17 April 2010

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


Abe said...

How can we be like water, adapting to the current place and situation? Flowing seamlessly over the edges and cliffs we see as rigid and immovable. With unimaginable power, but exercising this force in the form of giving life to entire societies. And capable of simply playing along when splashed or swished by human hands. I truly wonder how we can be more like water, especially when it is the main ingredient of our cells and bodies.

Rachel said...

A larger question that I think this addresses is cultural change. As outsiders, we tend to look at Tamui and want it to stay as it is, but as you say, we have no place in deciding what development should look like for other communities. What's interesting to me is that we never take this lesson and apply it to our own communities. We aren't Tamui villagers, but we are residents of a town or city somewhere. Within those communities, we do have the right to determine how development should look and how we want to preserve our culture. How are we contributing to the preservation of local wisdom? In ths US, I often think we assume local wisdom doesn't exist, and we all rue the fact that "community" doesn't exist in the way it does in other places. So how can we make people feel connected to their local place? I've heard it argued that if people care more for and are more aware of their local environment (human and otherwise), they'll be more considerate of the global environment as well. Given all that, what are we doing at home?

Emily said...

This also made me think about the links between the desire to preserve culture and complacency. Bare with me, it’s a new thought and it might be a bit convoluted, but here goes. Especially as outsiders, this desire to preserve traditional culture often leads to a pigeon-holing, or essentializing, view of a village. We see it for all that we think it should be, in this case, a fishing village on the Mekong, where people use the same methods to fish that they have for many generations, eat the foods they have always eaten. There is continuity from generation to generation. We just choose not to focus on the many small shops that sell the same packaged snacks as are sold in the rest of the country, or the Japanese motorcycles that villagers whiz around on. Focusing on the “traditional” aspects of a community almost assumes that culture is static, discourages ownership, breeds complacency. I need to think through this more, but it seems like we all need to think more critically about our own culture and how development does not operate just “destroy” or “preserve” culture, it is one factor in the evolution of cultures.

Ben Hudgens said...

Great piece. I had the same thought as you about the absurdity of building a dam over such spectacular natural beauty. I think the difference is that I don't see the connection between villagers and the river as being the most essential component. I had the same issue in the mining unit where we saw both the severity of the environmental destruction and the impact it has on people’s lives. For me the value of the Mekong, or of mountains in Loei province isn’t seen just in the connection between people, but taking natural beauty to be an end in itself. It would be one thing if the mine or the dam could be built without destroying the panorama, but the dam will destroy the beauty of the area irreversibly, as the mine does. I don’t want to say that the people don’t matter, but in my mind, even if the people all agreed on building a dam, were going to receive compensation and be better off because of the dam, I would still object to its construction, because we are destroying something beautiful for something transient.