28 November 2009

Knowledge as Power

We all know the phrase, “knowledge is power,” and for most of my life I have accepted the truth of this statement unequivocally. I always believed that the way to gain knowledge is through formal education; the reason I have been working to attain a degree is, essentially, to be more powerful. As we head in to the last month of our time here in Thailand, I cannot help but reflect on how my time here has altered my understanding of, and ideas about, both education and knowledge.

Our group spent a week living with families in Na Nang Bong village, which is in the North of Thailand. Villagers have been living and working there for many generations. Two open-pit gold mines have been operating for the last three years in the area surrounding the village, and in these three years the villagers have experienced dramatic changes in their health and the health of the surrounding environment. Fifty-four of 259 villagers tested positive for cyanide poisoning. Many of the fields in the area no longer produce rice, and of those that do, the rice commands a lower price at the market. The villagers were told that their water is contaminated with heavy metals and they should not drink or bathe in it. The villagers have formed a group called “People Who Conserve Their Hometown” (PWCTH) to attempt to combat the effects they have experienced and to prevent more mines from opening in the area. Through speaking with the villagers and living in their homes for the week, we learned a great deal about their lives.

We also met with representatives from the Provincial Health Office and the Ministry of Industry to discuss their role in the situation. For me, these exchanges were the most interesting ones we have had this semester. It was not what was said that was interesting, however, but rather it was the display of the power structure stacked up against the villagers and the implied judgments of what knowledge is and should be. They presented power points with slide after slide of numbers, graphs, and maps. They attempted to take us through the process of gold extraction, from prospecting to refining. The officials at each exchange reiterated numerous times that because there is no scientific proof that the mines are responsible for the effects the villagers are experiencing, the mine cannot be blamed for what the villagers are experiencing and observing. The provincial health officer stated that because the villagers only have a “fourth-grade education,” they should trust the word of the government officials who are educated and therefore much more knowledgeable.

I agree that knowledge is power, but my experience in Na Nang Bong has shown me that it is only a certain kind of knowledge that is power. Scientific knowledge is power. A B.A, DR., or PH.D after a name is power. Conversely, knowledge that cannot be translated onto a power point presentation is not power. What does it mean for a community, a country, a world where we no longer believe in the value of knowledge passed from generation to generation, knowledge that is not written in books, knowledge that cannot be plugged in to a graph or chart? What are the implications of the fact that the knowledge of the villagers, both the base on which the community has been built and the threads that hold it together, is worthless to those who possess knowledge that they paid for?

Perhaps in our relentless pursuit for knowledge, which in reality is just a pursuit for truth, we are in many ways moving away from truth. I am not saying that I want to throw two years of my college education out the window and become a farmer. On the contrary, I have only come to value my own educational opportunities more. I guess what I am saying is that I now recognize that the knowledge I am acquiring at school is merely one kind of knowledge, and I want to seek out knowledge in all its forms. Perhaps it is this other knowledge that will give me the power I am seeking: the power of appreciation, of sympathy, of connectedness, of understanding.

Haley Campbell
Bates College

Food to Gold: Resource Consumption

Throughout the semester we have been exploring issues of resources. We’ve been confronted with our attitudes and perspectives about where our resources come from, where they go, and who is affected on either end of the process. In the first unit we examined food. We saw the impacts of the green revolution and what that means for small scale farmers. We learned that most of our food comes from large mono crops that use large amounts of pesticides and herbicides, and require lots of water and energy to maintain. The land that it uses is eventually rendered useless from all the chemicals poured into it and the food they produce are pleasing to the eye but the genetic modifications and chemical treatments actually make them worse for your body. We came to understand the importance that organic farming has in the world and how a direct relationship between producers and consumers can help to achieve sustainability, better health, and our environment.

In the second unit we visited the landfill in Khon Kaen and saw where our trash goes. Most people in America have some sort of relationship with their waste, most people are, at the very least, aware of the notion of recycling. But for the most part our garbage disappears much the way our food appears in our supermarkets. The garbage leaves but very few of us actually know where it goes and whose lives it impacts. Few of us realize that many people’s livelihoods are dependent on what they scavenge from our waste.

The first two units discussed issues that we probably have some concept of, more and more people are coming to be educated on the importance of eating locally and also there is more awareness about refuse disposal thanks to recycling endeavors. But in the last two units we studied the effects of hydroelectric dams and mining for precious metals, semi-precious metals, and minerals. When you consider dams and mines and how they impact other people it is very easy to take yourself out of the equation. The dams and mines we visited have displaced countless people, have upset their livelihoods and changed their culture. The dams are built because there is a demand for energy, the modern daily life is dependent on the use of electricity. And where there is electricity or any form or electrical appliance there is copper, or gold, or silicon. Copper is in all forms of wires from big power lines to the lines running through the walls in your house to the extension cord connected to your computer to the circuitry inside the computer which is also riddled with gold. These minerals need to be mined and the process of mining is a very destructive and hazardous one that affect the lives of many.

We don’t typically realize our dependence and thus our support too readily, at least I know I didn’t. When I eat a sandwich I don’t think about where the ingredients come from, and when I throw out the wrapper I don’t think about where it goes, when I sit down and flip the switch on my computer or TV I don’t realize that the energy that is powering them is being generated somewhere, and I don’t even think about the copper and gold inside of my TV that is crucial for its function. But being confronted with all these truths is truly an enlightening event, when we bear witness to how connected all of our everyday actions and seemingly benign chores are to the lives of so many people we could not help but to wonder how this is possible. How can we allow ourselves to not recognize our impact. It is true that we have a bit of a consumer fetish and that ignorance is bliss. Now that our eyes have been opened to these issues it will be difficult to close them. We have a responsibility to open the eyes of others, attempt to remove ignorance, and raise awareness; which is really what this semester has been about.

