30 April 2009

Walking the walk, one step at a time

I have said for years that I refuse to be the little liberal leprechaun jumping around screaming for change. I like the imagery. What I mean is this: I am weary of criticizing the current system without envisioning an alternative. The problems we are seeing are very real. Globally, the income gap is widening; 358 billionaires control a total net worth of $760 billion—equal to the combined net worth of the poorest 2.5 billion of the world’s people. The planet’s resources are being consumed at an alarming rate without thought to environmental limits. Traditional livelihoods are being destroyed in the name of economic and industrial development. Cultures are being clear cut and paved over to build a consumer monoculture superhighway. These problems—and countless others that keep me awake at night—are not isolated incidents of carelessness but the product of a ideology generally accepted as the solution to the world’s ills. The credo of economists, politicians, corporate leaders, and anyone deemed to be credible by the world’s elite is growth, free trade, and no regulation. Say it three times. To denounce neoliberal ideology, free trade, is heresy in the circles of people who run the world.

The people who realize the lethal fallacy in this way of thinking can’t afford to lose. The majority of the world’s population is not benefiting from development policies; in fact we are spiraling into a world very different than the one we envision. In order to slow—if not stop—a global system that doesn’t work for the majority of its inhabitants, it is imperative that we not only speak out but also act. We must work to create the world we envision. We must work together to enact a positive form of development.

Many communities that we’ve visited in Thailand are doing just this. They are protesting destructive forms of development in which they are denied a voice, and working to develop the people and culture in their communities while working sustainably with the land. In Yasothorn, villagers are organizing under the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) to support organic sustainable agriculture. They are creating innovative and creative ways to support the people in their communities in the difficult transition to organic agriculture. Villagers are provided with hands-on, community based training, learning new techniques from each other. Rather than the establishment’s view that these forms of agriculture are antiquated, they are looking at new technology and integration systems to enrich their soil and increase yields sustainably. They are educating community youth about traditional practices and positive ways of living, using intergenerational pass-ons and interactive methods.
The focus on developing the potential of community youth is integral to this positive development. In Udorn Thani, the Youth Group of the Conservation Club is organizing to protect their way of life against the development of a potash mine. Two young people we spoke with from this group are getting their university degrees in agricultural science and business in order to form a company that sells organic fertilizer after graduation. The Iron Ladies of the Conservation Club train community members in sustainable livelihoods. This group has networked with other villagers across the Northeast and in other countries in order to form a coalition of people working to preserve and progress sustainable development. These networks that form out of collective struggle are an innovative and modern method of social organization that will be essential in the future.

Working and living with these communities has offered me an alternative view of development. Villagers are not anti-progress nor anti-development. They foresee a productive future based on the development of human potential and social values. Where before I had only books and theories to fall back on in my opposition to destructive development, I now have a foundation of knowledge that will inform my future struggle for positive change. I am intent on working to perfect my vision of positive development and to fight to further this vision. I will continue speaking out in my opposition to injustices, but I will also speak out about the solutions I see. These solutions are grassroots, building the strength of communities from the ground up. We can enact change together.

Hannah D. Clark - University of Michigan

Collective Coffee, Collective Problems

I'm an American-born college student who is privileged to spend a semester abroad in Thailand studying development issues. My apartments in Thailand and in the U.S. have electricity, air conditioning, and running water. In the mornings, I like to stop in the local mini-mart and buy a box of chocolate milk. The electricity powering the computer I'm typing on may have been generated from one of the many gigantic hydropower dams along the Mekong river and it's tributaries. Those dams may have destroyed the fishing livelihoods of villages living downstream from the dam. I'm not sure. Sixty-six different types of minerals (and thousands of tons of soil and rock) have been extracted from the earth to make the computer I'm using to type this blog. The chemicals used in the mining process may or may not leach into the groundwater and affect nearby communities; again, I'm not sure. My chocolate milk box says Thai-Danish on it, but I'm not entirely sure what that even means or even where it came from. My current understanding of my role in development is as a consumer, more confused than not.

I know that when I go back to Tulsa, Oklahoma where I go to school, I will opt to support local businesses, as opposed to giant, mega, box stores. Here too, my role is to use my dollars to vote for small, local development. But in the back of my head I'm still torn: is voting with my wallet still buying into the current system? Is there another way to opt out?

