10 October 2008

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


Spencer said...

I remember being equally as perplexed as you are when P’Jit Kaiya Ma said that EGAT “builds the environment”. I think it essential in understanding the goals of Thailand’s industrial development plan. They seem to think that development in the way that the West has developed in the last 50 years is the ideal development plan. This involves changing the natural environment instead of changing ourselves. It seems that, especially in the case of EGAT, they still see the natural environment as something that needs to be overcome whereas the sustainable way to approach the situation would be to study natural ecological processes and learn from these. I don’t think the problem is that there is a lack of plastic-lined fishponds, but instead that we feel it necessary to have plastic-lined fishponds. It seems that the natural environment was just fine without these. There is already a “green movement” happening in the United States, where people are looking at natural ecological processes and trying to change ourselves to adapt to these processes rather than change those processes themselves. If only EGAT and the government of Thailand would look towards this new development trend instead of the old destructive trends of the past.

Ari said...

I think that much of this negligence stems from the fact that these mega-projects rarely affect those that plan and implement them. Even villagers we've encountered have a hard time understanding that the benefits they might experience from a development project might negatively affect their neighbors just a few kilometers away. During our exchange with villagers living near the Hua Na and Rasi Salai dams, I was struck by a conversation between two men, one of whom was pleased with his new-found ability to harvest rice twice each year, while the other man explained that because of the Rasi Salai dam, his land is so flooded that he can no longer grow rice at all. "The good impact [of the dam] is much greater than the negative," the first man said. "My rice field is flooded," the second man explained. "Everything is flooded…Since these dams were built, I can no longer make a good living." I know that for me, this conversation put a face to the negligence and detachment we've heard so much about. I've realized how important it is for all of us, villagers and government officials included, to think about the effects these mega-projects have not only on the environment, but also on our fellow human beings.

Emma Htun said...

This incident really illustrates a problem that is ubiquitous across the world - the fact that governments just do not listen to their experts. Even in the United States - which has a high concentration of think tanks, private institutions of academics in nearly every field, and more "special panels" formed each year than you can shake a fist at - tends to bend actual facts to fit their policies.

You're right when you say that Ministry officials probably don't know much about ecology and environment...which is ironic considering they ARE the Ministry of Agriculture (I mean, there should be SOME standards of background...). Its frustrating when you consider the place of academic experts and 'advisors' in any government administration - they're precisely so that even if government officials are better at administration than having a body of knowledge it'll be okay. Unfortunately, whether its due to bribery or just pure stubbornness in thinking that they are more intelligent than academics...we'll probably never know.