17 April 2010

Unpacking the Invisible Consumer (American) Knapsack

I thought I understood privilege. Of course, I write this statement with the understanding that power, and thus privilege, is strongest when it is invisible. That the moment you think you know privilege, or even think you have some tiny understanding of it, is the moment it will be bite you in the ass. For the privileges you benefit from the most are also the ones most hidden from you- in that case, consider me bitten.

My major at school is “Critical Theory and Social Justice” which, I know, is a pretty illusive title. I cringe every time someone asks me what major I am and hate myself for not being able to come up with a good answer to this question after two years. But, if I could give an eloquent answer, I would say that my major attempts to understand systems of privilege, power, and oppression and how they manifest themselves in the form of racism, sexism, colonialism, etc. These are all concepts I thought I came to Thailand with a fairly good grasp on.

I came here with a preconceived notion of how power would operate in this situation. I had contemplated the paradigm of Westerners coming to a “developing” nation- tourism as the newest form of colonialism. I feared for how my group of American students would be perceived- as Westerners coming and to impart our “superior knowledge” on “less developed” people. This was the power dynamic I had set up in my head, and thus I shied away from comments that I thought romanticized or objectified the villagers’ way of life we were witnessing. But, I myself had one of these moments recently- when I found myself wishing to stop development in its tracks.

Walking into the main mall here in Khon Kaen, Thailand, I was greeted by an old friend, new to the area: Starbucks. It was the one mark of development I hadn’t seen here: first come the McDonalds, then the Dairy queens, and finally the Starbucks. Seeing this companies appearance in the Northeast of Thailand (one of the most undeveloped regions of the country), I had a moment of “do as I say, not as I do.” I hated this mark of development, seeing it as another symbol of all the worst American trends making their way to developing nations, while I simultaneously remembered every Starbucks beverage I had ever enjoyed. After visiting Tamui village, a beautiful village on the Mekong that still relied on fishing as their main source of income, a few days before, the sight of a Starbucks seemed gross, abrasive. I saw the Mekong river battling this fast food (coffee) chain, and I wanted the Mekong to win, I desperately wanted the traditional way of life to prevail. But, then I was reminded of a story that a friend here in Thailand relayed from his time studying abroad in Argentina. He said he had a similar moment of horror when he saw a McDonalds there until a friend questioned him, saying, “If this country wants McDonalds, who are we to say to they can’t have it?”

Who are we to say? How can anyone who holds a Big Mac in their right hand and a Venti Latte in their left tell anyone else to halt development in the name of the environment or preserving tradition? And even if I don’t personally partake in these activities, I still live in a country that ultimately reaps certain benefits from that type of development. America has developed this way, we have lost our traditions, we have ruined land, but the world has not blown up, the apocalypse has not come.

This revelation regarding our path of development really hit me when villagers affected by the construction of dams, or chemical farming asked our group about similar problems in the US, and I didn’t have much to offer. I have studied environmental justice in school, and economic problems, but this has always been in relation to cities in urban areas- not rural areas with dams or farms. I thought I knew about sources of injustice in the US, but injustice regarding farming or dams mostly happened decades ago, and thus I had no stories to relate to these villagers. Our country has already faced these problems, and gotten over them. Traditional ways of life have been destroyed, people have migrated from the country to the city, and now we have a whole new load of urban development problems. Much pain and suffering has accompanied this development, but civilization has gone on.

I thought that this was the most sensitive mind frame I could have regarding development: let people develop how they would like to develop- recognizing the virtue in communities that are less developed without forcing preservation of culture. I thought this, until I started learning facts such as- “four hectares of land are needed to maintain the consumption of the average person living in a high-income country, yet in 1990, the world had only 1.7 hectares per capita” (When Corporations Rules the World). Or “a child born in the US will consume, waste, and pollute 50 times more in their lifetime than a child living in a developing nation” (UNICEF). Thus, not everyone can expand to the American level of development; the world will blow up.

I came here thinking in terms of the power dynamics I was familiar with- imperialism, colonialism, etc. What I didn’t know was that the power dynamic was already set up for me, it was there regardless of any action I took to mitigate those forms of oppression. The oppression I am apart of doesn’t come from imparting values onto another’s culture, it comes from living in a way that makes it that much harder for other’s to live.

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote the article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”- a must-read article in almost any class on privilege or oppression. This article is considered ground breaking, making many white people recognize privileges that had never before entered their consciousness- such as the ability to walk around a store without being questioned for stealing, or the ability to turn on the TV and see someone of your race portrayed in a positive light. In our globalized world, it is privileges such as the “ability to consume water or electricity without thinking twice,” or the “ability to eat your favorite meal without knowing where it came from,” that need to be recognized. It is now the invisible knapsack of consumer privilege (i.e. American privilege) that needs to be unpacked.

