08 March 2009

Through the Lens

Over the past couple of weeks, I have learned about the struggles that various communities deal with in terms of access to resources. It was quite eye opening to live with people who had to fight for basic resources, such as water, electricity, education, and health care. In terms of my recent experiences, what does privatization mean to the poor people of the world? What does it mean to the rich people, the middle class? Are the various dynamics found in society affected similarly or not? The topic of privatization seems to be a very complex issue and it is, but when looking at it through a small scale lens, it becomes much more focused and defined.

I have been in Thailand for a little less than 2 months, and every community that we have spent time with is affected by the issue of privatization. To date, the CIEE Thailand program of spring 2009 has spent time with a fairly diversified mix of Thai society and families. Our first homestay took place in the province of Loei. We stayed in a village at the foot of these majestic mountains, climbed through an enormous cave, and learned about the struggles of this small but strong Thai village, Nong Jahn. Nong Jahn lives on land owned by the government. They have lived there for over 50 years and legally deserve to live on that land, but they have no paperwork to prove it. The government wishes to re-locate this village. The government’s motives are questionable, for this area is pristine and the caves are breathtaking. If this small community is re-located, the land could be privatized and a tourist attraction would be established there. In this instance, the push for privatization would seriously infringe on these villager’s basic human rights. And for what, allowing private corporations to make huge profits off of a natural resource that the people of Nong Jahn rightfully lay claim to? If anyone uses this natural resource to generate profit it should be the people of Nong Jahn.

Another prominent example of the effect of privatization on the poor is the issue with SRT land. The state railroad company in Thailand (SRT) has an immense network of railroads around the country of Thailand. Along with these rails, there is a sizeable amount of land that communities with no other place to live have begun to call home. The SRT currently is operating in the red and is struggling with huge amounts of debt. There is pressure from the government to operate efficiently and profitably. In order to do this, SRT has considered renting their land to private businesses, which would pay top dollar for their prime real-estate. So slowly businesses have been taking pieces of this land and at times forcing communities to move. These communities, always struggling with stability and basic access to water, electricity, education, and healthcare, are forced to live in a very unstable situation because SRT is choosing private businesses over them. They have made it very difficult for these communities to establish permanent lease agreements and even refuse to speak with these communities directly. Since when was it okay for a government to forsake its people?

Of course the list goes on and on. When looking at privatization, often the poor and underprivileged people are considered expendable. Their welfare is at times sacrificed for big business and development. But let us look within ourselves and ask where the justice is in that. How can one rationalize taking away a person’s basic human rights in order for a business to create more money, or stimulate the economy? Where do we draw the line?

-- Samuel Newman, Pennsylvania State University


Melissa Strype said...

Thank you all for these interesting insights. In response to many of your entries on privatization, discrimination, and land, I have run into similar issues here in Cuernavaca, which I would like to share. Though my internship with a human rights organization here, I’ve learned that the PAN government in Cuernavaca issued a law about a year ago that restricts when and where indigenous artisans can sell their products in the city. This effort to place limitations on these people is because there is a plan here to reduce the informal sector of work like street vending, because it evidently gives off an image of poverty to foreigners. Some have suggested giving the indigenous artisans uniforms to wear so that they look more official and formal like institutionalized stores. The government also offered these venders the option of work by painting the street and making $40 pesos each day as opposed to the average of $700 pesos they make each day selling on the street. There is a clear and blatant ignorance of indigenous rights in the creation of these policies in Cuernavaca.
In response to Elizabeth’s and Margo’s entries on educational opportunities, the schools in Cuernavaca also discriminate against the indigenous people as well. When indigenous families go to register their kids in the schools here (Because there are none in other places like Guerrero), their papers say they are indigenous. Sometimes, this indigenous label helps them because it gives him permission to inherit ejido and communal lands. However, most of the time, like in this situation, it harms them because upon seeing their indigenous status, the officials will say there is no space available for indigenous kids to go to school in the morning. Instead, they have to attend school in the afternoons, which leaves these kids doing nothing in the morning while their parents are most likely working. Therefore, they have no choice but to sell crafts and products in the streets during the mornings while they are not permitted in school. This, therefore, perpetuates the “problem” this administration has with public spaces for selling crafts.

Ben Pounds said...

Mexico's a tricky example because in terms of land issues. After the revolution they came up with the ejido system, which gave land permanantly to specific peasant families. There used to be laws against them selling land, but that's changed. I'm not so much against the ability to sell ejido land, although I've heard at least one man claim this week that he's been coerced in various ways (his neighbors have built a series of checkpoints to avoid any invasions). Essentially they're trying to build a landfill, which will, interestingly enough, drain down to wells in poorer and indigenous communities.

On a different note: People here seem to have grabbed land in an unplanned fashion. Some of the ravines here have essentially become slums because they were uninhabited before, and "humildes" (as we say here in Mexico) saw that no one lived there. There are some advantages to this system. In some ways they're more connected to the main roads (even if they have to climb stairs) than people in the U.S. However in terms of waste disposal, these people are just barely above where the sewage is dropped into the river, and have less means of accessing garbage trucks. Cuernavaca's physical geography and human geography combine to make an interesting lens through which to see the world. Actually, it's several lenses, as different people say different things.

Kim G. said...

"If anyone uses this natural resource to generate profit it should be the people of Nong Jahn."

I completely agree. This issue reminds me a lot of what Ben has already mentioned: ejido land that used to be strictly community-owned but can now be sold into private property. It may seem like the people that are now able to sell the land can actually benefit, but in what a representative of the US Embassy in Mexico called "a world of winners and losers," the "winner" is always the person/company that takes advantage of a poor family and buys their land for less than it is worth.

On the other hand, I have really been inspired by a few "success" stories here in Mexico. For example, in an indigenous community called Tepoztlan, some developers wanted to build a golf course with a helipad and resort, but the people of the community were able to keep them out.