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

1 comment:

Muriel Leung said...

I think our exchange with the Mae Non community has added another perspective to State mandated projects that reveal favoritism towards big investors over the interests of local communities. Such is the case with Mae Non who find that their land has been compromised by the State for a power lines project which enriches only the lives of investors and not those whose lives have been interrupted. I think this post does a good job of pointing out the failed logic behind this project, particularly your argument about compensation. We have asked this question repeatedly throughout the semester: Can one put a price to someone’s livelihood? Someone asked during our exchange if any price was sufficient… and I think the response was very clear that the project has already done its damage. What communities can do at this point is to organize in order to ensure that this does not happen again. I only wish we had more time during the exchange to ask the villagers specifically what they mean when they say “…we are fighting for other communities in the future to fight back to” and “We are fighting the same big project”. Is this in reference to precedent setting? What networks has been established already?