Samantha Sencer-Mura
Occidental College

Shifting Societal Values: How Progress and Development Could Simply Be Illusions

Is there such a thing as “good development” or “progress?” As the semester has moved forward, this question has continued to plague my thoughts. I have continually tried to confront the issues we’ve been studying without bias. I have tried to understand the values and limitations of all actors, especially ones that I do not initially agree with. However, this unbiased approach has left me confused about where I stand and whom I support. I find myself seeing murkier lines between what is considered “good development” and what is considered “harmful development.”

For example, the mines and dams that various Thai villagers are protesting against destroy local culture and livelihoods. Because these local cultures are falling victim to big development, we assume that means that those development projects are “bad.” However, we forget that these same dams and mines also serve greater national and international populations by supplying valuable energy and mineral sources (which are key factors in maintaining modern livelihoods). Thus, to criticize these development projects means an attack on the way human society has chosen to progress for the last century since the Industrial Revolution. This brings to light the strange paradigm of societal values and the consequent actions we take based on these values.

The world is developing in the manner it is developing because we as a human race had previously determined that this is the “right” way. However, now we are beginning to introduce a new discourse that places the preservation of local culture over the progression of modern luxuries. But why? Why are we now taking this stance? Were we previously ignorant as to what “good development” is? Where we “wrong” before? Are new grass-roots development plans necessarily “better?” Is it really that “bad” that 99.9% of people in Thailand have readily available electricity, even though some people had to be relocated to make power lines? Is it really that “bad” that we have the necessary minerals to create computers that allow global levels of information and communication to be readily available, even though they came from mines that destroyed some local environments?

The problem inevitably arises due to the basic question of how we define “good” from “bad” (because progress and development should ideally be the pursuit of good for all). Do these terms carry any inherent meaning beyond what we as a society decide to ascribe to them? “Good” and “bad” are determined by the values a society has at a given moment in time. However, it is true that throughout history these values can change across groups of people and across time itself. An example of these changing definitions is: less than a hundred and fifty years ago, the majority of the world (which consisted of equally intelligent, rational human beings) decided that it was “good” to enslave millions of people based on their race. In fact in their opinion, enslaving these people was a necessary part in developing the world for the future. The triangle trade was seen as progress.

Although it is now our current opinion that this was an atrocious embarrassment to human history, can we truly pass this judgment? The problem with doing so lies in the inherent failure for us as a human race to firmly decide on a clear cut meaning for “good” and “bad.” Our own judgments on slavery are based on our current societal values, which could also be seen as wrong and vile by some distant group of human beings in the future. In Aldous Huxley’s timeless novel, A Brave New World, Huxley presents a new society in which the societal values of today, i.e. love, commitment, individualism, equality and family are seen as base and vile. In fact, Huxley presents a society in which slavery and inequality are re-championed: some people are bred to be subservient to others for the sake of efficiency and the benefit of society.

Along these lines, who is to say that our newly placed value on grass-roots development over big development will not later be judged as “misguided” and “wrong?” So my challenge to the human race is, is there anything inherently good? Is there anything that is timelessly bad? Or are these merely self-imposed terminologies that we attempt to use to better understand the insane (and dare I suggest meaningless) world we live in?

Furthermore, I have come to the serious conclusion that every action has both negative and positive effects. There will always be someone who is sacrificing their potential well being for the development of others, because we all have different values. So how can we decide on what development project to enact? Is there such a thing as true development or progress? Or are we just constantly improving on some things at the cost of others, thereby creating a disguised inertia, an inertia in which our world is constantly changing, but nothing is really improving? Progress and development become nothing more than illusions that we perceive to be occurring when in reality there is no net change. There are only currents and shifts from one value set to a different value set, and it is this that we perceive as “change.”

There will always be problems in the world. But where do we go from here? How do we act if we can never really determine a right from wrong, and consequently can never truly progress? I suppose all we can really do is continue to act along the social and moral values given to us by our upbringing; to continue doing what we think is best, moral, right and good; and to continue hoping that these actions are helping the world in some way.

Michelle Nguyen
Brown University

Damming the Mekong: What’s the Cost of Development?

I’m sitting in a traditional Thai Long Tail Boat as it unsteadily pulls away from the rock-lined shore of the Mekong River in Thailand’s Udon Rachathani Province. Behind me, the village of Tamui is nestled in the cliffs, which lie opposite of the sandy banks, about five minutes away from the shore. To my anterior, my homestay father, a Tamui native, is perched in a squatting position at the narrow head of the boat. We’re going fishing. As he navigates us through the clear, still waters of the early morning, I watch the sun rise and illuminate the natural scenery around us. The experience is serene and beautiful, but it makes me wonder: how can any corporation be bold enough to enter this village and intrude on the villagers’ connections to the river by constructing a dam here?

Within the past few years, the Italian-Thai Development Public Company, Ltd. has been encroaching on this area with the intention of constructing a dam about two-and-a-half kilometers away from Tamui Village. If built, all of Tamui Village and its surrounding lands would be submerged under water. The fish populations, of which many of the villagers make their livelihoods off of, would diminish due to the closing of the dam’s gates. The farmlands, on which they grow beans, cotton, corn, and taro, would be destroyed by floods. Most importantly, the local wisdom, which has been cultivated for generations, would dissipate as the villagers are relocated to inland and urban neighborhoods.