Tommy Russo
Fairfield University

The Real Farang Power

All twenty-seven of us Nak Suk Saa’s (students) have since returned from a pristine mountain-side community called Na Nong Bong, up north adjacent to the border between Thailand and Laos, where mountains are plenty, the environment impeccable. Except - of course - if one were to look closely; for wedged in between two glorious mountains, one lies cut at its edge, scraped clean of its natural beauty. And the villagers we stayed with were all directly affected by it and will talk of it disparagingly and rightfully so. This gold mine, built by the Thai government (indirectly through an industrial company bent on the surplus gain of natural resources), has [allegedly ed.] leaked its harmful effects into the surrounding rivers which, for local communities such as Na Nong Bong, are and have always been the singular source of fresh water.

Before this construction life for the villagers was simple, and a trip to the river meant not only fresh water, but food and gatherings for a potential profit at the local market. But now things have changed, and with toxic chemicals such as cyanide permeating through the soil and into the water, their way of life and their ability to access the fundamentals of it are gone, ignored. Their water is contaminated, and thus their food goes rejected at the market. Without anyone to fight for their cause and lacking the proper means to fight for it themselves they continue - through their daily routine - to bathe in and even drink these toxins and their limbs do not hide the effects. Dark rashes cover some portions of their skin and cyanide levels in their blood are far above normality. But the Health Inspection claims there is no proof of its source, and who knows with what connection these facts are made, yet still the lack of information alone is unacceptable (at least that to which the villagers are granted a proper review). They are kept from the results of these tests, kept from both the construction and regulation processes, kept on the sidelines to watch their livelihood slip between their fingers without consent. And who is it that can bridge the gap between them and the other side? Who can fight for their cause at levels they would never have reached otherwise? The farang (foreigner). Or so I and they as well I’m sure, assumed.

As we sat in an exchange with the Ministry of Industry, it became clear how we were received; with warm impatience and the preconceived notion that we were all NGOs in the making and should be treated as such. And so we got our information, fine-tuned exactly to how they wanted it told, careful not to overstep bounds or provide any false inclinations. At one point during the conversation they had asked our opinion on the villager’s perspective, to which we made the convenient note of their presence behind us, asking for them to be addressed directly. But to this they declined; refusing to speak with anyone but the mid-adolescent farang with whom they had scheduled their meeting; of whom knew far less, whose motivations were less inherent.

Yes we had gotten that meeting, but it was more an opportunity for us to continue learning than for us to start helping (and possibly this was the intention all along, but at the time we felt powerful, wanting and expecting so much more). And so I left the exchange and the village too soon then after, feeling sorry and with a heavier burden than that which I had arrived with. And I had my shower in Khon Kaen waiting me in the hours approaching, as too the cleanest tap water in the world will welcome me back to New York City in a month’s time upon my return home. And Na Nong Bong and its villagers do not have this luxury, this escape, and I was biased in my time there to remember that I did have that advantage. This is a power that we all had; the knowledge of a better life, and the reminder that going without fresh water would only be, for us at least, a five day chore. It is a simple power and it goes unforced but it still remains at the back of the mind all the while. Yet it is only through uncomfortable situations where we can realize the responsibility we all have in providing this comfortability to those lacking such simple fortune. And we’re trying. Now if only the Thai government and the Ministry of Industry too could perform a home stay at Na Nong Bong.

Ian Samplin
New York University

The Golden Cycle

Leaving for my second trip to Na Nong Bong, I was excited to return to a village that has struck me in a certain way that none of the others have. On a near by mountain, a company known as Tung Khum Limited has been operating a mine for a number of years now. The mining process has [allegedly ed.] affected the environment and water sources of the surrounding areas. This includes the ground water that the people of the surrounding villages use to drink, wash dishes, and bath in. Na Nong Bong being the closet to the [claim that the ed.] mining site, [has caused ed.] severe health affects and reduces crop yields in their fields. This has lead them to take measure against the mine in hopes that their way of life may be restored to the extent where they do not have to worry unnecessarily about the basic human rights of water, health , and a proper environment.

The first time that I went to Na Nong Bong, the village was in the midst of excitement. They were about to protest a vote that would extend the current mine that is severely affecting their livelihoods to another part of the mountain, furthering the risk that was involved with the mining process. We were witness to the preparation, act and then success afterward. The more I learned about the situation, the more I was impressed by their passion to push for their livelihoods.

Coming back to Na Nong Bong, there were no protests, but the sense of the community and passion to maintain their livelihoods was still very apparent. I was incredibly struck by the villager’s ability to keep up the fight. Personally, I had my doubts about what the people of the village could actually accomplish. The mining company has made a large effort to slip through cracks in the political bureaucracies and make a solid effort to disprove the rather obvious effects of the mine, that it seemed like the viscous cycle that normally occurs in the realm of development was continuing. The demands of the many are out weighing the needs of the view.

The cycle seemed as if it was going to occur in this community as well. One thing that I thought to myself was if I am getting discouraged over the issue, then how could the villagers, the people that live with it on a day to day basis really work past it. It seems as if everything was working against them. The first issue that I made note of is the health aspect. Proper health is obviously an essential part of having a proper life. Without proper health, one cannot work, and if one cannot work, one cannot properly provide for their families. In the case of Na Nong Bong, chemical poisoning, and irritation has caused problems for the people in the village. However, the government and the mining company some how find a way around each and every medical problem that happens. They have even gotten a hold of the ministry of provincial health, an entity that should in all honesty know better and understand the problems that are being caused. Yet again the few are suffering for the demands of the many. To what extent can this really be acceptable.

