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