So, who then would benefit from this proposed dam? According to Jacques Leslie’s “Running Dry: What Happens When the World No Longer Has Enough Freshwater?” the author argues that the so-called winners in this situation would be anyone but marginalized peoples. The minorities, he argues, “[are] often uneducated and powerless…[they are] hard to count or even notice…One estimate puts the worldwide total of people displaced by dams at 30 to 60 million.” Such a figure suggests that the beneficiaries are mainly local and regional governmental officials, transnational corporations, and intergovernmental agencies. In the scheme of state development, these actors are more than willing to sacrifice one village’s way of life for the modernization of the entire country.

As I watch my homestay father use a long whip and a series of nets to catch fish, I realize that Tamui Village and its imminent dam issue is a microcosm that illustrates what developing countries encounter when they want to expand and strengthen their infrastructure. As Leslie writes, developing countries face “environmental degradation…mass migration, peasant revolt, and urban insurrection” when they attempt to construct a dam, a highway, a railroad, or any other major infrastructure projects. In addition, these projects further solidify regional political and economic relationships. For example, the Italian-Thai Development Public Company, Ltd.’s proposed dam would be on the Mekong River- this river flows through six different countries: Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Consequently, the closing and opening of the dam’s gates would affect other dams, economics, and politics in the other countries.

When we returned to shore after a long morning of fishing, I took a moment to stand on the rocks and stare at the Mekong River in all its glory. Although I had strong feelings against the proposed dam and against the capitalism, globalization, and corporatism that it stood for, I was not a Tamui Villager. Thus, I did not have the right to judge or assess what type of development this village needed or did not need. Even my homestay father said that the dam issue was a sensitive topic that polarized the village. Approximately 50% of Tamui residents were for the dam and 50% were against it.

In reading this piece, does it remind you all- the students of CGE Mexico- of any homestay communities that you’ve encountered? If so, how do you reconcile the desire to preserve local communities/cultures and the governments’ push for major infrastructure development?

Ann Kam
Claremont McKenna College

Invisible Irony

We left the building with a sense of paradox and confusion after an exchange with the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) in the Srisaket Province in southeastern Thailand. The second you exit the office where the engineer of a few extremely detrimental dams works, a fluorescent green lawn flashes in front of your eyes during the current dry season. Next you see flooded wetlands and then the massive Rasi Salai dam that was built for irrigation.

The engineer reaffirmed our knowledge that Isaan (large region of northeast Thailand) is an agricultural area overcome with drought and poverty, with problems concerning water management and food production. Even though it is true that Isaan has difficulties with water scarcity and management, we also learned that the government and private companies have exaggerated the drought in northeastern Thailand. There are many proposed dams along major rivers in Thailand to help irrigate the country and also create electricity through hydropower in order to rely less on Laos for power importation.

The enormous concrete structures that interrupt the flow of natural water systems cost millions and millions of dollars and leave the thousands of villagers who live upstream and downstream from them with major tribulations and life-altering transformations. The ecosystems in the rivers are always jeopardized, upstream villages and lives are flooded and downstream residents are left with scarce and stagnant water. Who decides what actually is for “the betterment of the community”? Say that a dam actually follows through with its promise of providing electricity throughout a large area, is that worth the thousands of displaced residents along the river? Maybe it is, maybe its not, but no matter what it seems that Thailand and many other emerging countries are following in the footsteps of development by constructing dams.

One truth is that our world is in a water crisis, and the construction of dams is doing nothing but provoking the predicament even more. Water is extremely difficult to transport to countries that do not have safe water to drink yet the ones who do have the luxury tend to take advantage of it. In the United States, you would never know we were in a water crisis. Our lawns stay healthy all summer long with sprinkler systems and we have plenty of golf courses that have never seen a brown spot in their life. Americans consume half a billion bottles of water every week yet it is generally safe to drink right out of the faucet in our kitchens for free.1

Here in Thailand, the greatest irony for us students emerged once we arrived home after unit four where we stayed with dam-affected communities for a week. We were well informed about the water crisis, electricity issues and irrigation concerns. However, the day after we returned was the start of our “spring break” and also one of Thailand’s famous national holidays: Songkran. This festival consists of everyone off of work, baby powder slapped on your face everywhere you walk, a lot of drinking and…water throwing. You absolutely cannot walk down the street without getting soaked by your neighbors and friends but mostly complete strangers. The second you start to dry in the sweltering heat, a truck drives by and drowns you in ice water where you then find yourself gasping for air followed by more people pasting baby powder on your cheeks. The festival is intense for around three days but playful water throwing lasts for up to a week.

