29 March 2009

A Voice for the Marginalized: A Tale of Community Strength

In the process of writing a Human Rights Report my fellow classmates and I lived at Na Nong Ban village in the northeast region of Thailand. We had recently been informed of a possible human rights violation. We decided to hear the villager’s stories first hand and live with them for a few days. Before arriving at the village we visited the Tungkum Gold mine located just 4 Kilometers for Na Nong Ban. We heard that the villagers were being negatively affected by the gold mine and wanted to get a broad perspective on the issue. After leaving the goldmine we were questioning if there even was a human rights violation because the company seemed to have all the answers. But as soon as I stepped off the van I began to understand a very different point of view.

Na Nong Ban is situated around a lush and dominant mountain landscape. Most of the people living in the village have sustained themselves off this land for many generations. The villagers of Na Nong Ban depend on this land to grow rice or gather food from the local vegetation to feed their families. Presently their way of life is being threatened by the construction of the Tungkum Gold mine. The local landscape has been dramatically changed by deforestation and the blasting of mountains. The production of the gold mine has polluted the water ways that the villagers once depended upon and made the food near their homes unsafe to eat. Furthermore, villagers have experienced negative health effects such as rashes, fatigue and general weakness from being in contact with the water.

There was a sense of fear in the eyes of the people I spoke with at Na Nong Ban. For the past two years the villagers have not been able to drink the water in the local streams. The vegetables used for traditional ceremonies may not longer be consumed for the fear of toxic contamination. Erosion and floods of rice paddies resulting from the blasting of mountain tops during mine constructions have caused the average rice yields to decrease by nearly half.

In the past 2 months water tests done by local universities showed that the water was unsafe for the villagers to use in their homes. Purchasing water outside of the community is very expensive for these villagers who previously never had to pay for outside water or food. The community members of Na Nong Ban are forced to take on new occupations to support themselves and their families. There has been no help from the local government to supply the Na Nong Ban community with a sustainable and alternative water supply.

In times of uncertainty the community at Na Nong Ban has come together to fight for the rights they know they deserve. Since the construction of the mine 2 years ago, the villagers have formed an exponentially growing organization known as “The people that love their land.” Over 1000 member from surrounding villages have joined Na Nong Ban in their mission to gain justice. In an effort to become more organized the group has been collecting water test records that show the raising levels of toxic chemicals in their water supply and present before and after photographs of the changed landscape. Their first demand the villagers have for the government is to have a sustainable clean water source. During our visit to the community, the villagers all traveled to the local government office to protest against the mine. Both male and female leaders demanded that the government take responsibility for not protecting its people. Most importantly the people of Na Nong Ban asked the government to supply them with free water.

It was pretty amazing to see how our new friends have stood up for what they believe is right. The severity and time sensitivity of this issue has left the community with out many options. It has pushing the community to get organized fast. There is passion seen throughout the village to save the culture that they know and love. As inspired as I am to be apart of this movement, I worry about the future. The corruption within the power system here in Thailand has led me to believe the government will allow the mine to continue destroying the local habitat. At the very least the villagers must be compensated for their lost livelihood. In the mean time…all of us at CIEE will continue to spend sleepless nights writing Human Rights reports in an effort to get the “voices from the margin” heard!

Tany Horgan - University of Massachusetts Amherst

6 comments:

Margaret Doud said...

Dear Tany, This is a beautifully written and moving account of the human rights issues facing these people. Ty had told me about your group's experiences there, but your overview of the situation was so well written I hope it gets wider publication than this blog.(A newspaper back home perhaps?)Kudos to you all for the work you are doing! I know in light of all that you see it is discouraging and hard to imagine that what you are doing will make a difference, but have faith. Every wave in the ocean affects and is affected by every other wave and therefore the ocean as a whole. What you are all doing is so important! Thanks! Blessings to you all. `Margaret (Ty's mom)

Tyler Jackson said...

Tany,

I agree with my mom. This is extremely well written and touches on a few issues that resonated with me. The one that I wanted to respond to was the contrast between the companies voice and the voices of the affected villagers that we spoke with. It is so natural for westerners like myself to associate economic development with the promotion of human rights. This is a result of the capitalistic direction that the world has been moving which relies solely on GDP and other economic indicators to determine a State's international power. Thus when the company spoke to their production numbers, profit, and benefits to the community and country, it was difficult to see the wrong in their actions.

But when we left the company and began living and exchanging with the villagers living less than 1km from the mining site, the issues presented themselves quite clearly. The violations which you covered quite comprehensively in your piece appropriately describe the blatant violations that the company is committing and the government is ignoring. It is upsetting to know that such strong international forces are what have influenced the State to value GDP over basic human rights.

I do believe that economic development can coexist with the protection of human rights. But this requires safer, more sustainable practices that give a higher value to human rights and dignity.

shayne t! said...

you may have heard about the ESCR US Engage project that fall 2008 CIEE students sparked (http://engagehumanrights.blogspot.com/) the idea is to write human rights reports with a few communities in eastwern kentucky who have been affected by mountain top removal mining for coal.
just recently i went with a few other engagers to kentucky to talk with folks who have been affected by mountain top removal. the parallels between na nong ban and these communities are unbelievable- the displacement of people, water contamination, and definitely the disconnect between coporations/politicians and and the affected communities.

keep fighting.

Evie said...

I’m reading your blog entry two units after we worked so hard on that report, and I’ve been reminded of how moving Na Nong Bong’s story really is. I think it’s really powerful how we have become so invested in the work we’ve done here this semester. For me, it’s a new experience to do work that actually matters. Writing papers for a political science class about gender roles in some country that I’ve never been to is not a meaningful or memorable experience. Here, we write with a purpose. We write to change peoples’ situations and to inform the world. I’ve been really inspired by the passion I see in the writing of other people, and even myself. You’re piece is beautifully written, and it’s obvious you care a whole lot about your subject. I can’t wait to get back home and start writing papers about things I care about, too. I’ve seen how powerful the written word can be. In the Gold Mine case, especially, our words are powerful since it will hopefully be a powerful legal tool to hold the Tungkum Ltd and the State accountable.

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