I think that the world is at a critical threshold. World trade is plummeting, shareholders are ousting corporate board members, and tax dollars are propping up corporations that would otherwise fail. In short, the economy is headed for the crapper. A lot of people are suffering because of short sighted policies made by the perverted wedding between corporate America and the government. Wallets are shrinking, and banks are more hesitant to give out small business loans. So how does this affect my role in development? My theory in a nutshell: A world plagued by global problems would do well not to pursue "global solutions". Development that centers on the locality of a place is becoming more, and more important.

My case in point: my favorite coffee shop in Tulsa, The Collective, had to close on April 06, despite "struggling against the downturn in the economy." (www.thecollectivetulsa.com) It was some of the saddest news I've heard since my time in Thailand. It's so frustrating because local businesses are exactly what we need, but we're caught in a catch-22 of sorts. The Collective was only one of the few coffee shops in Tulsa that used local, organic products as much as possible, as well as Fair Trade coffee and teas. Now I have to bike the extra two miles to the Coffee House on Cherry Street to get my dose of Fair Trade coffee; but what about the people who don't or can't? What about the demographic that's opting out of Fair Trade because of the same downturn that closed the Collective?

As much as development needs to be specific to a locality, it's also connected to the larger world. My biggest fear is that in this "economic downturn" people of different localities may be pitted against each other. Like the Tulsan buying free trade coffee to save a few cents, and the Fair Trade coffee bean grower in Guatemala who has seen sales drop. Development needs to foster that solidarity between localities. And so, community ties must be strong in the coming years. As a student, I will work to develop and maintain those ties within and between the university and the city of Tulsa.

Jenny Hardy - University of Tulsa

29 April 2009

Fighting the Mega Project

“There is no justice at all,” said a grey haired member at a recent exchange with electricity-grid villagers. He is referring to EGATs plans to create a new mega power line, which will run through Mae Non community. “The government didn’t talk to me, they just informed the headman and then began to mark our trees,” he continues fervently. This is not a unique situation. Many of the villagers feel they are lacking participation in this situation. They express deep worry that the government takes advantage of them because of their lack of information. They complain, rightfully, that their suggestions are never considered. “We had to go to EGAT to ask about what they would do with our land,” says a young female community leader. “The government didn’t talk to us; they tried to hide the project from us. They didn’t give us details because they were afraid that we would resist.”

The government was not wrong in this assumption. After seeking out their own information, from other communities, like NGOs and village organizations, the villagers of Mae Non show strong resistance to the building of a new power line across their land. “[The government] tried to corrupt us with money and to divide us. They told us that we needed to sacrifice for the ‘greater good’ of the country,” the community leader continues. As loyal Thai citizens, and as Buddhists, the notion of the ‘greater good’ has created a sense of moral defiance within villagers. However, they are aware that the government is asking them to sacrifice too much. “A majority of the people who will benefit [from this power line] are the investors. Those who will benefit least have to sacrifice the most,” shouts an older woman from the back.

The woman is not wrong. The Mae Non community will not reap benefits from building a new power line. There is already a power line on their property, created in the early 1970’s, from which they receive electricity. The new line would contribute to Thailand’s reserved energy sources through bringing down electricity bought from Laos.

Upon completion, the mega power line will infringe deeply on the livelihoods of Mae Non villagers. Plots of land containing power lines have many limits. “There are restrictions on the things you can do to land around the power lines,” explains the headwoman. “[V]illagers are required to ask the government for permission before growing or building on land with a power line.” The presence of lines on a property also restricts any planting directly under the power line and prohibits growing tall trees 15m on either side of a line. For a village such as Mae Non that already is home to one power line, the presence of another could make much of the land unusable due to regulations. Furthermore, the land is nearly impossible to sell because the government owns the area directly beneath the line. The man with grey hair adds, “We feel our rights are taken away because we are constantly controlled by others.”

Cultural rituals are also at risk. In the coming months this village, like many other rice producing communities, will partake in the rocket festival. During this centuries old tradition, farming communities congregate to set off sacrificial rockets into the sky to ask the gods for rain. In the years since EGAT built the first power line, Mae Non villagers have had to practice extreme caution setting off rockets on their land. In the creation of another line, the community will be unable to set off the traditional rockets safely.