But then there is reality – Isaan is in drought for the majority of every year. It is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day; many people cannot afford drinking water, nonetheless water to nourish their crops. While being slapped in the face with water all week, I was also slapped with these harsh realities that I have been learning about all semester. It is hard to think about confronting the water crisis, while also being confronted by such contradicting ideas on water allocation.

Are you confronted with the water crisis in Mexico, and if so, in what way?

1 (http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/)

Maggie McLagan
University of Colorado at Boulder

The Art of Clay Pots

Our student group recently returned from our fourth unit, where we looked at dams and their effects on both the environment and surrounding population. We visited a total of three communities, first, half of us stayed with families in a village in Rasi Sali, while the other half of our group slept in a village in Huana. I was one of 15 students who stayed with families in Goh village, a small village in Huana. For three nights another student, Steph, and I lived with an older couple, Meh Taeng and Pa Taung, and their two grandchildren.

Goh Village is one of many villages in Thailand that is rich in local culture. Ancestors of most of the villagers traveled to Huana from Khorat hundreds of years ago, and with them they brought the intricate skill of making clay pots, which are mainly used for steaming rice and hot pots. To this day, after being passed down from generation to generation, many of the villagers still create and sell clay pots as their main source of income. “This village and my ancestors have been making pots for hundreds of years now,” my Meh told me.

Another reason why making clay pots is so engrained in the villager’s culture is because on a daily basis they all work together and help each other as a community, from making the clay, to selling the final product. Before staying in Huana I would see the same exact clay pots on sale at markets or downtown for thirty baht (about 1 dollar), but I never thought about the amount of work that people put into creating these pots.

In Goh Village, villagers go through many steps to create a finish product they can sell. One day, my Pa and Meh walked me through every intricate detail. First, “I get our clay from a neighbor’s far away wetland,” said my Pa. The process of mixing the clay is called, kruang, when the clay is completely mixed they fill large covered containers with the clay to use when needed.

After collecting the clay, woman of the village spend their days forming and shaping the clay. “Only women do the pottery, while men make the clay,” said Meh Dim, who lives across the street from my family. While working with the pottery the women use two main instruments, a mai lai, a beating stick and a hindu, a tool that resembles a mushroom. The mai lai is used to create a smooth surface and the right thickness, while a hindu is used to round out any edges or straight areas on the pot. On an average day each woman makes about 30 pots, which are then left out in the sun to dry.

After drying the pots, they are put into a group, covered with hay and lit on fire, which acts as a homemade kiln. Permission to use their wetlands to retrieve the clay is not the only aspect of this process where my Pa and Meh’s neighbors lend them a helping hand. “We use to burn the pots on our land, but now we rely on our neighbor to use their land because they have a bigger area to burn all the pots,” said my Pa. They are kept in the fire for around an hour, where the pots turn a beautiful vibrant orange color. After all the pots turn this bright color they are taken out of the fire and put into a pile where they are put into the back of a neighbor’s pickup truck to be taken and sold at a market in downtown Rasi Sali.

Unfortunately after learning all about the process the community members go through to create these detailed pots, I found out that the nearby dam, which was built a decade ago but has not been activated yet, threatens all aspects of Goh Village’s rich local culture. The villagers have not experienced any effects of the dam because the gates of the dam have never been closed, but the government does plan to close the gates in the future which will have a major impact on each and every villager’s way of life.

April Morris
University of Colorado at Boulder

Bigger Pictures

In a little more than a month our group will be done with the program and we will all disperse across the world. Some of us are heading to different countries, some staying in Thailand, and some heading back to America. All of us are frantically looking back at what we have done and where connections lie between all of the communities. What is the bigger picture? In reality, there are so many different connections and bigger pictures that at times it is hard not to get frustrated with where help can be provided. On a small scale we are simply students staying with amazing families who have all fought the bigger picture in different ways. When we are on home stays we are drowned in hospitality as we eat to the point it hurts. During these short whirlwind days we are learning from a family while simultaneously having exchanges about how globalization and development has directly affected families. When we come back from each home stay we all spend time trying to process and link together individual experiences.

One thing I particularly have a hard time with is focusing on community strength rather than hardship. I have been learning so much about destruction and lack of power that I become blind sighted to the many stories we hear of triumph and community bondage. Recently I have been trying to process the information I have been obtaining by focusing on the connection between how communities form groups to combat the issues that are affecting them. The last village we visited, Rasi Sali, was severely affected by the construction of a dam. Usually when I hear of these hardships I focus on the destroyed livelihood and lack of government help. Instead of being bogged down by negative affects I am directing my energy towards the positive small fight that the communities have overcome. For example, these dams are used to produce hydroelectric power yet they cost millions of dollars and prevent fish from flowing through the dams and displace millions of people. I stayed with a leader of my community who organized a 189-day protest against the government last year. As a result of this protest the village I stayed at received compensation for their land. This would not have happened if not for community organization, group work, and strength. With my alternative perspective of development and globalization I have been able to focus on a new lens. A lens that focuses on the odds those communities have overcome.

