28 November 2009

“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

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