The government, although they have not out rightly stated it, knows the repercussions of building power lines. The power line is mapped to avoid rubber plantations—because the costs to build on them are very high—and land owned by investors. Instead, the line will cut across the rice fields of small communities.

Offering preemptive compensation also alludes to the government’s awareness of the consequences of creating a power line. Some villagers have signed up for the government compensation plan, but have not yet received their share. Many others feel that monetary compensation will not make up for their loses. “Even though they give out compensation—that is a one time thing—after that we have lost our rights forever,” says the headwoman. The grey haired man chimes in, “we depend mostly on the land. When our children grow up they will still need the land—no matter how they chose to live the land will finance it.” With the sentiment that the situation would be irreparable, many villagers—with the help of a local conservation club—have submitted court cases, suing EGAT. The villagers say that they hope to close down the project and do not want monetary compensation from the government. “We are not fighting for lots of money or for our community only. But we are fighting for other communities in the future to be able to fight back too,” says the headwoman. The community is not only fighting for other electricity grid communities, but the many communities, which will suffer from the mega projects that will be fueled by the electricity of the power line.

“If we can stop the power line then the potash mine Non Nom Boon will probably stop too. All of us, we are fighting the same big project.”

Perla Bernstein - University of Wisconsin-Madison

On Roles, Consciousness, and Activism

In the sweltering sala within the village wat, P’Suvit attempts to shed light on issues of social responsibility and consciousness building that students have been struggling with throughout the progression of the program.

Prior to meeting him, certain key items about him were made known to us. One, he had shot a man. Two, he can expel rant upon rant on the pitfalls of capitalism. And lastly, we have been advised that to truly comprehend his responses sometimes we must trust that his tendency to speak on divergent topics is his way of helping students to understand the complexity of the issue.

For any individual, the task of providing the answers to questions surrounding these issues is an overwhelming one. Our questions are far-ranging: What exactly constitutes as positive and equitable social change? And what is our role in this world of carefully placed and volatile power lines, structural adjustment programs, and dog-eat-dog neoliberalist ideology? Furthermore, how do you adequately address the expansive needs of students from diverse backgrounds, the majority of whom have had few to no levels of previous organizing experience and some whom may not readily identify as activists?

In considering this, I believe P’Suvit chose to address social consciousness in terms of a constantly developing process that is as much internal as it is focused on observing the external. “The first step is to develop an inner-consciousness,” says P’Suvit. “The next step is to act on that consciousness”.

Understandably, this can be frustrating for students who wonder, “Well, exactly what kind of consciousness are we striving to develop?” In this sense, it is not clear whether P’Suvit was talking about a political or moral consciousness, but presumably, it could mean that the two are inherent to one another. According to P’Suvit, the concept of right and wrong becomes obvious if one observes the way power is structured. One only has to look at the way decisions are made by authorities to see where their favoritism lies, and as this is a persistent trend on a global scale, what kind of conclusion can we draw from this? The evidence is there. We only need to keep interrogating it.

How this consciousness is to look like is no finite idea. It is dynamic and constantly evolving. When I think of this and what P’Suvit has said, I can’t help but remember my friend’s (and fellow activist) advice from back home: “Consider the challenges before you as a way for you to perfect your personal methodology for dealing”. I can’t help to think how true this is, especially now.

