10 April 2009

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


Samuel Newman said...

The culture of a people is not something to be taken lightly. Yet as Luke has expressed, conservation of culture is obviously not very high on the priority list for the central government of Thailand.

Throughout this semester, which I have spent in Thailand, it is very evident that the future way of life for many of the rural poor is changing. For me, this is a sad sight. These people are connected with their land in a way that many throughout the highly developed world cannot even begin to understand. How many in the USA can say, “My food comes from this farm, was grown using this method, or is freshly harvested or collected in the last 24 hours?” I know that I cannot, and not a single one of my friends or family can either.

With food as the basic fundamental connection that we humans have with the Earth, this disconnect is unhealthy. We as a society are using resources at an alarming rate, in a manner that is far from sustainable. I understand that the central government is trying to develop their country, but to not consider the voices and opinions of the people who are affected most is most certainly a flaw in governmental policy.

Katja Nelson said...

The conflict that Luke lays out is one that I too have seen as an underlying theme throughout my semester in Thailand. In many ways I see these issues as directly related to issues of western influence.

Currently, most policy makers see development and improvements through a primarily capitalist lens. This lens, that was originally born in the west, now dominates global policy. As a westerner I have seen how this world view can be dangerous and limiting- capitalism limits objects to commodities, people to forces of labor, and success only in terms of monetary gain. Capitalism does not consider quality of life, or happiness, since these things do not have a monetary value.

Therefore, viewing the world with this limited lens is dangerous, especially when it comes to policy making. With our priorities lying in economic development and not people's quality of life, it is no wonder why these villager's livelihoods are ruined at the stake of economic advancement. As Luke mentioned, plans to build the dam was implemented before the government ever truly assessed the social and cultural impacts the dams would have on the villager's lives. This is just one example of many in which the government has chosen to economically develop at the stake of culture and livelihood.
Policies, however, will continue to prioritize economics over human life if we continue to view the world from a capitalist viewpoint. Not until policy makers change their world view will culture and economics stand on equal footing.

Melissa said...

Before I came to Thailand I struggled to understand what culture was. In exchanges I through around the word without understanding its brevity. It felt easier to grasp what it means to not have access to food, environmental impacts of mines and dams and chemical fertilizers, but the cultural impact has always been unclear.

At the Bon Kum exchange, the headman could not talk about the dam and the Mekong without talking about the Naga. We learned about the sea serpents rich history within the heart of Southeast Asia, the Mekong River. The Naga was forced to move downstream, because of the dams that blocked the Mekong upstream in Lao and Thailand and China.

Every year the villagers give four chicken chins to the Naga, symbolizing health, food, the environment and the village in a ceremony called Bonn Fai. A dam would obstruct the ceremony. It would impede on the Naga's home and affect every aspect of the villagers lives. The Naga is on every wat and is integrally linked to Buddhism and Thai's way of life.

When the government can barely understand that a dam is an environmental disaster on the river and the wetlands, how can the government possibly understand the culturally impact of their decisions.

Hannah Dillon Clark said...

I agree that fair development needs to come first from a respect for culture. It is astounding how absent culture is from most political discourse, when it is the fundamental descriptor of most people’s daily lives. Economic and industrial development are methods to homogenize the world into a single culture, based upon economic growth and participation in the monetary economy. Those advocating free trade envision a single global economy where the most important aspect of a locality is the cost of resources and labor. We have seen time and time again the complexity of local cultures—situations vary by locality, problems and solutions vary accordingly. But governments and development institutions deny local people the right to information, transparency, and information, basically saying that outside forces are free to determine the course of these people’s lives. I’m still stuck on the dollar a day thing… how can the system to determine world poverty be so grossly incorrect, judging people as impoverished because they don’t live off of money, but live off the land? It’s a prime example of how the government doesn’t really even ask villagers what they think, or work with them. Its all an imposition of principles that don’t make any sense in local people’s everyday lives.

Perla said...

The reality that villagers do not benefit from the development projects that overtake their land and lives is not exclusive to the communities affected by dams. Most recently, we saw this exact issue in the electricity grid and potash mining communities.

This issue is so interesting to me, because these communities, at the dams, e-grid, and potash mine are not suffering independently of each other.

The dams that so adversely affect the environment of the Mekong and strip villagers of their livelihoods are the source of water, which is powering the electricity grid which will run haphazardly through the rice farms, inhibiting communities from practicing traditional farming culture. The electricity, which runs through this power line, will light the way for the potash mine that, if built, will increase water salinity to a point of undrinkable and deteriorate land fertility until the soil is pure salt and sand.

As a villager in the e-grid said, “we are all fighting one mega project”.