When will our own lust for more demand be outweighed by the lives of the few? It seems like a fairly blatant resolve, however in reality it’s not so black and white. At some point the people’s lives have to outweigh the benefits…. right?

Sagar Pathak
Northeastern University

What is an Education?

Harvesting soybeans with farmers in Na Nong Bong, Thailand

As our fourth and final unit came to an end, I reflected on the reoccurring themes that stuck out to me over the course of the semester. Education; Self-determination; Sustainability; Globalization as a form of imperialism; and how we as students fit into the bigger picture. After thinking about each of these themes, and discussing them with other students, I found that education was not only an individual, reoccurring theme throughout the units, but related to each of the other themes I identified in one way or another.

For example, I realized that my understanding of sustainable development and globalization, prior to coming to Thailand, was shaped by my western-style education which was based on textbooks, facts and scientific proof. While I recognize that scientific-based knowledge has its strengths, I am disappointed in the public K-12 education system in the U.S., which I feel fails to develop students into adults that are capable of thinking critically. I will always remember the “AH HA” moment I had my freshman year of college when I finally realized that the teachings in textbooks are not indisputable facts, but information gathered by human beings that inevitably reflects current and historical opinions and perspectives. The thoughts and perspectives that students develop are therefore largely reflective of the thoughts and perspectives of their culture, and the values and norms that their education system promulgates.

Prior, to coming to Thailand I struggled with my opinion of globalization. Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing, or are there both positive and negative aspects to globalization? As a student studying business and economics I was mainly exposed to the benefits of globalization, as seen from a Western perspective, and taught through lectures, case studies, readings and projects in the United States. My education in Thailand, which has been based on experiential learning and observations, therefore, provides me with a great opportunity to compare what I have learned about globalization from books and college courses, to what I have learned through observations and experiences living and working with rural communities in Thailand.

Reflecting on the two different types of learning, I feel that my Western education provided me with a background on some of the arguments for and against globalization; however, only through experiential learning was I able to form my own opinion on globalization as I experienced firsthand the affects it can have on people, culture, and the environment. It is amazing to me how my ideas have progressed and developed so rapidly over the past three months, while engaging in experiential learning. I have never felt so mentally stimulated, inspired or connected to the issues that I am studying, and the potential I see in experiential education is exciting.

One of the concerns, however, recently expressed by our Thailand student group is how we share what we learned here in Thailand with our friends, family, teachers and peers back home, so that they are not only more socially aware, but are passionate about supporting social justice causes in some way. I am the first to admit that this is something I have struggled with every time I have returned home from a study abroad experience in a developing country, and I found it very hard to live around people, who I felt, were completely unaware of how unjust the world is. I now realize that without personal experiences to connect to difficult issues, such as poverty, human rights violations and environmental degradation, it is hard to know what to make of, or how to relate to, issues discussed in books, newspapers, classrooms and newscasts.

What then, would it mean for our education system to focus more on experiential learning? What if more high school students had the opportunity to live, work and learn in a poor region of the United States or a lesser developed country? Would we be a more socially aware society? Would it be harder to go back to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality that I know I fall into when living in the United States? Would our eyes be more open to the social injustices in our own backyards?

Jordan Templeton
Ohio University


As my semester abroad in Thailand winds down into its final month, I find myself pondering many things that I have observed and experienced throughout my stay in the country. Studying here has been pretty exciting, and I’ve found myself in many situations that I had never been in before.

We’ve had four Units, all of which we lived with families in rural communities. Unit One was based around farming and agriculture in Yasothon province. We learned about the dangers of chemical use in agriculture, and we observed how industrial mono-croppers, mostly from other countries, have made it a struggle for local Thai farmers, even though they have the highest quality product. Unit Two was the Slums and Landfill Unit, in which we visited one of each right here in Khon Kaen. The slum situation followed closely behind the farming unit, because most slum residents living in fear of Government eviction, and lack of water and/or electricity, migrated to the city from rural areas like Yasothorn. The landfill community faced problems with the Government as well, having that they have one of the hardest, yet most important jobs around, yet the Government doesn’t take charge to make sure that their lives aren’t at stake. The lack of sanitation, fresh water, and work equipment puts them as well as their children at great danger. Unit three was based around water, but more specifically, dams. The way of life in rural communities like Rasi Salai and Pak Mun have been destroyed due to Government-built damns. Constructed to create electricity and irrigation, the dams have created the flooding of these peoples’ homeland instead, making it near impossible for them to farm for their own consumption. Also, some of these dams didn’t even end up creating the power that they were planned to. Unit four took the theme of Mining. We traveled to the village of Na Nong Bong, a beautiful community which was intruded upon my a gold-mining company blasting their mountains away, to make an unfair profit. Not only are they destroying the natural beauty within the village, but the [alleged ed.] chemicals from the mining process such as cyanide, have been absorbed into the village’s water and air, causing illness, and contaminating the water. They can’t even drink it, and they fear everyday routines such as showering.

It seems that the common theme within all of these communities is that they are all being screwed over in some way by a higher power. Whether it be the Government (which it almost always is), industrial development, or The Man in general, the villagers have little to no power in fighting these developments put through by these “professionals.” They have lived the same way for multiple generations, following their parents’ wisdoms, living self-sustaining lives, and bothering nobody. It seems that there is no appreciation whatsoever for these villagers, their way of life, or the things that they have accomplished; they are being forced to join the rest of us in what we call society. To migrate to the city slums and live in the only way that their money can buy; fearful, oppressed, unsafe conditions.

The way I see it, they are having their knowledge, skills, and culture taken away from them, simply because they aren’t educated in the same way as popular modern society. Schooling is what is important, not expertise in the way of survival. Degrees and certificates are proof of one’s knowledge, not wisdom or acquired expertise. The amount of one’s income shows their real success, not the fact that they’ve managed to provide for their family and live happily without needing a cent. These traditional locals, these true natives, are being torn apart the exact same way that Native Americans were. I hope that the value of their education doesn’t completely dissolve just because it is different from the majority.