Muriel Leung - Sarah Lawrence College

Learning the Word Enough

“You can’t call it development, it’s damage!” an Iron Lady passionately voiced. Her words of honesty linger through my mind, leaving me with one question. What is development?
This unit we have been studying various development schemes, such as potash mining in Udon Thani in the North East of Thailand. Meh Boon, my mom during our home-stay, is an Iron Lady. The Iron Ladies is a group that united in protest to the potential development of a potash mine under their villages. This mine would be the first potash mine in Thailand, as well as the third largest potash mine in the world.
Potash is a mineral widely used to make chemical fertilizer. As of right now, Thailand imports all of their potash to supply farmers with this destructive and expensive chemical fertilizer.
“For people who join our group, we do organic farming and support people to stop using chemical fertilizers and return to organic fertilizer” an Iron lady explained one of their methods of protesting the potash mine. Self-sufficiency is crucial in fighting the government and large companies.
However, this potash mine, according to the Thai-Italian company is considered to be, “risky, but a better life for all.” The Thai-Italian company is a lucrative company that supports large development schemes in Thailand. Thai-Italian has never built potash mines before, but ensured CIEE students in their extensive presentation, that they have created a well thought out design for the mine.
Would it really be a better life for all? These villagers have been asked to sacrifice their quality of life to support the quality of life of the wealthy. This mine would only benefit the investors who are directly developing the mine. It would also increase the dependency of local farmer’s use of chemical fertilizer, as one of the main ingredients would now not need to be imported.
The increased use of chemical fertilizers would be disastrous. The chemical affects on the remaining fertile land would potentially destroy the eco-system.
“This issue may not seem big for people who are looking down at the issue, but for people who live off of nature, it’s a huge issue.” P-aew.
Throughout this semester, I have been exposed to the affects of big development schemes that support my life back in America. Up to this day, the way I have lived my life has been unconsciously supporting destruction, rather than development.
At first, with this newfound awareness, I questioned myself among others, how we could stop this kind of development, but I soon realized that the real problem was over-development. So how can we slow it down?
Suvit Gulapwong, an NGO who works closely with the Iron ladies, among many other activists enlightened me from a Buddhist perspective, “The word enough”. In a culture that values more as better, I easily forget to practice such a simple concept. Every individual’s “enough” will be different, so it has to be determined by the individual practicing this way of life. It can’t be pre-determined or written as a set prescription. It needs to have honesty and commitment.
To me, development should be looked at as development of people, not development for people. I think education should encourage personal growth by providing students the tools needed for growth. It should support the process of becoming self-aware so humans can eventually become socially conscious. Ultimately, if we can rely on ourselves, we can reduce the needs of technology and infrastructure.
Sometimes, we have to step outside of our environment to actually see ourselves. Learning about development in Thailand has been a lens to see the way I live my life and my role in development.

--Piper Harrington, Lesley College '11, Holistic Psychology

22 April 2009

Changing Development

The earth around my adopted family’s home in Rasi Salai sits parched. The presence of water in these former wetlands is no more than a memory. The construction of the Rasi Sali dam dried the wetlands and blocked the river for migratory fishes. The loss of these two important pieces of the local ecology has led to the loss of the livelihoods of the villagers of Rasi Salai. Traditionally, the wetlands supplied the villagers with large fishes that they could survive off of and trade with for any other additional wants or needs. Yet at the government’s insistence the Rasi Salai dam was built for the purpose of generating electricity.

The construction of the Rasi Salai dam is part of an overall goal of the central government to industrialize Thailand and join the ranks of advanced economies. During European colonization of East Asia, leaders of Thailand adopted policies aimed at rapid industrialization in an effort to compete within the emerging global market. To this day, this goal has remained at the forefront of Thai policy with Thailand’s 10th Development Plan. This plan has pushed the development of dams along the Mekong River for the production of electricity to feed the region’s growing urban areas and industries.

Communities all over Thailand have experienced the negative impacts of development projects similar to Rasi Salai. The central government's interest in rapid industrialization has led to the drafting of policies focused on development solely focused on economic benefits at the sacrifice of traditional livelihoods. Without a space for communities to participation in the drafting development projects their needs will continue to be ignored and their livelihoods will continue to be the price of industrialization.

What is needed is a different approach to development. This new approach needs to begin with a validation of traditional livelihoods. A development model based on equality can not work if the government views traditional livelihoods as backwards or as barriers to progress. Only until the government begins to view these livelihoods as legitimate as “modern” urban livelihoods, can a fair developmental policy begin to be drafted.

The government also needs to have a space for communities to voice their needs, concerns and thoughts. Their voice needs to be listened to the same validation given to the representatives of corporations and industries lobbying their interests. What villagers offer needs to be then incorporated in whatever policy the government creates. Only a forum based on equal representation can produce legislation which does not marginalize populations.

There is external pressure for Thailand to develop. As foreign economies grow they are able to extend influence and control over Thailand. It can be argued that this is reason enough for Thailand to continue to industrialize. It is not a question whether to industrialize or not. It is a about finding a model of development that is inclusive and incorporates the needs of all parties involved rather than a historical few.

