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


Samuel Newman said...

I think Sarah lays out the issue in this blog very well. There is no plan for the Dam; the villagers are confused as to why it is being built, and the government knows that dams bring in money.

At what expense? The livelihoods of the villagers, the way of life that has sustained these people for hundreds of years of course. As the Thai government continues to follow strategies of development on a widespread scale, people are overlooked. Cultures are disregarded, and the voices of the people who are directly affected by these widespread developmental plans are not heard.

Why has a different system not been implemented, a developmental system that focuses more on the culture and region, then on the dollar signs? With a more localized approach to development, less money would be expended, more people would benefit, and the way of life, the culture, of these kind people would be preserved.

When a plan, project, or organization is not sustainable, a new approach should be taken. We only have one place to call home, and nothing should compromise that.

Anonymous said...


Your first paragraph really resonated with me. The company’s motivation or so-called “need” for building the dam as an investment and for future development appears so far removed from actual, concrete reality. Corporations and governments operating within the framework of economic development, however, appear to be restricted by the very nature of their ways of measuring success to consider progress in these terms that don’t have anything to do with the simple, practical questions that people living in the area, and people in general, would usually think to ask. Environmental and social impacts are fundamentally linked with the dam itself, so why is the focus usually on ideas of investment, economic growth, and industrialization, which are generally linked more with the concept of a dam than with the actual reality of building it. The latter issues can still be considered, but the fact that the corporation and the government have devised a plan for a dam based on those considerations is worrying when they are still unable or unwilling to answer the most basic, concrete questions about how people’s everyday lives will be affected and how they will be compensated for that.

Meghan Ragany - CIEE Spring 2009

ling lek lek said...

I feel like this type of unnecessary development will continue to happen until we change larger political structures. These structures include businesses in policy making who are interested in increasing the bottom line, but not the actual citizen who is supposed benefit from them. Look at our country, how much participation do we have in our political system? We get to occasionally vote for one of rich people that are benefiting from these business and then hope that they’ll change a system that benefits them. This self-delusional democracy has been playing us for generations.
If we can reclaim our own political power in the United States we can directly affect the communities in the world who are suffering from our businesses and following our flawed economic paradigms. I don’t think we realize how oppressed we are in the US because we have a sense of comfort through consumerism. We especially don’t think about the global consequences of our oppression and lack of political control.
-Lukas Winfield

Luke said...

I’m concerned about the issue of participation. When we recently met with members of Ital-Thai corporation to discuss their plans to build a potash mine in Udon Thani, they spoke a little on that topic. They told us they were frustrated with some of the surrounding communities, many of whom are leading near decade long protests against the mine. A member of their public relations team said they wanted to villagers to participate in the decision-making, but the villagers did not want the mine at all, and so they were unwilling to participate. That notion is absurd, though I did not bring it up during our exchange with the company. By protesting, the community IS participating. Their stance is clear. They do not want a mine, and so they do not want to deal with the company at all. Where they need the right to participate is at the level of government policy. The responsible branches of government, however, are in bed with the corporation. If I were in the villagers’ place, I would not be trying to deal with Ital-Thai either. They do not operate with the villager’s concerns in mind past satisfying the bare minimum of demands so that their project can go forward.