29 March 2009

Disconnect Between Villagers and the Government

Today, CIEE Thailand students broke into small groups to start thinking about our group vision for our final project. We were talking about some of the biggest general concepts we have learned/observed this semester. Some of the ideas that kept popping up were the disconnect between villagers and the government – including villagers’ lack of access to government and corporate information and the lack of transparency of these power structures – and the seemingly constant struggle that villagers face to maintain their way of life when it seems that globalization, development, and ‘modernization’ are hell-bent on destroying it. One of my peers posed a question that kind of stopped us in our tracks and really made us think: is it possible to maintain traditional ways of life in spite of these seemingly overwhelming power structures? As people concerned with real development and community empowerment, should we focus on trying to help communities resist the system and break down these power structures? Or is it ultimately better for communities’ futures to start thinking pragmatically and working within the system, resisting power structures when we can but conceding when we can’t?

I began learning about pragmatism in my women’s studies courses at the University of Missouri. One example of pragmatic feminism is that while radical feminists believe the entire system of patriarchy must be dismantled and a new system rebuilt in its place in order to achieve a society truly void of sexism, most of them also recognize that in some circumstances it is best for women’s lives to pragmatically work within the patriarchy for the time being while still always keeping your ‘eyes on the prize’. I was reminded of this reasoning and how pragmatism can pay off during our last unit. We were split into two teams of 15 and given the task of writing human rights reports about two communities: Na Nong Bong, a community facing arsenic- and cyanide-contaminated land and water from a nearby gold mine, and Nong Jahn, a forest community that has been fighting for decades for land rights. I was assigned to the Nong Jahn team. Established in 1965, Nong Jahn village has experienced two forced evictions by the government, the last one in 1991, and has been constantly fighting for their right to own their land. The federal government denies them this right, as well as the right to access the community forest that provides approximately 70% of the villagers’ diet, because Nong Jahn is located within the boundaries of Phu Pha Mahn National Park.

About 15 years ago, the villagers began a different approach to their fight. Instead of focusing solely on advocating for changing the national law that prohibits land titles from being given to people living on national parks, the village began working with the national park staff. They became volunteer conservationists with a “People Take Care of the Forest” program in order to prove to the park staff that they were capable of utilizing and managing the park’s natural resources in a sustainable way that maintained biodiversity. A trusting relationship between villagers and park officials began, and Nong Jahn eventually got permission from the park through a signed Memorandum of Understanding to remain on the land and access the forest for food, though with some restrictions. Nong Jahn village worked hard for years to organize their community and prove their capabilities. Using a pragmatic strategy they were able to work with the park officials to improve their quality of life and feel a little safer on their land.

These positive steps in government relations are not near enough, however. There must be official, comprehensive national legislation guaranteeing villages like Nong Jahn full security of tenure and long-term, secure access to forest resources and means of subsistence. But now when Nong Jahn tries to take on the federal government and these bigger power structures, it can do so with more confidence and a better chance of victory. Nong Jahn worked within the existing power structures, but on their own terms. By working with the local government, they broke down the old system and began a new system of participatory-based natural resource management. When I think about Nong Jahn in terms of the question my peer posed to our group – the question of whether traditional ways of life are sustainable, and if we should continue trying to break down the system or instead work with the system – I realize that it doesn’t always have to be either/or. Maybe, instead, it can be both/and.

Kelsey Birza - University of Missouri

1 comment:

Sarie said...

I think that no matter the direction these communities are headed, it is impossible to block out development. Traditional ways of life will change, its just a question of if this change is powered by the government or the people living in these communities. In the comunities we looked at, most of it appears to be powered by the government and corporations who are unfamiliar with what they are destroying. While there are people within these communities that support these development projects, I believe that most of them have been deceived or bribed by those who stand to make a huge profit.
In any case, I think that whatever the solutions are for these communities, it has to be a both/and solution. With the technology that is offered to us today, globalization is inevitable. The either/or solutions are implausible. The question is if it is possible that globalization can happen in a way that respects and values the rights of all human beings, rather than considering culture and disadvantaged individuals as expendable.