Lukas Winfield -- Portland State University

14 April 2009

Catching More Fish Together

During my last homestay, at a village in Rasi Salai in Ubon Ratchatani Province, the villagers invited all of the students staying in the village to go fishing with them. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had some image of sitting in a boat, or perhaps standing on the shore, and casting a line or a net in and waiting to catch something. In reality, however, a huge group of us began the process by wading through waist-deep marshy water, pounding the water with giant sticks in an attempt to drive the fish towards a circle of nets. Afterwards, we all climbed into this blocked-off area, pulled up all of the plants growing in the water so that the space was clear, and then went through the area with handheld nets to scoop up the fish. The effectiveness of the process depended not on any individual’s skill at catching fish, but rather on the enthusiastic commitment of a large group of people to the entire process. Everyone took part in the fishing activities, from young children to elderly grandmothers, and even the most awkward and unskilled American students. At the time, I merely thought of this fishing excursion as a fun activity, but afterwards I realized that a lot of what made the experience so enjoyable was this focus on the community, on creating an environment in which everyone can contribute and all of these contributions are essential to the success of the whole group.

This way of thinking is also evident in the ways in which the villagers organize and work to defend their way of life. The people living in this village have struggled with flooding of their fields and increased salination of their water as a result of the Rasi Salai Dam. In the past, when the villagers felt that the situation was intolerable and the government was not listening to their concerns about the dam, a large number of people attempted to remove the dam and to dig a tunnel by hand through which the river could flow on its natural course. The tunnel was not completed, but the point was made and, when the villagers were arrested, their large numbers prevented the government from being able to impose the trials and harsh sanctions that they otherwise would have faced. Villagers across the Northeast recognize that the government is not particularly inclined to listen to one or two villagers in the way that they might listen to one or two businessmen, but if they come together in large numbers to protest, then the government needs to notice them. This sentiment has been echoed by villagers throughout the semester, and is probably a large part of the explanation for the close links between villager networks. With regard to dam issues, villagers are very aware of the many other people who are negatively affected by dams. In our conversations with villagers near Rasi Salai and in Ban Khum, a village on the Mekong River which is near a proposed dam site, one of the themes that came up frequently was the idea of learning from the villagers affected by the Pak Mun Dam. These villagers launched a powerful ongoing protest movement against this dam and now work with other communities affected by dams to share strategies and experiences. The villages we stayed in emphasized communication and coordination among themselves and with Pak Mun and other villages affected by these issues.

When we spoke with the villagers around Rasi Salai, they did not tell us that their goal was for the dam to stay open, allowing the river to flow its natural course. They recognized that there were other people who supported and benefited from the dam and who would be hurt by this outcome. What they want, explained some of the female leaders within one village, is the opportunity to have a voice in deciding issues of water management. In the current political system, communities like these are rarely included at all in a decision-making process that affects their lives and livelihoods, and the government often appears to make choices to value and assist one group within the political process at the expense of others. The villagers’ idea of fishing (and also of organizing) may offer a new idea for how this system could work: allowing each person or group to play a significant role in the decision-making process. The most successful final product, according to this philosophy, is not the result of any individual’s abilities but rather of the commitment of the entire group. If it works for fishing, maybe it could work for policy making as well.

Meghan Ragany - Georgetown University

10 April 2009

Without a Purpose

The villagers living along the Mekong River in the Ban Koum area were recently told about the plans for a 100 billion Baht (2.25 billion USD) dam to be built near their community. This dam will affect approximately 10,000 people in 50 villages. The funders of the project, the Thai-Italian Development, ASIA Corporation, never consulted the villagers about the plan. The electricity from this dam will supposedly be used in Thailand, but the companies currently have no plan for where it will be distributed. The dam is being built solely so the company can have an investment in the stock market.

I do not understand why this company is permitted to build this dam without a planned purpose. The government is certainly aware of the unsuccessful dam projects of the past, and the destruction they have caused villagers and the environment. As a result of the hundreds of dams already constructed, thousands have been forced from their homes due to flooding inability to fish and sustain their livelihood, culture, and sustenance (all basic rights outlined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which Thailand signed in 1999).

Ban Koum is home to the mystical and religious snake-like creature, the Naga. Every October, with the end of Buddhist lent, fireballs fly out of the Mekong into the sky. The Naga is said to be the creator of this phenomenon. Thousands of Thais and tourists come every year to see the event. Naga is the protector of the people. Every year they perform a rite to protect their crops, animals, the river, and the villagers. The Naga has not always lived in Ban Koum, but is now there because of river destructions in other places. Ban Koum villagers explained that if this dam is built, the Naga will leave yet again; leaving the village unprotected.

