thoughts. Finishing our 5 day tour that focused on dams, not one single student was left without a strong opinion, or the passion to learn more. The staff at CIEE was forced to form “hot topic” groups to try to capture the overwhelming energy that our group now possessed. Some students even went so far as to give up their 4 free days to return to the communities we had toured in the hopes of learning even more.

I honestly can say that before I came to Thailand I was content with learning through traditional means of education and within the teacher-student relationship. I struggled with the concept of “group process” to the point were I questioned why I had chosen to willingly come to Thailand and subject myself to this form of education. Reflecting on this past week, I am forced to recognize the power of a collective conscious working together and feeding off itself. I know, and can never be convinced otherwise, that books, lectures, and years of formal education cannot generate interests and emotions like hands-on experience. 

I have been able to better understand myself and the issues I have been studying because of my choice to be involved in the previously described “group process.” I have witnessed individuals who truly did not care about dams become so driven to act that they have given up personal time to further research solutions.

I know the concept of group process may seem unclear to you, and you may believe that “field-trips” are the best way to understand an issue. I encourage you to write me and share your stories and opinions that relate to either learning as a group, or building group unity. What experiences have you been involved in that have really pushed you to act and explore? Do you understand what I mean when I say “group process?” Let me know.

Matt Palamara - University of Colorado at Boulder

Building the Environment

He entered the room with a flash of a smile and some pretty words. A brief presentation later, P’Jit Kaiya Ma, in his standard pink polo—complete with Thai national emblem—entertained all of us (CIEE Thailand students) and our questions on the proposed, controversial Ban Koom Dam.  
The grandiose Ban Koom Dam likely to be built on the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos will cost 2.7 billion US dollars according to EGAT (Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand). This is no small sum considering Thailand's GNP stands at almost 70 billion US dollars in total.  
EGAT mentioned that 47 villages’ homes, livelihoods, and culture to be lost to the dam will be compensated in the name of energy. Of those 47 villages the bloo language is unique to the world, found only in Ta Long village. It of course, will be lost to the dismissal of Ta Long residents from their village after it is flooded by the dam.

The most beautiful part of P’Jit’s whole performance emerged when the notion of environmental impacts surfaced. To encourage environmental progress he proudly decreed, “We will build the environment!”.

Clearly perplexed at the notion of constructing nature, we prodded for an explanation. In his plan to build the environment, P’Jit alluded to projects of planting plastic under ponds to raise fish in one’s own front yard eliminating the need to fish in the river. The logic in P’Jit’s plan seemed almost too perfect to him as he referenced an informational pamphlet on EGAT’s environmental vision.

Furthering the cause, he proclaimed how the upland villages would then be able to farm rice both in the growing season and in the dry season by pumping water from the man-made reservoir to the dry earth upland. While these farmers enjoy the unusual concept of dual rice seasons, the lower villages’ farms (being submerged in water under the reservoir) can turn to their planted ponds of fish, behind cement dikes.  

As I sat there, I didn’t really know how to respond. Should I pity his poor judgment skills? Should I laugh? Or should I be extremely depressed that he finds this practical and that it will probably be implemented? In Thailand, I find that it’s hard to reconcile these thoughts when it comes to environmental issues and the Thai government. The Thai government has a hard enough time pretending to care for its citizens, how it takes care of the environment is essentially negligible.  

I’m pretty confident that the employees of the Ministry of Agriculture either have minimal knowledge of ecology or they simply don’t care. The use of plastic ponds suggests an impressive disinterest in sustainability. Really though, the striking ecological apathy lies in the concept of dual farming seasons. There is a reason people have never farmed during the dry season in dry areas: it’s too dry and unsustainable. Flooding one area—consequently eliminating all possible farming there—and diverting water to another area that normally survives without it is just silly. Who thought this up and said, “yep, we’ve got a good idea on our hands here” ? Maybe they’re being paid off, too.