Morgan Miller
Arizona State University, Tempe
Having just completed our final unit and homestay one of the questions that still remains with me is what are we really doing here? By that I mean how are we helping and is that why we came to Thailand? The first “we” I am referring to is the group of 27 individuals from all over the United States who come from diverse backgrounds and academic interests who just so happened to come to Thailand in the fall of 2009. The other “we” I am referring to is the organization of CIEE Thailand as a whole, a program that is deeply connected with Issan’s grassroot movement and larger international development schemes such as issues pertaining to the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). I have been fascinated by the depths with which CIEE is intricately connected to these different communities we are involved in. I would venture to say that this is not normal of most study abroad organizations. It initiates and maintains relationships that students then get to pursue and expand upon. On the one hand, we have the ability to take our exchanges in any direction, to be creative with our involvement yet we still have to remain within the structure of the program in what sometimes feels to have pre determined solutions. Clearly without students there would be no progression within this mutual relationship but what kind of authority do we really have to make a difference considering some of us are just learning about these issues for the first time? Are we really able to initiate change in such a short period of time? Frustrating as it is, maybe it’s a good thing there are some confinements, it keeps our idealistic minds at bay. Yet I can’t help but be aware of the slight disappointment I feel when we are told to spread awareness as the answer to our questions of how we can be of help. Why do the villagers put so much faith in us that we can effectively spread awareness? I’m not saying that it’s impossible. If this experience has taught me anything, it is the power of a unified group, but I struggle to see how we can raise international awareness about these issues when there isn’t even local awareness. Is it really our place to do such a thing?
Regardless, this blog is my attempt to raise awareness as well as justify for myself the greater importance of why we are here. Our final exchange took place on November 13th with a community that has no previous ties to CIEE, a community that is beginning to form a group to oppose the creation of the first copper mine in Thailand. While the government has not officially stated anything to the villagers and they do not have a mining license or a completed environmental impact assessment (EIA), the community is taking pre-emptive measures to ensure the safety of the environment and their way of life. Aware of their rights, this community is determined to prevent what is beginning to happen all over the province of Loei with gold mines.
It was the first exchange that I actually felt powerful, were I could see how eager these villagers were to talk to us and how badly they wanted us to help. This exchange also helped me better understand the importance of networking, the impressive reputation CIEE Thailand has amongst villages in Issan and that we are part of a cycle of learning and support that is much bigger than the 27of us. If nothing more than just the superficial first meeting, the proverbial toe dip to test the water, this exchange was a necessary step for future interactions.
It is hard for me to grasp the magnitude of what we do here. There is so much potential power in being part of something like this but is it fair for us to have it and if we don’t who will?

Dalya Heller
University of Washington

Mines, Cyanide, Blackouts, Hopes

Our CIEE group most recently finished our Unit 4 which focused on mining issues in Northeastern Thailand. The Phu Thap Pha gold mine is located in the Loei Province of the Isaan region. After being introduced to the issue with a series of pertinent lectures and readings, we departed to the village of Na Nong Bong to exchange and engage with the parties involved. The village of Na Nong Bong is located approximately 1 km away from the gold mine operated by Tongkah Harbor Plc (THL)., and swirls directly in the center of the gold mine controversy.

A brief summary of the controversy that exists deals with the fact that villagers from the surrounding areas are experiencing adverse health and environmental effects since the Phu Thap Pha gold mine opened in 2006. Water tests have been conducted from 2004 up until 2009 and have found chemical substances including cyanide, manganese, cadmium, lead and arsenic have contaminated the surface and groundwater in the areas surrounding the mine. While these tests have been conducted there is no evidence that can directly link the gold mine to these results since no prior baseline tests had been conducted before the mine was built and operating. Negative health effects experienced by some villagers in these surrounding areas include rashes, headaches, eye pain, nausea and more severe side effects include vomiting, nausea and blackouts. One villager, Ms. Leng Wongkemsom, 54 years old, has been diagnosed with cyanide poison and experiences the severe side effects of her illness daily.
The government has advised the villagers not to drink or cook with the water. While this notice has been given, the Provincial Health Office and the other agencies involved have not come up with any solutions to alleviate the problem of this contaminated water. Villagers now are forced to spend the little money they have on bottled water, but often still bathe, do laundry and dishes with the contaminated water. Our group of CIEE international students visited the village firsthand during our seven day stay at Na Nong Bong. While some of us took showers, and some of us did not, I think I can say that we were more than a bit nervous taking showers even though the most recent 2009 groundwater tests showed that there was 0.03 and 0.1 milligrams per liter of arsenic at 2 of the 9 test sites in the area, respectively. There was also 0.11 milligrams per liter of lead found at one site, and 0.01 mg/l of cadmium at another. No cyanide was found in the ground or surface water in two separate 2009 tests. However for these substances, the World Health Organization has not set any minimum standards for bathing. As for manganese, cadmium, lead and arsenic, health can be affected through long term exposure.