Moreover, dams decrease biodiversity and ecology; increases water temperature, sedimentation, erosion, and salinity, among other effects. I am bothered by the favoring of economic issues over social and health impacts and food security. During our stay in the Ban Koum area, one villager said, “I don’t think there is any benefit. It will destroy both sides of the river. Where will people grow their crops?” Recently, the villagers asked the government about compensation if their homes, farms and fishing abilities are affected. The villagers want to know if it will be permanent or one-time compensation. The government wouldn’t answer them. “If you calculate how much food we get from nature every year, it might equal 90,000 Baht, but if the dam is built, 90,000 Baht is what you get [to last] the rest of your life . . . This village was officially [formed] in 1858. Can this be compensated? You can talk about dam benefits but I don’t think it’s worth it.” A lost livelihood and a lost culture cannot be compensated, especially in monetary terms. Also, the government will not give any compensation to villagers without land titles; opening up another complicated and saddening issue (that is for a different blog post).

Villager participation is crucial if there is to be any change and justice in this world. Who better to make decisions than the people who will be directly affected? The Ministry of Interior held a meeting with ten villagers from each village to talk about the project. However, the villagers express that they do not have enough information to decide whether the dam is good or bad. Moreover, the government keeps telling the villagers that the project is for a weir, not a dam. That’s also what the villagers of Rasi Salai were told, until at 14-gate dam was built (the Royal Irrigation Department still refers to this enormous structure as a “weir”). Villager participation is useless if they are misinformed and if their opinions and concerns are disregarded. For now, the project is delayed due to a vague order from the governor which could be repealed at any time.

--Sarah Robinson
Case Western Reserve University

No change without a voice

I think I’m beginning to understand the root of many people’s problems here in Thailand. It is clear that there is a significant divide between political theory and the conservation of culture within State policy. In prioritizing economic development above social development, the government is a serious threat to the ways of life of millions of people.

Ban Kuhm has been an established village for over a century and a half. The people of Ban Kuhm fish in the waters of the Mekong River. On the sandy banks, they cultivate gardens in time with the seasonal rise and fall of the water level. In the mountains nearby, they gather herbs and vegetables.

The Mekong, ancient and powerful, gives life to the region. Now, there are people who would harness that power. There is a plan to block the river’s flow with a weir or dam to convert water current and pressure into electricity, which in turn generates profit. Such a project is designed to benefit society by powering homes and businesses and creating a reservoir for the farmers who face drought in the dry season of Isaan.

Ban Kuhm will not be among those who benefit from the dam. With the river flow blocked, the water level will rise, drowning their crops and possibly flooding the village itself. Along with the terrain, their way of life will be changed forever.

Why does the State continue to create policy without concern for the way of life of the people most directly affected? Ideally, those people would be allowed to voice their concerns when it came time to make decisions. Without access to a political forum that is equal to that given corporations, however, the government is able to essentially do as it pleases.

It seems the government does just that in many cases. Many of the dams we visited had been built before Social and Environmental Impact Assessments were completed. Those responsible knew the dam would cause a great deal of controversy and alter many lives for the worse, yet the projects were pushed forward because they knew it would take villagers years to form groups and mobilize in protest, if they ever did at all.

Some villages stand up. Across Thailand there are NGOs who have dedicated their lives to helping communities raise their voices to the highest powers of State. These individuals work by finding strong communities facing serious problems. They join with these villagers and give those movements momentum by training villagers how to argue for their rights. The idea is to fortify the community, giving them confidence that they can push back against a government that completely overlooks them.

To me, the most memorable community exchanges our group has involve at least one villager who has dedicated him or herself to a cause. Such commitment is inspiring. There is real strength in those villages. It is the source of their resilience when things turn dismal, as they often do.

I fear for the villages I’ve never heard of. I often wonder, for every one strong village, how many more have already succumbed? How many traditions have been lost, and communities scattered?

I think there are some who see little difference between conserving their culture and developing their community. Should it not also be the responsibility of the government to protect those people’s choices?

I’m not sure this is an easy problem to remedy. Certainly, there is no easy solution. I think, however, the best way to start is to give all sides equal footing where policy making is concerned. There are still voices going unheard.