Every unit we have been on our group has encountered people who are still living, playing, and fighting amidst problems that work against the backbone of most villages. However, with this lens I start to look at how community organization starts only after communities are affected by destruction. What are ways in which communities could react before something happens?

This past unit our group visited Tamui Village on the Mekong River. This village is aware of the dam but has yet to do anything in protest. I can not help but thinking “Do something!, Do something!”. I am aware that these thoughts are unwarranted and that I do not know the whole scope of why the families are not doing something. I keep questioning why organization usually happens so late in the game. It is very hard to focus on community, culture, and strength when destruction looks inevitable. Why is it so hard to focus on the positive? Where are the positives of globalization and development? Could communities come together without negative affects to combat?

Barrie Schwartz
University of Michigan

06 April 2010

Can study abroad be green?

For the first month of the program, many of us grumbled about how wasteful we felt we were being in Thailand. We would eat an individual yogurt cup in the morning, maybe with a mini box of Frosted Flakes, a big plastic bottle of water (because we cannot drink the tap), get some fresh pineapple for a mid-morning snack, which invariably comes in a plastic bag placed inside another plastic bag, snag some take-out lunch in a will-never-decompose-Styrofoam container also inside a plastic bag, and an iced coffee pick-me-up in the afternoon.

For a program that places such emphasis on student empowerment, we felt remarkably disempowered over our impact in the world. We don’t have a kitchen to cook for ourselves nor do we have a fridge so we can buy our soymilk by the gallon rather than the juice box. Thinking about the lifestyle we are living here in Thailand, coupled with the carbon-emitting 20-hour plane ride and constant car rides around the country, a friend remarked about being here, “I feel like I’m doing more harm than good.”

Part of me justified this lifestyle by remembering I was abroad, and that there were other lessons to be learned while here. I placated myself thinking, “Well, it’s only one semester of living this way.” But students feel like they have to live like this each new semester, and feel powerless to do it differently.

We’ve found that we can change things. Looking at our consumption patterns, we realized that we could make a huge difference in how much waste we produced by buying Tupperware containers to get fruit and takeout in, as well as a reusable cup to buy smoothies and iced coffee (and some places give us discounts for bringing our own cup!). Being intentional and filling our nalgenes with the filtered tap water in our office cuts down a lot on the plastic bottles we would otherwise use. And learning phrases like “mai sai tung” (don’t put it in a bag) help daily to reduce our waste.

But more than just our personal decisions, we need institutional support to enable us to be green. We talked to our program director about making the program more environmentally friendly, and he responded enthusiastically to our interest. We’ve formed three specific subcommittees to address the issue of CIEE Sustainability: the garden club, kitchen crew, and the CIEE climate action plan.

The garden club started after learning about food and organic agriculture. Realizing how little of the food we consume here in Khon Kaen in grown organically, a few students banded together to start the club. They approached Ajaan Dave about the idea, and he in return provided the bricks and soil to make two raised garden beds. Already we have vegetables growing. The students created a schedule for watering/weeding, and have talked with our neighbors about watering while we are away.

Ajaan Dave agreed to build a mini-kitchen and purchase a fridge for the students to use so we are not so dependent on food vendors. We are in the midst of drawing up plans for what we need in the kitchen and where we will place it.

The CIEE climate action plan is examining the environmental impact of the program, and what the institution can be doing better to make it a green study abroad program. A few students and some staff meet regularly. We decided to first establish the current environmental impact of the program (by looking at our electricity, water, and vehicle gas bills, as well as weighing our trash) over a period of time, and then discussing ways to reduce these numbers. Three students met with the company that supplies our electricity to learn the sources of our electricity, and see if it is possible to obtain our energy from renewable resources. We are looking into having the program provide the students with a reusable water bottle, container, and cup that every semester can use.

Together, the three parts of the committee held a workshop to update the rest of the group on what we’ve been doing, steps we all can take, and how they can be involved. I’ve realized that we don’t have to be disempowered while abroad. It takes an extra effort and some creativity to think of how we can be more environmentally friendly, but it is worth that extra thought. In doing so we are really taking ownership over our education and are empowered. The program responded when we initiated the discussion on the program’s sustainability. Taking that first step has made a difference already, but still there is a long way to go. What else can CIEE Thailand do to become more sustainable? How can other study abroad programs, like CGE Mexico, also become green?

Leslie O'Bray
George Washington University

Trials of Baw Kaew

I am skimming through my documentation of an exchange CIEE students held with the lawyer for Baw Kaew’s upcoming court case. The notebook we used during our last visit to the protest village is full of rushed penmanship, question marks and ellipses, glaring omissions and questionable orthography. The pages of our notebook devoted to this exchange, which took place on a low, covered bamboo platform in the oppressive heat of March in Thailand, do little to reflect the surroundings, or the character who generously offered his time for our questions that day.