Implementation of almost all projects we’ve studied thus far involve crucial bribes in order for the project to be carried out. Altering numbers, impacts, and severity are commonplace “adjustments” made in the name of bribes, according to the villagers and NGOs we spoke with. Maybe we can pay them off to plant some trees?

Christi Heun - Colorado State University

Same Mistake

At first glance, it seems as though Northeastern Thailand is learning how to deal with one of the regions primary problems: scarcity of water. Speckling the tributaries of the Mekong River, dams allegedly provide irrigation to Thailand’s driest parts. However, dam affected communities such as Ban Go and Thalong in the province of Ubon Ratchathani have a different side to share about what Dam’s bring—a side often ignored by those keen on development.

Ban Go is a community of fisherman, farmers, and clay pot makers in Northeastern Thailand. Proudly, the villagers live on the Mekong River, withdrawing fish, water, and clay as they please. Their livelihood depends on the Mekong. Downstream looms the Hua Na Dam, all 14 gates still open, but perhaps not for long. When the doors close parts of Ban Go community will flood, pouring many feet of water over their houses, fields, and clay banks. The sections of the village that do not flood will also lose their livelihoods. The fish will not be able to swim upstream to lay their eggs, and so the people must find another primary food source. The wetlands—an environment wealthy with herbs, food, fish, and grass for cows—will flood. Additionally, the water collected in the reservoir behind the dam may eventually become too salty to use for the Dam’s primary purpose—agricultural irrigation.  

One affected Bang Go villager explains the reality of losing his livelihood, “In Issan [the Northeast], people live off the wetlands. Since before my parents time, we have lived this way- we were taught that this is how you survive. If the wetlands flood, what will we do?” 

A short distance down the Mekong, Thalong is also a community of fisherman. Poor, but well fed by, their livelihoods are also sustained by the Mekong River. Plans for a possible dam named Ban Koum are in the works. If built, the Ban Koum dam would cost 100-billion-baht, span over 460 meters across the Mekong, and flood an estimated 280 households (Watershed Vol. 11, 4).

As a student group we visited Thalong village and spoke with the village headman about the future of his community as compared to the future of communities near Hua Na Dam. When the Thalong headman was asked about the negative effects of dams upstream, including the Hua Na Dam, he answered, “Yes, but we trust the government won’t make the same mistake twice”. 

Upon further research, it seems clear that the government may be on-track to making the same mistake again. Less than two months after the Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej cabinet took office, the Thai government adopted measures to turn plans for Ban Koum Dam into a reality. Many of the Prime Minister’s actions bypassed laws and regulations during this process including: signing an international agreement without parliaments consent, signing an agreement affecting the Mekong without the consent of other countries along the Mekong, failing to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), contracting a developing firm without getting it approved by the designated committee, and excluding civil society from participating in the planning process (Irregularities suspected over push for dam, Bangkok Post).

This sequence of actions by the Thai government only strengthens the opinion that some are willing to ignore a Dam’s size, cost, and impact for the sake of “development”. 
However, government officials argue Ban Koum Dam is meant to increase Thailand’s energy supply and contribute to Lao’s income. The Ban Go villagers ask, “at what price?” 

Dr. Carl Middleton, a Mekong Program Coordinator argues, “a healthy Mekong River is priceless” and suggests that “instead of choking the Mekong with dams, it is time that this tired old development model is replaced with one that celebrates the region’s rich cultural and ecological inheritance.” 

Allison Dulin - Davidson College

29 September 2008

"Our Life is the Land"

    I see ducklings following mama duck, green fruits hanging overhead, chickens picking at leftover rice husks; piles of composting coconut shells. Buffalo snort from the stable next door, the smell of cooking chicken saturates the air, and coconut and banana trees intertwine in the canopy above us. I walk humbled and welcomed into my home-stay at Day-lang-thai village in Surin Province, Thailand. We, CIEE-Thailand students, have come to learn and live the ways of villagers who practice traditional small-scale farming. Day-lang-thai and two neighboring villages compose a part of the small organic farming movement in Thailand. The movement urges farming communities to revert back to sustainable, organic, and integrated agriculture in rejection of the dominant form in Thailand, which is mono-cropping and heavy chemical input farming. This organic lifestyle creates communities that value sustainability and community. CIEE students came to Surin to learn what the farmers’ bold direction means for their livelihood, their communities, and their future.

