08 November 2008

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


Sarah said...

Your homestay experience sounds so rich and definitely a learning experience about the way of life in Khon Kaen! Also, I think you pose a really interesting question at the end of your blog; the question of if it will be crucial in the future for those in slum communities to have to pick vegetables on the side of a highway, or if their lives will be so changed by urban development that they will no longer rely on natural resources. This is really interesting, but I think of the fact that though there has been substantial urban development thus far, there still exist those who rely on the land and the resources. Here in Morelos, Mexico, corn and land are two things that are crucially important to the rural people, and they will fight tooth and nail to protect both. It is indescribable how important these elements are to the lives of many Mexicans, and so in this sense, I wonder how important these natural resources are to the people of the slum communities on Khon Kaen. If the resources and way of life of the people there compares at all with the passion the Mexicans have for their land, I hope that even if there is more urban development, the people of Khon Kaen still get the right to fight for what is important in their lives; whether it be picking vegetables on the side of the road, or fishing in the permanently flooded rice field.

Dan Masciello said...

The development of rural cultures is a fascinating phenomenon. While you point out how these “city dwellers” still pick vegetables, go fishing and scour the earth for delectable crab, one can’t help but assume that in some amount of time in the future these practices will be obsolete.

I agree with your contention that these semi-rural practices help sustain the livelihood of these urban communities. I also agree that it helps make attaining a decent standard of living possible. When these resources, for whichever reason, are destroyed, these families who already struggle to make ends meet will acquire this additional burden.

Sometimes it seems as if we are bearing witness to a great human travesty- we have literally sat and talked with the government agencies and corporations who have grand plans revolving around the continued development of the Northeast region of Isaan. I can’t help but wonder how “natural” this kind of development is and how the future of our world will be shaped by it.