Luke Rampersad -- Swarthmore College

Information Exchange

Most of my conversations in Thailand with homestay families have revolved around the fact that I come from America; I do not want more rice, and that I have a curious interest in integrated agriculture, all of which cannot be expressed in more than a few key phrases.

I have found value in unspoken connections and relationships, but during Unit 4, for the first time I had the privilege of making a spoken connection with a family. My first night in Bon (Pong?) I met Paw Boonkong.

Remarkably he can read English fluently. His aural skills are not as strong and most of the time he can understand a word if it is spelled out loud rather than spoken. While exploring the Mun River we had a conversation, in both Thai and English about how the Mun River floods. How it destroys the paa taam [community wetlands] yet increases the amount of fish in the river.

He asked if I knew about the Mississippi river and Hurricane Katrina. I told him I am moving to Baton Rouge in the fall. I told him that the Delaware River floods my home every year.

Through out the rest of the homestay our conversations were something I looked forward too, and judging by what he told the three students who lived with him, he enjoyed as well.

After swimming in the Mun River he brought several of us students to where a motor generates electricity. He told us about the negatives and positives of the dam. He talked about irrigation and how it helps the farmland, but the river flooding leaves no place for cows to graze.

I had read about these issues in my reading packets. Professors had lectured the group about these issues. But I had never experienced firsthand what it meant to hear it from someone who was living it. No translators. No formal exchange setting. To hear a villager explain the contradictions made my learning experience more real.

The last night I spent in the village, Paw came to my house and again we struck up a dialogue. I brought a reading packet over to him and together we read the human rights report for Rasi Salai, the dam that had affected his community.

He pointed at photos, and named the villagers. He knew everyone pictured. Word by word he read the report out loud, looking over at me for minimal clarification. Mainly I pronounced words, or provided synonyms.

The experience was powerful. The issue of water and development, and loss of livelihood had resonated so deeply with me, and to hear it read aloud from someone who experienced it on a daily basis was incredibly moving.

When he finished, Paw turned to me, “Kop kune kah Ajaan Melissa.”

For the first time since I arrived in Thailand I wasn’t just extracting information from everyone I met.

Melissa Garber -- University of Massachusetts

The voices of villagers echo in my head. Days, weeks, or months after our conversations their words—from exchanges or just from conversations that I’ve managed to have in my barely functional Thai—resonate just as strongly, or more, as when I was actually experiencing them. And when after each week I come back to the university, the more I try to communicate their experiences to others the more I realize that changes in their way of life, their culture, and their livelihoods are best communicated from the source. Working on the Human Rights Report made me realize how exclusive legal language and academic discourse can be for the people actually experiencing those issues, and how this language barrier is partially responsible for the disconnect between villagers and their representatives at both a regional and national level.

As a result of their words, and the strength of my experiences with villagers, I’ve started to think about how their words can be communicated to others. I’ve started to think more than ever before about systems of education, and the ways learning can be facilitated (or exist entirely) outside of academia to empower communities. Academic and legal discourse is isolating, A few nights ago this topic came up in a conversation with a regional NGO that works with communities affected by dams. In various communities surrounding the Pak Mun, Rasi Salai and Hua Na dam projects, villagers are being taught how to research and collect data on their own experiences, and how to find information on other forces that are affecting their lives. This information will be used to inform the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) being conducted to access the affect on dams on communities and their way of life. Protests themselves also serve as a form of community empowerment and self-learning. People are encouraged to think about and learn how to vocalize their stories and their demands.

I was floored by this idea…how by facilitating community voices to be heard knowledge becomes inclusive, and communication of the issues becomes possible. I’ve always thought the role of NGO’s and writers was to hear peoples stories and then to give them a voice in some sort of way. And while in some cases that is true, I think my envisioning of how this should be done has changed. NGO’s role seems to be to teach and empower villagers to research, interpret, and vocalize their experiences. Villagers should be provided the tools, and the language, to narrate their own experience to others. Once verbalized, these experiences should be given a space to be heard by others on the local, regional, and national level (to both governmental and non-governmental actors). NGO’s should facilitate networking with other communities and movements facing rights violations around the world.