    What I see as I enter my host-family’s yard immediately indicates their diverse forms of livelihood. Our family raises ducks for their eggs, which they eat and sell at the market, raises buffalo, raises silk worms for silk production, farms rice and mills it in their own community rice mill, sells produce from their gardens at the market, and sells their recyclables for compensation. They depend on the land for a living, and instead of abusing and controlling it, they seek ways to work in harmony with it. While they used to farm rice like the majority of farmers in Thailand now, who grow only one crop and use chemical fertilizers in search of higher yields, my family switched to organic agriculture ten years ago with the hope of getting out of debt and increasing personal and environmental health. Now they are fully dedicated to sustainable agriculture and are consequently healthier, happier, and out of debt. In becoming self-sufficient, they no longer have to rely on the government or companies for any outside inputs to their farm. They fertilize their rice fields and gardens with a combination of buffalo manure, chicken feces, and food compost instead of chemical fertilizers. Not relying on outside inputs additionally cuts out the middle man in the rice farming production operation and instead places production and marketing directly in the farmers’ hands. Rainwater naturally irrigates their fields, and they let the beauty of integrated agriculture unfold in the rice paddies. By removing chemical fertilizer and allowing nature to take its course, an ecological balance restores the rice paddies: fish breed, providing nutrients to the soil and controlling pests. Planting certain flower species in the paddies is another natural means to improve soil quality.

    Through experiencing their lives first hand and having exchanges with organic farmers and NGOs in Surin, I learned that communities who work naturally with the land foster strong community bonds. Villagers create networks to support each other and share knowledge about farming techniques and consumer outlets. My family let fellow villagers use their rice mill free of charge, and families in the village often shared food supplies and had joint meals. Through organic farming domestic families remain more intact compared to families who practice mono-cropping, as well. Chemical farming necessitates expensive chemical inputs and hired labor that, over the long-term, generally forces the farmer into debts which he/she cannot repay. To pay off the debt the farmers will sell their land and migrate to urban areas so sell their labor. In these cases the middle generation—ages 18-35—migrate to the cities, causing a major generation gap. Families that farm sustainably, however, have a more varied and self-sufficient livelihood and thus generate less debt, allowing their families to remain more intact than their mono-cropping counterparts.

    In learning about organic agriculture in Surin Provice and other issues throughout the semester, CIEE-Thailand students work through our own community framework to access the knowledge we desire. The program terms this alternative learning model the “group process”, which places education directly into students’ hands. Our main venue for learning during the home-stays is through “exchanges”, where we literally have an informational and educational exchange with an organization, company, or community. While we stayed with villagers in pairs in Surin, we came together as a group of 25 students during the days to plan these exchanges: we brainstormed issues together, generated themes that developed into questions and organized the format and flow of the exchanges. “Unit facilitators” facilitate the unit to lead our planning sessions and facilitate the actual exchanges. In this learning forum the group becomes a vehicle for education—we present ourselves as an organized unit to our teachers, who are themselves organized within a larger movement. Our group process continually grows and evolves—it is a powerful tool where we constantly learn how to negotiate relations with others and learn about ourselves in how we interact within the larger group. I believe we are learning invaluable skills which we will carry with us into our professional and personal lives. We have a rare and rewarding opportunity to drive our own educational experience.

Ellie Jones - Macalester College

28 September 2008

Confessions of a Shopaholic

I have a confession to make: I am a shopaholic! I am a compulsive, impulsive, reckless, irresponsible shopper. That, however, is not even my worst trait. I over pack to the point of obsession: cat ears for the costume party, sequin shirts for ANY event, 100 shirts (just in case!), and the list goes on.