One thing that really shocked me during this unit was how solutions for this problem seem to be nonexistent or at a standstill. People have been diagnosed with cyanide poisoning. Water results have confirmed that dangerous, harmful containments are present and while there is debate on where this problem originates from, gold mine bi-products or not, there should be no debate or lack of urgency in finding ways to protect these villagers from an all too real and current problem. In the past water trucks started to deliver fresh water for a short time until it became too expensive and a hassle for the government. No other solutions have been discussed with the villagers. Data, water tests, villager petitions, and community demands for solutions regarding the problem seem to be diverted from one department of government unto the next, like a horrible game of hot potato, no one wanting to take responsibility for the pressing issue at hand. While this happens, the children, parents and elders of these affected Thai communities shower in contaminated water and spend their savings on water to drink.
This takes place in Thailand, but health issues of a similar sort can still be found back home in the United States. A mining issue all too familiar to the plight of Na Nong Bong village can be found in Floyd County, Kentucky. Here we have a coal mine which also negatively effects the environment and the health of the individuals that live there. With this in mind, I think of the global implications and effects of our industrialized society and wonder if we can change so we don’t hurt people, families, and communities near these areas. I hope that when we do adversely affect these places we can recognize and help fix these problems as quickly as possible. No dilly dallying is needed. I know personally that villages affected in Loei province are open to solutions and that they are open to solutions now. With strong collective movements in both of the examples shown in this blog, specifically Na Nong Bong and Floyd County, Kentucky, I hope that solutions, health-wise and environmentally, can be found. I hope that that these voices will eventually be heard and their rights to a healthy life restored.

Scott Pulido
University of Michigan

“Quantifying Intelligence”

Sitting in our third exchange of this unit at the Loei Provincial Health Office, I found myself getting angrier and angrier. We were meeting with the office to discuss how chemical water contamination [allegedly ed.] caused by an open-pit goldmine has impacted the health of the villagers that live in the vicinity of the mine. This was the first exchange we'd had with a government agency that an affected villager was actually in attendance. The woman who was representing the Health Office spent the entire exchange nervously glancing at Mon, the villager, as she rambled off clearly scripted answers to our probing questions. Her distressed demeanor and cracking voice obviously belied that she knew what she was telling us was far from the truth. Cyanide poisoning is not caused by smoking and that the high levels of cyanide, arsenic, lead and manganese that now contaminate the village's water supply could not have been caused solely by well digging. When we asked why the health office hadn't been taking the concerns of the villager more seriously, she answered that the villagers should trust them more since, after all, “the villagers have little more than a 4th grade education.”

This was my second visit to Na Non Bong, a village that has been devastated by water contamination [allegedly ed.] caused by a private goldmine. I had visited the village earlier in the semester with a smaller group of students and had felt an immediate connection with the community. We prepared for the first visit by reading the human rights report that had been written by students from the previous semester and by meeting with a human rights lawyer from Bangkok that was coming with us to work on a legal strategy with the community. During our first visit we got close with a group of young women who have been particularly involved with the struggle against the mine. They took a few of us to their rice fields and explained to us that even though they had been fully cultivated and looked to be flourishing, for the past few years they actually have produced very little rice. The water they have to use for farming is now contaminated with chemicals from the goldmine's unlined tailings pond that have seeped into their water supply. Every year since the mine opened their crop yields have dramatically decreased. They continue to grow the crops though because it is the only land they have and the little they can harvest is better than nothing. All they can do is pray that next year's harvest won't be worse. Every year their crops decrease, so does the little income they have to subsist on. Not only do they have less to sell when they go to market, everybody in the region knows that Na Nong Bong's crops are contaminated and are thus only worth a fraction of their true value. Yet they themselves are also afraid to eat what they grow now. It's a vicious cycle where not only are the villagers unable to make the same income they used to, but they also have to pay for food and water where in the past they were able to subsist off their local supplies. This same cycle has also essentially broken up families because at most times one or two members must leave the village to seek work elsewhere. All the women we were getting to know leave Na Non Bong regularly to sell lottery tickets as far away as Chiang Mai in the north and Nakon Si Thammarat in the south. The cause and effect relationship between the mine and the community's diaspora may not be obvious to us, but it is to the villagers. Especially when only four years ago virtually everyone in the village was able to stay at home and sustain themselves through farming.

Few of the villagers in Na Non Bong have a college education, but they know their bodies and have an intimate relationship with their own environment. Every day they see and feel the changes that have occurred since the goldmine was built. Unlike the provincial health officers, they are the first to notice changes in their agriculture and the first to notice when the fish start disappearing. It does not require a degree to figure out that something has gone terribly wrong when a large proportion of the villagers now have severe rashes and constant headaches. It takes years of experience and a deep understanding of one's own environment to identify dramatic shifts in a local ecosystem. The villagers in Na Non Bong are not oblivious to the changes their land and lives have been subjected to over the past few years. Talking to Mon in the van after the exchange, I felt as insulted as she was to have it implied that she and her community where simply too stupid and uneducated to understanding what has been happening to them. That without more than a 4th grade education one is incapable of comprehending the power structures that shape their lives. I feel fortunate that I have had the educational opportunities that I've had, but I have recently begun questioning what having a formal education really means. Does it entitle you to take advantage of those who are “uneducated”? Does it mean that your rights trump those of who are unable to write analytical papers or do advance calculations? What place does local, traditional knowledge have in a modern society? How do you quantify intelligence? In a year and a half, I will graduate with a flimsy piece of paper that designates me as “educated”, but does that make me superior to a farmer with no formal education? I don't know. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe. I have come to find that 'knowledge' is manifested in many ways and that the people of Na Non Bong have a far deeper understanding of their reality than they are given credit for. All I know is that I have a hell of a lot to learn from people who only have 4th grade educations.

Hilary Ford
Sarah Lawrence College

23 November 2009

Dam Energy

An issue that arises within developing countries is trying to find a balance between globalization and maintaining the lifestyles that families have practiced for generations. One example would be the Pak Mun community in the Ubon Rachatani province of Thailand that is currently being negatively affected by a dam that has been constructed. The Pak Mun community resides alongside the Mun River. The community relies on the Mun River for their livelihood, which mainly consists of farming and fishing. However, since the construction of the dam the community has lost the sustainability of their lifestyle because the fish populations have dropped severely or have even disappeared. In addition, the dam walls impede the path of the fish swimming upstream thus rendering them unable to lay their eggs. Also, a cause of the dam walls is the flooding of the wetlands and homes of the Pak Mun community. As well as fishing and farming, the villagers made good use of the wetlands surrounding their homes to gather various resources and different types of food that would help support their diet.