People have already started. Paw Som Baht in the Land Development Community takes a bus to Bangkok twice a month, trying to communicate issues of land rights to various ministries. Paw Mai in Na Nong Bong takes pictures of people with visible health problems, starting to collect evidence for a potential court case. Other local leaders collect documents, test result, and keep records of all letters sent to them, and that they send themselves. Meh Die in Ban Poon takes us on a tour of the river and flooded lands, pointing out and speaking (slowly and patiently in Thai, as we struggled to understand) how and where the lands have been flooded after the dam, and how as a result villagers have been displaced and land has been lost.

As we near final project time, I’m starting to think of our role as students. More specifically, I’m starting to question how our role in the academic community and our experience over the past semester facilitating each other’s learning can be brought to the community level to empower villagers and facilitate community learning.

Rebecca Haverson, Muhlenberg College

Both Sides of Dams, on Both Sides of the World

Even before I came to Thailand and began studying human rights violations in Thailand, I was excited for the Water Unit. My dad works in the power industry in the US, and I grew up hearing about dams. I visited them, toured them, knew people who worked in them, took numerous vacations on reservoirs, and even had several mugs in my kitchen emblazoned with pictures of the different dams my dad has worked at. I grew up hearing him sing the praises of dams, and so I was excited to discover that my program in Thailand would be examining dams from a different standpoint. While I knew the ways dams benefitted society, I has heard little about their impacts apart from how they interrupt salmon spawning pathways. Needless to say, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when my van left the CIEE office and began the long drive to Ubon Ratchathani and the Mun River.
Our group stayed in two villages while in Ubon. The first was Ban Kum, a beautiful fishing village on the high banks of the Mekong River which did not yet have a dam but was preparing for one to be built. The second was Rasi Salai, a larger village surrounded by farmland and located farther a distance from the Mun River which has been experiencing the effects of dams since the early 1990s when the Rasi Salai dam was built. While in these villages, I hunted for red ants with my Mae, watched my Paw fish in the Mekong, helped irrigate my family’s rice field with water from the Mun River, and experienced a small part of the lives of the people in these villages. Through several dam tours, exchanges, and a boat tour down the Mekong River, I learned how the dams impacted the livelihoods those living in fishing villages, how it flooded fields and precious wetlands behind the dam, and decreased water flow downstream making it hard for villagers to irrigate their fields.
As someone who was interested in understanding the negative impacts of dams, this experience was very enlightening for me. But what struck me the most was actually different than I had anticipated. The hardships of the villagers touched me, which is why I was almost more angered by the information I discovered about the productivity of the dams in the region. As it turns out, the Pak Mun and Rasi Salai dams produce far less electricity than their projected capacity. These huge, multibillion baht projects that have ruined the lives of hundreds of villagers in the region don’t even work, and the government has big plans to increase the number of dams in the Mekong and Mun River area!
I appreciate the benefit of dams because I see the way they do benefit people in the area of the US that I live in. In the Pacific Northwest there are over 150 dams, but they are built in regions with low populations where people do not rely solely on the river for their livelihoods. Before the dams were built there were careful EIAs. After completion, the productivity of the dams are regulated. Protests about environmental impacts, especially salmon spawning, have been received and new legislation and projects like fishladders have been established as a result. While I certainly don’t think that these dams are the best way to produce power in the region, they do work. But in areas such as northeast Thailand, where population density is high, livelihoods are linked to the rivers, EIA and SIA research is maybe not done as well as it could be, and villagers have to protest for years before the government will listen to their concerns, I think that dams are not a good way to provide the region with electricity. More dams in the region will just worsen the problems that already exist. I think it has been interesting for me to see how dams can be effective in one area and incredibly destructive in another.

Melissa Munz -- Whitman College

What is CIEE-Thailand?

This program is about the common person of Thailand. How do things like "development" or "globalization" play out in the lives of Thailand's poor? Sit down with villagers, share a meal, and step into the process of active learning.

This program is about development and globalization. Who benefits from these systems and in what way? What is the role of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization? What can our role be as concerned and committed global citizens? How does the way we live affect others? Is another way possible?

This program is about community, organizations, and about hope. What does or can "community" mean? Why do some communities organize and struggle together for justice? What role do NGOs play in such a process? How has the Assembly of the Poor provided a framework for long-term social change?

And this program is about students. Be ready and open to learn from those who have come before you. Understand the work of past students, involve yourself in it, and pass it on. Be ready to not only engage in Thai society, but also with fellow students in your group. By receiving, incorporating, and then passing on information, the program's work with communities and the issues of social justice strengthens, grows, and deepens.