The lawyer for Baw Kaew’s trespassing trial is a small man named Bibun, from Pukeow province, who warned us more than a few times that he would hold us accountable for our facts during his exchange with us. Our conversation touched on the court cases (the earlier mentioned trespassing case, and the trial of the Forest Industry Organization (FIO) guards who physically assaulted youth from Baw Kaew) as well as the lawyer’s views on the different legal tools available in Thailand. He cited the constitution and the ESCR as necessary guidelines and mindsets for the fair and just practice of law that were often overlooked by judges.

The exchange took a turn at one point when Bibun began to describe the government policies that originally led villagers to the area where Baw Kaew is situated. During the 1960s and 70s, farmers were encouraged to migrate into the forests of the northeast for the twin purpose of growing cash crops like cassava and hemp, and mitigating the influence of communists hiding out in the region. Pens clicked, eyes sharpened, and all interested bodies leaned in to hear more, as we realized we were discovering hitherto unknown details about our current location, and the subject of our study. Aptly, the lawyer seated cross-legged in front of us had appealed to our sense of justice, provoking curiosity and astonishment at the revelation that the government of Thailand had led farmers to settle in the forest here, only to claim a few years later that the site had never been occupied.

My initial reaction, as it was hastily written in our composition book, was to determine whether there was any documentation of the government’s initial plan to settle the northeast for its own ulterior motives. Surely if they had kept records of this, there would be no difficulty in proving that the claims of the residents of Baw Kaew were legitimate so they could get their land back.

His response to my question was less than satisfactory in my opinion. The lawyer admonished my inquiry about documentation, claiming that the search for it was a moot point, since the important thing is to get the government to admit that the migration had occurred (they did admit this). I tried pushing the question one more time, with the same wavering, vague results.

Over the next week, as I delved into new books about the politics of Thailand’s forests in a quest for the responses Bibun had withheld, it became apparent just how engrained my American/western mindset about objective truth is, and was during this exchange. A few months previously I had read (in some documents) that while Westerners tend to focus on objectivity and a single truth, and the quest thereof, there is no such emphasis in Eastern cultures. If this is true, it explains some of what the lawyer was trying to get at in his ambiguous answers, and why my direct and objective questions about truth and proof were so lost in translation in the conversation.

My next slip-up was when I decided to write my blog about this idea of objectivity and truth. I was approaching the subject in an entirely objective fashion, intending to get the facts about the Thai alternative to my own way of thinking and proving, and to find out more about how a legal system works if documentation is not the summum bonum of proof. Finally, I sat down to write, only to realize I would need the composition book with our documentation of the exchange in it, in order to be as objectively accurate to the events as possible.

Althea Smith
Georgetown University

Making Connections

The sun was just rising when our van pulled up to the temple in Loei province. A group of us students and a few staff were embarking on an exchange between two mining affected communities via a skype call. One of the communities lives in the province and is affected by gold mining while the other community is half way around the world in Floyd County, Kentucky is affected by coal mining. This exchange was one of the most powerful things I have seen since I have been in Thailand. The communities expressed their struggles, strategies and support for one another. Paw Mai, a leader of the Na Nong Bong community, closed the Skype conversation by saying; “One thing that we still have is a friend across the world.” This conversation was an example of how increased globalization; technology and overall interconnectedness can be a positive thing.

We left the exchange to go observe a protest to receive withheld water test results at the Provincial Hall. At the protest, I encountered the opposite side of interconnectedness.

“Where are you from?” asks a surreptitious government official. When we replied that we were from the United States, he inquires about why we are supporting the villagers. This is an issue that troubles me.

Out of the sixty villagers that were at the protest, many of who protest once a month, the government official came up to the four new comers. Was he coming up to us because he realized that mountain top removal and mining is an international issue or was it because we are Americans?

The governor came to visit the village the next day to further discuss their problem with contaminated water and gave them a supply of clean water. P’Kovit, an NGO that works closely with CIEE Thailand, along with a few community members expressed that they didn’t think that the governor would have come to Na Nong Bong if it weren’t for the foreigners who were at the protest. How do we reconcile this attention and undeserved privilege? Should I just accept that this is how the Thai social structure is and this is where I fit into it? By doing so, I can help these people that I care about.

Paw Samai, a Na Nong Bong resident, said, “When a foreigner comes into town, everyone knows about it.” Ben did a profile with Paw Samai who has death threats against him while all elders are dying of kidney and liver problems. He feels that he is living in danger everyday. “I think foreigners are afraid of dangerous situations,” says P’Kovit. He continues to explain that Na Nong Bong really needs a resident NGO because the government attributes no power to the villagers. He also says that a foreigner living there would be the most beneficial next step for the community because everyone will know more about the issue. He also says that if a foreigner were threatened or attacked, everyone would also know. As I make this connection in my head, I wonder to myself, ‘How many people other than the community members in Na Nong Bong know that Paw Samai and Paw Mai have received death threats?’