The Electrical Generation Authority of Thailand (EGAT) built the Pak Mun Dam after receiving the project from National Electric Authority in 1970. The construction of the dam started in 1990 and completed in 1994. The purpose of Pak Mun Dam is to produce 136MW (Mega Watts) of energy to be used to support the energy demand in the Isaan region. However, the dam currently can only produce about 40MW of energy. The villagers have been protesting the dam since its construction and it has been going on for the last twenty years with little progress. Few of the villagers have received compensation from the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand for property losses but the fight continues to have the Pak Mun Dam gates open all year, more compensation for loss of livelihood, and the right to have their livelihood restored.

The Electrical Generation Authority of Thailand did not come into this community with the intention of destroying their livelihood and property. EGAT came into the area to find a solution for the shortage of energy that Thailand is experiencing as they try to become a participant in the global market. The failures resulting from their actions could be due to the lack of or inadequate quality of a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). An EGAT representative articulated that “No matter what we do we get criticized, if we use coal we get criticized, if we build a dam we get criticized”. EGAT is in an unenviable position considering there will be criticisms coming from both sides one being that they are not doing enough to produce energy and on the other those who argue that the methods they use are damaging to the community and the environment.

Thailand is currently buying energy being produced in Laos and Burma to make up for what they cannot produce in terms of energy consumption. EGAT has been looking into other energy sources but have not yet made a decision on what method to take or if the method available will make any significant impact for its cost. In addition, if they stop building energy producing structures in Thailand it would result in “more dams being built in Laos, or more coal factories in Burma” as one EGAT executive mentioned. The EGAT representative said that “everyone has the right to their way of life and that should not be taken away from them.”

However, finding a balance between supporting ones lifestyle in the city whom is dependent on energy and ones lifestyle who is in rural Thailand is difficult to do. How is a government supposed to reconcile the wants of its people without alienating another group.

Andreu Neri
Occidental College

Power of the Human Spirit

As I entered the Rasi Sali protest village, I was immediately reminded of images I had seen of refugee camps from across the globe. By basic definition, the refugee camps that dot the planet are a consequence of forced migration and an improvised cohesion of people into some semblance of a society. People without a home unify to create a community. However, the people that form the protest village at Rasi Sali know the exact location of their home, and are fighting for their right to return to their land. Unlike the refugees of Burma or Sudan, these people are in a different situation- they hold power. Their tents, make-shift homes and markets are erected in direct defiance to the government. The people of Rasi Sali are fighting back.

From the outside, the protest village at Rasi Sali appears to be a disorganized, cluttered series of tents and markets. Yet, upon entering through the main road, it becomes clear that this community is a microcosm of human activity with a unique economy, culture and leadership system. Vendors selling treats and scarves dot the perimeter, and a community sala acts as the hub for meetings, strategy sessions, media and cultural activities. This is a community with a mission, and the structure of the village reinforces the fact that these people are committed to their goals and ambitions.

Rasi Sali protest village was constructed to oppose the operation of a hydropower dam on the Mun River in Northeast Thailand and to demand compensation for the loss of livelihood, land, homes and work that resulted from the flooding of the Mun River when the gates of the dam closed. Before the construction of the dam, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) failed to complete the research necessary to ensure that the effects of the dam would be negligible and manageable. Neither an environmental impact assessment (EIA) nor a social impact assessment (SIA) was completed. In 1993, when construction was finished and the gates of the dam were closed, the area around the dam flooded. Once the land was inundated, the housing, income, food and livelihood of the people were destroyed. Since the operation of the dam began, the people of Rasi Sali have struggled for the restoration of their essential human rights.

Despite their losses and uncertain future, the people of Rasi Sali have maintained an unwavering optimism and hope, as evidenced by their vibrant protest village. Although the resistance of the Rasi Sali people has lasted for many years, their ambition has not dimmed. Energy, enthusiasm and solidarity define their community. Within the society, the people maintain their culture, values and traditions. During our visit, we had the opportunity to attend a wedding between two villagers who had met and fell in love at the protest town. We were welcomed into the homes of families who live nearby and work to support the efforts of the protest community. The ability of the Rasi Sali people to warmly open their homes to strangers and to find love under such dire circumstances is a testament to their positive outlook. Their moral strength pays tribute to the power of the human spirit to persevere through injustice and to maintain unwavering confidence in the basic rights of all individuals. With the unyielding force of hope, optimism and confidence, the protest village of Rasi Sali has shifted from victim to activist in the fight to return to their homeland.

Kate Voss
Georgetown University

13 November 2009

A Non-Violent Struggle for Justice

During my recent visit to the Rasi Salai protest village, I was surprised to witness the villager’s newly acquired approach. The villagers started fighting the Dam alongside the Assembly of the Poor when the gates first closed in 1993. The first 10 years of protest were “always loud and violent.” The villagers invaded the buildings of the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) and attempted to excavate a manmade road to free up the blockade of their beloved provider, the Mun River. On numerous occasions, the government reacted with force arresting the most active protest leaders. In the process, the villagers’ displayed their strong convictions and their willingness to persist against the injustices caused by the Dam.

