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

6 comments:

Kelsey said...

Hey Meghan,

Your day of “ha blahhing” sounds like a lot of fun. After hearing about your experience fishing with your family it makes me realize how much of community effort goes into the process of getting food for the villagers. I can just picture you out there sitting knee deep in the water slapping sticks on the water to get the fish into a particular area with your meh, paw, neighbors, cousins and friends. The best part is at the end you have the reward to gathering your own delicious food.

Being so connected to the land makes sense in regards to how these villagers took extremes like digging through dykes to get their river back. I especially liked how you mentioned the gender role with in this movement. Putting woman at the front of the protest line puts a lot of pressure and pride into the females of the community. I understand the intention that women are less violent and this probably has a lot to do with the message that the villagers want to put out to the government,. We are serious and we demand out rights but we want to do it with the less violence possible. I admire it and makes me proud to think of all our Meh’s and Yai's out there who have stepped to the front of the line for the cause they care so much for.

-Tany Horgan UMass Amherst

beanmina said...

Your post, my experiences and readings I have done have made me realize that governments introducing projects without consultation of the communities they will affect is a pretty universal practice. There have been some references to the struggle in San Salvador Atenco that was initiated when the Mexican government proposed to build a new international airport on their ejido lands (communally owned land), while only offering a very small compensation (M$7/ square meter--to put this in context, the peso was at about M$10 to the dollar when this was introduced!). I think a parallel can be drawn between the struggle in Atenco and the villagers around Rasi Salai. Those in Atenco are also fighting so that their decision-making processes be respected by the government and so that in the future, they might be consulted for development projects instead of having projects imposed on them. I have to note that the situation is much more complex than what I have written here, but there are similar themes.

ling lek lek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ling lek lek said...

At the end of your article when you began talking about the role the government plays in supporting the interest of one sector of society at the expense of another it, got me thinking about water privatization. Right now, despite the hardships of their movement, the villagers of Rasi Salai have had some victories. Even more importantly, they have framework in the constitution which legally justifies their claims. It is upon this legal framework that they have built their movement.
What happens if the Mun River were privatized (as companies such as Nestle and Bechtel hope)? That could very possibly invalidate the Thai Constitution giving the World Trade Organization legal jurisdiction over any attempt by the villagers to use law to regain access to their water which has happened in other counties.
A few years ago in Bolivia a city (I can’t its name) sold its water rights to Bechtel (a company located in California). The effects were immediate with water prices flying through the floor s to the point where people had to decide whether to purchase food or water because they could not afford both. In addition to corporately inflated prices, indigenous populations were banned from their traditional practice of collecting rainwater because Bechtel claimed ownership of all water, including the rain. Private ownership of the natural world has dangerous recompressions.
-Lukas

Eliza Leavitt said...

Meghan,

When reading your blog entry I thought of the common themes of access to information and community organizing that we have experienced throughout our time here in Thailand. As you mention, It has been very interesting to observe the relationship between community and politics in Thailand. This issue has caused me to think more critically of what citizenship means both in Thailand and in the United States. What are the obstacles and boundaries in providing effective communication between a nation’s citizens and the government?

This question made me think of our earlier exchange with the Mayor of Khon Kaen. At the time we were studying issues surrounding Landfills and slums, issues directly related to citizenship considering many residents of both areas have no land titles, and thus no access to water and electricity. Being denied basic rights inherently questions their rights as citizens of Khon Kaen, a complicated issue of legality. By marginalizing members of society the government appears to further deny their rights. The exchange made me think of the different forums in place for citizens to approach policy and governmental matters. Ultimately, as you state in a different context, it is with group collaboration and community effort that we break down issues concerning citizen rights. Community organizing in many communities we have visited has helped create that forum in an effective and intelligent way.

Melissa Strype said...

Meghan, this issue you’ve described in Rasi Salai, where the citizens were not included in the decision-making process of creating dams, reminds me so much of the situation we saw when we visited the town of San Salvador Atenco. (As a couple of my classmates have mentioned) In this case, the government in Mexico attempted to construct an airport for Mexico City in San Salvardor Atenco, and the people resisted because they would not be able to use the airport as well as the fact that it would be taking away the land on which they farm and live. Just like the people you’ve met, the land is part of these peoples’ identity; they depend on it for survival. Just like how you said that the government makes decisions which may help one group, but harm another, we learned after visiting Atenco that due to its close proximity to Mexico City, the development needs of Mexico City in terms of the natural resources they needed infringed on Atenco’s resources, leaving many areas that used to be filled with water, completely dry and unusable. The people of Atenco, however, have no choice but to allow this to happen. In the case of the airport, they resisted by creating a movement in Defense of the Land, which eventually caused the government to cancel the construction of the airport. Just as you emphasized the importance of the coordination and involvement of a large group to resist the government’s actions, the same was true in Atenco. I like the connection you make between their government resistance strategies and the ways in which they cooperate to gather the fish. It is inspiring to see the way people work together, and when we were in Atenco, I was moved by the passion and commitment each person we met had to the movement in Atenco.