06 April 2010

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

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