I thought about this phenomenon cross-culturally. Why is it that we pay more attention when politicians or famous people are threatened? This goes way beyond Thailand because of social hierarchy exists across the world. In my opinion, this is natural but not when it informs the rights of people. This could either be evidence of social injustice in a society or it is a tool in a way that promotes more justice. How can we have a meeting with the mayor of Khon Kaen when residents of Khon Kaen have been fighting these issues for years without direct contact with him?

The negative feelings that arise within me from thess situations could be internal because it hurts our pride. It does so because we think people should be judged on ability and have respect for the quality of our beings. Maybe the reality isn’t so bad; maybe it means that we have the ability to assist them in the change they need. These terrible feelings may really just be in our heads.

Many of us agree that the power we seemingly have for just being foreigners is dispiriting. Being viewed with such reverence is a difficult thing for many people to grasp.

I want to provide what I can to the communities I work with, whether it be a complement about their inspiring community or presenting my ideas about their learning center. I want them to use our resources up fully.

One of my fellow CIEE students explained our project by saying that we, as students, would act as a mirror for the villagers’ ideas and visions. We will take in their desires and ideas and then reflect them out to the public with the resources that we have. We will do what we can.

My feelings of anger and confusion subside as I finish a long day of planning for a learning center in a community. Hours away from leaving for the Rasi Sali dam affected community; I anxiously await the positive exchanges we are going to have with this community.

Gianna Fazioli
University of Michigan

Who Owns the Land?

Before arriving in Thailand and learning about different human rights issues, I didn’t really know what it meant to own land. Growing up in a society that focuses on the wants and needs of individuals, I assumed that owning land referred to a person purchasing a piece of land. Although a piece of land could belong to a family, I did not know that an entire community could own the same land because I equated owning land with the individual.

After visiting the slum, landfill, Baw Kaew and the dam communities, my perception of land rights has drastically changed. In each of my visits to these communities, I noticed the reoccurring question of “who owns the land?” but I did not have an answer as to why the right to land is constantly being violated by the government. When I met with P’Sanan, a man who founded an NGO that collaborates with dam communities, I learned that the Thai constitution only recognizes individual land titles. After learning this, I immediately started thinking about the ways in which Thailand works as a collectivist society.

Unlike an individualistic society where people view the self as autonomous and independent, a collectivist society sees the self as interdependent. In Thailand, the majority of people live in communities where they depend on each other and are strongly influenced by the feelings, actions and thought of others. Therefore, if Thailand is based on collectivity, why do communities have to fight the government for the right to own the land?

Rasi Salai is an example of a community who has been struggling to get the right to their land. The villagers have depended on the river and surrounding ecosystem for many generations. The wetlands surrounding Rasi Salai contained the richest soil and the most biodiversity in all of Northeast Thailand. In fact, the villagers depended so much on the wetlands for food and resources that they referred to it as their “supermarket.” However, in 1989 the Thai government began construction on the Rasi Salai dam with the effort to provide irrigation for the surrounding regions. The villagers were told that the government would be building a 4.5-meter rubber weir, but instead it resulted in a 9-meter tall concrete dam. Since the completion of the dam in 1993, the livelihoods of over 17,000 villagers have been destroyed due to extreme flooding.

Rasi Salai has been fighting to get the government to open the dam gates, so the river can flow freely without completely depleting the wetlands. They had a 189-day protest, which resulted in a promise from the government of compensation. Unfortunately, when a community receives compensation, they lose the ownership of their land altogether and the land goes to the government.

The Thai constitution disregards community land rights, which results in eviction, suffering and a loss of culture. Why does the Thai constitution focus on individual land rights when most people in Thailand value community?

I was wondering if CGE students could share what the situation in Mexico is like. Is Mexico also considered a collectivist society? If so, are people’s land rights also being continuously violated? How is the situation similar? How is different? I hope to learn more about land right issues in other collectivist societies to see how other countries are dealing with these problems.

Charlotte Friedman
Bates College

Understanding Rasi Salai

My community in Southern New Jersey is home to 40,000 acres of preserved tidal wetlands. This massive wildlife refuge is a mere five minutes from my house. Last summer, through bike riding and visits with the girl I babysat, I have developed affection for this utopia of natural resources unsuspectingly located in my quiet suburban town. For me, the wildlife refuge is a source of leisure, a local escape that provides a scenic view of the Atlantic Ocean and a chance to maybe see a turtle or a bird. A recent experience in Rasi Salai, a village in Northeastern Thailand, has caused me to reexamine the value of wetlands and appreciate the true intricacies of its ecosystem. Villagers in Rasi Salai depend on their wetlands as a source of food, livelihood, and culture. My affection for my community’s wetlands is based on a shallow appreciation for my surroundings, not because of any dependence or connection I have with the land, but for the villagers of Rasi Salai, the wetlands mean everything.

The Rasi Salai community sustained itself for generations using resources from the Mun River and its surrounding wetlands. The villagers fish in the river, grow rice, gather vegetables, grow medicinal herbs, gather materials for everyday life, and everything else they needed from the wetlands, “their supermarket.” This oasis of biodiversity, the most fertile land in the region, land that the villagers of Rasi Salai depended on for hundreds of years, currently sits under a massive reservoir of water. In 1993, the government opened a 9-meter concrete Rasi Salai dam on the Mun River and since then, the lives of these villagers were never the same.

