06 April 2010

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

1 comment:

Leslie O'Bray said...

Hey Bijal,

I really like your post, and I have had the same frustrations as you when trying to understand the dam issue. I wanted to add on by mentioning the protest that the villagers of Rasi Salai and Huana held to demand that the government listen to them. They staged a 189-day protest outside the government offices on the site of the dam. That way, they were able to see what the officials were doing every day and hold them accountable. They were extremely organized and functioned together as a united community. They were persistent, and harnessed the media to further their cause. By the end of the protest, they were successful in achieving compensation for lost livelihood for about half the people who needed it and the government designated 33 rai of land and some funds for the community to build a Learning Center. It struck me how well run and how successful this protest was in its approach and its outcome. Furthermore, when I met with EGAT, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, the representative told me they were no longer pursuing the construction of dams, “because there are too many protests.” While the government has not yet opened the gates of Rasi Salai because it fears it will set a precedent, by joining together and fighting, the villagers really are making a difference.