The most recent protest, spanning the past five months, has the appearance of another fierce expression by the effected villagers. They are currently squatting in tents on RID land located directly next to the Dam. However, with further investigation, it is clear that the villagers are uniting in a much more organized peaceful fashion. Pra-Kootawaa Ajahrat, a monk in one of the effected villages, praises the villagers’ new strategy as it aligns with the notion of “non-violence” that is central to his Buddhist faith. After talking with Pra-Kootawaa, I immediately thought of the monks in Tibet, including the Dalai Lama, and their passive nature. Despite their devote spirituality and the resulting peaceful unified relationship with the world, their “non-violent” nature allows the Chinese government to continually oppress the Tibetan people with ease. I was worried that the Thai government would start to overlook the protesters requests in the same manner that the Chinese disregarded the passive Tibetans.

After further discussion with the villagers and an NGI (non-governmental individual), I started to notice more of the positive aspects of an organized non-violent approach to protesting. Their fresh calm attitude has allowed them to gather information, examine all involved parties, and map out a well thought out plan. The village leaders work to educate all of the protestors enabling direct involvement in the planning processes. The few remaining youth in the protest village take on numerous roles so that they too contribute. Some of the youth work as security protecting the elders. Others gather information locally and from villages in other provinces dealing with similar issues. They learn to use computers and edit video to process the information and work with the local media. No longer having access to substantial farmable land, these responsibilities provide them with an alternative to going to the city to find menial labor jobs. In the words of a village leader, “we work as a private organization utilizing our own knowledge and skills.” Through the media, they make a point not to present an image of thousands of protesters demanding to “STOP THE DAM!” Instead, they display themselves as an ideal community working for the betterment of society as a whole. Recent media footages included presentations of the values of local wisdom, community harvesting, recycling programs, and self-reliance.

Overall, I foresee this strategy benefiting the villagers in the future of their struggle. Local government officials are much more likely to work cooperatively with the villagers in creating some sort of compromise. I also think the national government could potentially side with these villagers and make an example of them as the proper way to protest and an ideal community for others to model themselves after. All worries of a diminishing passion or a decrease in strength on the side of the protestors are swallowed up by the words of one village leader.

“Speaking from the heart, I am a person who wants to see justice. Whatever problem I face, whether it is a police charge or a problem with my family, I drop it behind for this cause. I sold away all of my cows to come stay here (the protest village). Many people go back home, but I spend almost all of my time here.”

Dan Hebert
University of Richmond

Should Social Impact Assessments be Mandatory?

During our third unit, we had the opportunity to spend time and get to know many of the residents of the protest village, which neighbors the Rasi Salai dam. In our exchange with the villagers, they discussed how the dam not only caused widespread environmental destruction and social dislocation, but also failed to serve its main purpose of irrigation (the dam was built in a reservoir that sits on top of a huge salt dome, creating water too salty for irrigation). In addition, the construction process of the dam was very deceiving due to the fact that the government claimed it was installing a rubber weir instead of a concrete dam. In doing this, the Royal Irrigation Departement (RID) was not required to perform an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) prior to the construction of the project. As a result, the fish resources in Mun River were depleted and the wetlands, which the villagers relied on for other various natural resources, were flooded and ruined.

All of these topics that we discussed with the people living in the protest village left me feeling very troubled. I say this because the families whose livelihoods were destroyed as a direct result of this project seem to have been intentionally tricked in order to serve the government’s needs.

This leads me to believe that in order to avoid failed development projects in the future, such as the Rasi Salai dam, SIAs should become a mandatory part of the development process. SIAs are critical because any development intervention will inevitably have many potential social ramifications to local residents. In order for SIAs to be carried out in most efficient manner, it is imperative that the decision-makers responsible for implementing development projects, such as dams, understand the consequences of their decisions before they act. Moreover, once all the ramifications have been clearly outlined, the decision-makers must provide the people who will potentially be affected by the project the opportunity to participate throughout the entire process. Groups affected by the proposed actions should include those who live nearby; those who will be directly affected by the development intervention; and those who will be forced to relocate once the project is put into effect.

In order to overcome these difficulties, I have outlined some key points involved in implementing a high-quality SIA.

1) Research must be conducted on the ecology and livelihood of the people in the surrounding area prior to the construction of a dam. One of the main reasons Rasi Salai was such a failure is because the government not only ignored the environmental impacts of the dam, but even more significantly did not consider the potential negative social impacts of the dam.

2) Once this research is conducted, the dam company must inform all potentially affected groups in order to come up with a public plan. All of the research must be shared with them. The main goal of this step is to implement a public involvement program that will be utilized throughout the entire SIA process.

3) All of the probable social impacts pertaining to the project must be identified and communicated to the potentially affected groups of people.

4) Lastly, the project should be monitored from start to finish, ensuring that the stipulations of the SIA are truly being carried out.

I truly believe that if all of these steps are taken into account for development interventions in the future, it will help agencies and private companies tremendously in fulfilling their business obligations without destroying the livelihoods and resources of the traditional cultures, such as the case of the Rasi Salai dam.

Andy Miller
University of Colorado at Boulder

Energy, it’s what’s for dinner!

Despite the progression through each unit, it always comes back to being an issue of food for me. Here’s why –

When thirsty, a glass of water and a can of coke, more often than not, represents the same thing to a consumer with the only palpable difference being felt in the wallet or at the waist. But let’s think about the origins of each thirst quencher and how exactly they got within reaching range of the person about to drink it.
The tap water, in a glass, was most likely pumped from the water treatment plant which draws from surface or ground water. It travels through copper, steel or plastic pipes put there by a company at the time of construction. Looking at the clear liquid in the glass, there is nothing you can’t see. No labels, no ingredients besides some natural harmless contaminants, its water—simple enough.