From an outsider’s perspective of the situation in Rasi Salai, the injustices and logical fallacies of its existence are evident. The construction of the dam and its current presence defy reason. The Rasi Salai dam devastated 17,000 lives along with the ecosystems of the Mun river, and destroyed the wetlands. The villagers who haven’t already migrated to cities for low paying labor jobs currently struggle to grow their crops, ironically enough, often without enough water despite the promise of irrigation benefits from the dam. I felt helpless walking through a villagers’ yellowing garden, desperate for replenishment, when only miles away sits a wasteful body of water.

Regardless of the evident failures of the Rasi Salai dam, it still towers over the Mun River, with its gates closed for eight months out of the year. As an American student absorbing the facts, I couldn’t help but wonder, “why don’t they just open the gates?” Attempting to reverse the damage and restoring the river’s natural state is a seemingly simple solution to a complicated problem, but nothing is that easy. Although the government has admitted the dam was a mistake, its compliance in dismantling the dam or even allowing the gates to remain open is not an option for the villagers.

Despite the fact that the government has spent millions on the construction of the dam and compensation to villagers for the injustices committed in the process, along with the fact the dam does not really irrigate that much land, the Rasi Salai dam still stands, gates closed. The probing cost benefit analysis questions do not get asked and these facts continue to be ignored. At this point, it’s a matter of principle for the Thai government. The dismantling of the Rasi Salai dam or permanently opening its gates would demonstrate a victory for villagers, contradict the state’s exertion of power, and set a precedent for other dam affected communities, something the government would never allow. In a country known for its governmental instability and corruption, it is a long and difficult battle for justice, a fight the Rasi Salai villagers have only just begun.

As American students, it’s easy to ask the simple questions, and wonder about the possibilities of common sense solutions that seem so easy to execute. However, It is clear that there are many gaps in our understanding of Rasi Salai and the way this country is run. “If the government itself admits the dam is a mistake, why is it still there?” We questioned a local NGO in the desperate pursuit of a logical answer. Our answer was short but not simple, and full of frustration. “Because this is Thailand.”

Bijal Makadia
George Washington University

05 April 2010

Garbage a Problem in Thailand?

Consumerism, a highly stigmatized word that oftentimes holds a negative connotation because it is associated with capitalism, has many facets to it. Before studying Unit 2 I had an incomplete view of consumerism I usually thought of the effects of my consumption patterns on the environment at its beginning stages, for example, the raw materials that it needed or how much oil it took for my product to get where I purchased it. I completely disregarded and ignored the final stage of consumerism. At home, I dreaded Monday’s and Thursday’s because those where the days that I had to take the trash out of my house and into the side walk. I was too preoccupied with saving the forest, protecting the cows from inhumane treatment, I needed to protect small farmers from big corporations, the concept of trash and the impact that it had on the environment, was not an issue I thought about, living in New York City trash simply vanished.

Thailand is using neo-liberal ideology as a means to economic development. Neo-liberal ideology encourages free market capitalism, under this system economic growth is determined by how much a country spends, the more people consume the better a country is. This ideology of development came about after WWII in the 1950’s and as a result has lead to massive environmental degradation and an increasing amount of waste creation worldwide. As Thailand continues to develop and to adopt western ideology, consumerism will continue to rise and consequently so will trash. Thus far, “Thailand’s changing consumption lifestyle led to an increase in the annual production of garbage. The volume of garbage produced annually rose from 14.6 million tons in 2004 to 15 million tons in 2008. Plastics and Styrofoam made up one out of five parts of the total garbage volume.”
The Thai government has worked with the international community in an effort to manage the increasing amount of waste that is produced from its rapidly developing economy. Thailand has the second largest economy in South East Asia focused on export led development. Since 2000 it has had a 3-4% economic growth rate. Such a rapidly increasing economy has hindered Thailand from developing appropriate methods of disposing of waste produced by a society that is verging more to consumerist practices. As a result, Thailand currently does not have a comprehensive recycling system in place; the trash produced in Thailand is either sent to a landfill or is sent to an incinerator. Private clinics are not required to separate their trash; they can dispose of medical waste in the same way that they would dispose of regular trash. This is a problem because water dispelled from the landfill can either go to neighboring farms or flow into neighboring rivers, for example, Khambon Noi, a landfill in Khon Kaen, run-offs from the landfill go into the Pong river; this river is a source of water to many residents in the area.

After the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Summit Thailand received the help of Denmark to implement a comprehensive recycling program the program, however, fell through after Denmark left. As Thailand moves forward, consumerism is inevitable, consequently so is trash, therefore, an effective method of waste disposal that does not harm the livelihood and sustainability of scavengers in Thailand is essential.

Esther Sosa
Bowdoin College