I decided, though, that packing for Thailand was my opportunity to work on this character flaw. In an effort to improve I came to Thailand with a meager suitcase, two duffel bags, a backpack, and laptop carrying case; all necessities in my opinion.

Aside from developing better packing habits, though, Thailand has taught me more than I can ever express. The home stays, in particular, have been humbling and enlightening. While the villagers may have little, their capacity for love, unending generosity, and infinite spirit have changed me in a way that I will forever cherish.

These home stays offer countless humbling experiences, but the best example comes from my last home stay. Five nights and six days and I was captured. I was ready to call home to tell my parents that I was staying indefinitely in a rural village in Surin. The goal of staying in this village was to learn and experience organic and sustainable farming practices; more valuable, though, than learning about agriculture was what I learned about the human spirit.

My home stay family was very involved in silk weaving, as were most of the other families in the village. Each day, I would walk across the street to the silk house where I was encouraged to participate in each step of the silk progression. I was so excited – I had found fashion is a rural village in Thailand! From helping feed the silk worms, to removing the silk worms’ cocoons from wicker baskets, I quickly began to realize how much work and effort goes into the garments that I have taken for granted. Fashion is not simply a finished garment.

Silk weaving, though, is not the only task for these women. The women of this village have many and varied jobs ranging from tending the rice fields to selling goods at the markets, and despite the work they never complain. The tasks were tended to with a smile and a fervent tenacity. Their happiness in the simple things humbled me beyond compare. The silk weaving house became my heaven on earth, my paradise as I marveled at what these women accomplished every single day. On one of my days in the home stay, I walked over to the silk weaving house. One of the women was working alone at the loom creating a length of silk cloth. As I watched her, she started speaking in Thai.

“Mai cow jhai, I don’t understand,” I said, shaking my head. Undeterred, she rose from her seat at the loom and motioned for me to sit down. I shook my head again, “My chai khab kun ka, No but thank you,” there was no way I was ruining her length of silk. ‘No,’ however was not an option and soon I was sitting with my feet placed on the pedals of the loom (not unlike piano pedals), pushing and pulling at the loom to create this length of silk. After a while, I got up to leave, thanking her in the process. It was only then that I noticed she had placed a needle on the silk cloth to mark the place where I had begun. As I walked away, thrilled with my experience, I grasped the importance of that needle. That needle was a marker for my work (heartfelt, but inexperienced) and a marker of how far back she would have to undo the silk cloth.

How can these women have so little and give so much – literally sharing everything with me so that I may learn? I am not saying that this experience has changed my entire persona (I still love to shop!), but it has given me a new perspective. I can’t keep stressing the small things, I need to be more willing to not only learn but to teach, and I can only hope that I do so with half the strength and character demonstrated by these women.

Natacha Petersen - Claremont McKenna College

22 September 2008

Fair Trade - Human Connection

Staring mindlessly at a world politics book, I am easily distracted by the clanking of coffee cups and the gentle patter of the rain. During a minor lapse in focus, I look up at the vibrant photographs of Columbian women laboring over fair trade coffee beans that have somehow made their way into my cup. In a trendy cafe in downtown Boulder, Colorado, the words “fair trade” grace my lips for a quick moment before I return to the manic life of a college student during finals week.

It is near midnight, and I am up late researching in the student activity room in Khon Kaen, Thailand. I recently signed up to interview a leader of an NGO in Surin Province, and I need to understand the nature of fair trade rice. While I can barely keep my eyes open, really want to ask somewhat informed questions, so I press on while I still have Internet access. We will leave for Surin in the morning.

I am excited and curious as I sit in my chair, pen set to take copious notes. Thanya Sangubon, also known as P’Nok, looks earnestly at our group of 25 CIEE students. She is the leader of Surin Farmer Support (SFS), an NGO that works to encourage local farmers to develop and maintain sustainable, organic, integrated farms.