The story of a can of soda is different. Disregarding the negative factors associated with soda consumption such as health care issues and government subsidies on corn production, looking at it from a pure energy stand point – the production of soda is a huge waste. Soda is made using corn-syrup sweeteners and other ingredients that use tractors, synthetic fertilizer and processing factories. Every step of the way, the production of the beverage consumes fossil fuel and other energy. In other words, the United States uses up to ten calories of fossil-fuel for every calorie of processed food, such as soda, that it produces. This excludes the energy used for the transportation of the soda to the consumer or the making of the aluminum can in which it is held.1

Our constant depletion of natural resources for energy frequently comes hand in hand with human rights violations. Recently, visiting Pak Mun Dam, a hydropower project in Ubon Ratchathani province, Thailand, has made me re-think the term ‘clean’ energy. Before, dams seemed like a harmless and renewable source of electricity in comparison to ‘dirty’ energy such as oil. However, Pak Mun Dam has lead to the flooding of farmland and an alarming decrease in wildlife, which consequentially lead to a loss of livelihood and degradation of culture for local people. A development project which was meant for increasing the quality of life for Thai people and supplying enough energy to allow the country to catch up to its Western counterparts, has in fact done the opposite. ‘The dam is also one of the most studied, in part because it had all the features of a failed development policy: no participation of local people in the decision making process, a flawed Environmental Impact Assessment, government misinformation, construction carried out in the shadow of martial law, careless World Bank oversight, ill-conceived mitigation plans, and the destruction of an entire river ecosystem upon which river communities depended.’ 2 The issues associated with the dam have fueled one of the longest running protests in the world, with a current lifespan of 30 years. Upon reflection, ‘clean’ seems to be an inappropriate adjective for this hydropower generator.

Let’s face it— energy needs to come from somewhere. While greater minds than my own figure out the most effective and sustainable ways of increasing energy supply, we as consumers can do our part in lowering its demand. Instead of thinking about energy conservation on a surface level such as turning off one’s computer when leaving the room, we can also think about how we feed ourselves, not only in regards to whether we drink soda or not, but how we eat in general.

It takes no energy, besides the sun’s and your own, to grow food in a garden and bring it to the dinner table. Now consider the energy one consumes while purchasing food in a supermarket. Driving to the store to purchase a frozen processed meal, re-freezing it and later heating it up – it all requires energy! Beyond that the food is contained in plastic and/or cardboard that goes through its own cycle of production. Not too long ago people didn’t eat the way we do today and somehow they managed to survive and thrive.

Food is a fundamental human need. It binds us together. Our energy conservation can begin from changing the way we eat. I am learning to follow the bread crumbs and am realizing that my choice of eating habits is part of living a sustainable lifestyle. The question that always arises for me is – Why do I have to leave the world’s most consumerist nation to learn about my own consumerist fetish?

1. Jenkins, Katie, Lyndia McGauhey, and Wesley Mills. "Pak Mun Dam - ENGAGE Wiki." ENGAGE Wiki - ENGAGE Wiki. Web. 06 Nov. 2009. .
2. Manning, Richard. "The Oil We Eat." Harper's Magazine Feb. 2004: 37-45. Print.

Ana Kostioukova
Claremont McKenna College

Interesting Perspective From Thailand

It is so interesting to see the perspective of the world from over here in Thailand.

The United States believes that the world loves the U.S., and the government works hard to get the American public to believe that the America is a God-send to all of the other nations across the world, especially developing countries.

But not all of the developing world loves the United States. I am learning that more and more each day. The World Bank is not as positive of an organization as is portrayed in America. From this side of the world, I can see the other perspective.

Coincidentally, in my time here, I have been reading "The Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" by John Perkins. Basically, it is a nonfiction account of one man's life working for the U.S. off the record. His job was to go into developing countries and to grossly overestimate the amount of "development" that the country would benefit from i.e. electricity, modern technology, etc. Then, the U.S. businesses and contracting forms would convince the officials of that country that they need this "development". Then, the U.S. would give out huge loans, knowing that the countries can never possibly pay them back and then the countries are forever indebted to the U.S. The rich people of the country benefit, the poor become even poorer, and the U.S. has access to the country's natural resources. Indentured servitude in modern form.

Certainly a side of globalization that you don’t see in America.

I visited the Pak Mun Dam, which is declared one of the biggest failures of the World Bank. Basically, the amount of electricity it would produce was grossly overestimated, and no one researched the effects it would have on the surrounding villages. So, the dam affects the fish coming down the river. The village heavily relies on the fish to support themselves. Additionally, the rush of the water when the dam is opened destroys agriculture along the water, etc. The people are understandably angry, especially because they were neither consulted about this decision nor did they receive adequate compensation for their loss of livelihoods, and have been fighting the government for 20 years on this. An instance of John Perkin’s account before my own eyes.

I was in Bangkok for World Habitat Day. There was a large protest, of every issue imaginable. So I stood by and watched the protest. It was interesting to see some of the signs going by. The most interesting had to be the signs that read, "No Capitalism", a protest you would never see in America. Additionally, there was a crowd of people wearing masks of the leaders of the Western world, Obama included. On the back of their heads were masks of Satan (Obama's), zombies, monsters, etc.

From the standpoint of some individuals in the developing country, capitalism is simply about getting as much as you can without giving or concerning yourself with who is being hurt. This is what is outlined in Perkin’s novel. Because some of the people in developing countries are the ones who are on the receiving end of this “greed”, their perception of America is less than positive. While we hear about how we are bringing electricity and modern technology to these poor, helpless countries, the perception of some of the developing world is quite the opposite, as though we are invading their country and pushing ideals that we think are positive, i.e. capitalism, onto their culture.

Learning about this entire other perspective is alarming just because of what a fantastic job the U.S. does of disillusioning its public to believe it is "the best" and that the rest of the world needs us. What the media fails to relay is all of the times we enter a country because we need them.

Nicole Keimer
Northeastern University