Passionate and convicted, she explains that most farmers in Thailand send their rice to big mills, where they sell their rice for a low price, and then they return home without knowledge of whose mouths they are feeding. After the rice is packaged, the rice is distributed around the country, and mill receives the money. When the farmers sell the rice during harvest season, jasmine rice floods the market, so the farmers only get a maximum of 14 baht/kilo. Large corporate mills like CP give the farmers even less if the rice isn’t of premium quality.

Through the year, the global market fluctuates. During harvest season in November, the price of rice is low, since rice is abundant in Thailand. However, through the year, the price of rice rises steadily, and when farmers run out of their personal stock, they are forced to purchase rice for as much as 25 baht/kilo. This sends farmers, who already spend exorbitant amounts of money on inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, further into debt.

Surin has a very different process of producing rice. The local, organic farmers own shares in Rice Fund, the local cooperative mill. As prices rise and fall through the year, the farmers directly profit from purchases. Rice Fund has importers all over Europe and in San Francisco, which makes rice farming profitable for traditional Thai farmers. SFS supports members of rice fund, encouraging farmers to grow other vegetables and sell locally to make other sources of income. With the organic model of rice farming, the farmers don’t spend very much money on inputs, since they have cows to make fertilizer and the integrated method of farming deters pests and produces excess food.

Fair trade rice production supports farmers who want to maintain their traditional livelihood and practices as farmers. In the rice market, it promotes sustainable, organic agriculture, while promoting awareness of the farmer’s movement. It also brings consumers and producers together, eliminating the middleman as much as possible. It “creates a relationship between people, to create peace in society,” P’Nok further explains. Fair trade helps people understand the issues others are facing around the world.

Back in my apartment in Khon Kaen, I appreciate the fruits my life has offered me. Contrary to the actual act of fair trade, I am neither buying fair trade rice nor eating the delicious organic produce that I ate in Surin last week. However, I do feel empowered. I know that I can be more aware of where my food comes from and help create a process that encourages better standards of food production and helps people. For me, fair trade isn’t a kind of purchase you can make, it is an understanding of how fellow human beings want to live, and supporting them.
Lyndia McGauhey - University of Colorado at Boulder

Building Community - One Vegetable at a Time

Organic farming. Natural farming. Sustainable farming. Perhaps you might find these words on the chalkboard in a university level agricultural class, but in Surin, Thailand they’re starting a little earlier.

Surin is in the Northeast region of Thailand, which is home to 2/3 of the Thai population and is also the poorest region in the country. There are a number of people’s movements that have taken shape in this region in response to oppressive government policies. One such movement is the local, organic and small-scale sustainable farm movement in Surin. Last week, our group had the opportunity to stay in a number of villages in Surin where leaders in this movement live. I was fortunate enough to stay with P’Pakpoom, an enthusiastic, outspoken and dedicated supporter of this movement.

P’Pakpoom is a member of an NGO based in Surin called Surin Farmer’s Support (SFS). SFS works to support sustainable agriculture and community development. One way that SFS is trying to achieve this goal is through educating younger kids in the community about organic and sustainable agriculture. P’Pakpoom, along with other Surin farmers and members of SFS, started teaching 10-12 year olds in the village elementary school, words such as organic, sustainable, pesticides, and chemicals in both Thai and English. They also teach the students crab, fish, snail, worm and other vocabulary pertinent to the natural environment around Surin.
To supplement the classroom learning, the farmers take the students out to their farms to experience life on the farm. I felt a sense of boredom in the classroom – as I’m sure many of us have, especially in 3rd grade – but once we got out to P’Pakpoom’s farm, the mood changed. The kids were so excited to be out on the farm. Smiles abounding, it was quite inspiring to see these farmers giving and receiving so much joy for what they feel so strongly about.

A very real issue in Surin is “the generation gap”. Looking around the village, it is hard to overlook the fact that there are no kids our age. Most of these kids are leaving the villages for Bangkok and the opportunity to make some money in the big city. The problem with this situation is that these small-scale farms and the sustainable communities that they are trying to protect need people to continue this way of life into the future.

Every year, students on the CIEE – Thailand program discuss this issue with villagers. When posed with this question, P’Pakpoom quickly responds by citing the school visit that I was lucky enough to go on. “The goal is to educate the younger generation so they realize they don’t need to go to Bangkok to be happy.”

Along with this local school program, SFS also facilitates a program called Kids Love Nature. Instead of teaching students in the classroom, Kids Love Nature involves a more experience-based model for learning. Every Sunday, the villagers take students out to a local community forest to teach them the local knowledge of the forest. Our group walked around the forest with a number of students in Kids Love Nature to gather fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are used for both eating and medicinal purposes. The students also use the goods they collect in the forest as a source of income to help support the club.

It was quite a humbling experience. To be guided around a forest by someone nearly half your age and shown that you could eat this berry, or that this leaf provided medicinal benefits really made me think about what I know about my own environment and how I should work to change that.

In conclusion, the last week in Surin opened my eyes to a whole new approach to community building. Not only are these farmers working within themselves to promote organic agriculture but they also realize that it takes all members of the community to truly build a community. And I feel that through these educational programs, they are building a bridge between the past and the future that will preserve this amazing community.

Spencer Masterson - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Surin Green Market - Community Pride

The corpse sits at my feet. I hover over it, my hands dirty, and wonder how this all happened. I'm a humanist, I think. A vegetarian, even. So how did I get here?

A few days ago, as I struggled to fall asleep during the never-ending drive to Surin, where I would be spending five nights with a rural Thai family, I rummaged through my backpack, until I landed on my copy of the foolproof CIEE Thailand Fall 2008 program guide. If I can't sleep, I thought, I might as well reread the schedule for the Food Unit, and prepare for the week ahead. For Friday afternoon, the schedule reads, "Return to the village and help your family prepare goods for the Green Market." This market, I've learned from readings and lectures, allows for organic farming families in Surin, like the one with which I'd be staying, to sell their home-grown produce and home-made treats to residents of Surin City every Saturday morning.

It is now Friday evening, and here I am, with my host family's "goods" before me, cursing my program guide, which never mentioned sitting around a fire, de-feathering chickens with my new Thai mom, dad, and 14-year-old sister, Jem. With only one month of Thai class under my belt, I'm still not sure how to say, "Listen, guys, I don't even feel comfortable eating chicken, so I feel kinda weird handling dead ones." I conclude that plucking is really my only option. And so, with three fellow CIEE students plucking away alongside me, I decide to take the plunge, and prove myself to my host family.

The following morning, having washed my hands post-plucking with only cool rain water and something that might have been dish soap, I wake up at four, and catch a ride to the market in a neighbor's pick-up truck, while my host dad stays behind at the house to work, and my host sister and mom drive the family's motorbike. When I am reunited with the women at the Green Market, I see that we'll be selling much more than chicken, passion fruit, ginger and beans.
Apparently I was deemed worthy enough to de-feather chickens, but was left in the dark when the family picked the guava, peppers, bananas and leafy greens that are now on display at my host family's stall. Seeing all this produce, and the fish and chicken my host mom is busy grilling on location, I realize just how much work my host family must put into this market week after week. And, of course, they do it all with a smile, eager to sell their organic, fresh, and delicious goods to their middle-class, health-conscious neighbors in Surin City.

As I watch Jem sell her family's produce, while my host mom sits by the grill, trusting that her young daughter is capable of handling the business end of the operation, I discover that the Green Market is about much more than just extra pocket money for my family, chemical-free produce for urban consumers, and the cultural edification of timid, vegetarian foreigners. This market is about pride, community, and tradition. I see this in the way my family works together to prepare each Friday, and in the way the next-door neighbor sees me as a friend who needs a ride, not as competition. And, finally, I see this in the way my host mom glows, as she tells me (with the help of a translator, of course), that when she grows up, "Jem will be an organic farmer, too." Dee mahg, I think. Very good.

Ari Kiener - Carleton College