21 November 2011

What is Solidarity?

Here in Khon Kaen, Thailand working as a member of a group and visiting villages every few weeks, the term solidarity has come up a few times. It seems the more time passes, the more frequently the term is used. The question though is what is solidarity in terms of these issues? What does it mean in the villages?

On a journey to discover what solidarity really means, one telling village was that of Ban Huay Top Nai Noi. Not only does this village share passion and drive, but they have a plan. Made up of villagers from two different surrounding villages, this protest village was formed to protest a dam project upstream. These villagers’ homes were not going to be flooded, but their farms, their livelihoods, were. In 1995 the protest village formed in the flood zone of the proposed dam project. Paw Sampone said, “We moved to the flood zone because if they want to build the dam, build the dam. But, if you retain any water you will be killing people.” The power of their mission is not just for themselves however, it is for the land and the people around them.

In 2011 the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was finished for the dam project. The people decided though that they would not move until the EIA and SIA (social impact assessment) was done for surrounding villages and dam projects. They are part of a greater network, working towards one goal—protecting their way of life. For communities we visited on unit 4, potential or previous dam sites, the river is more than a source of water. The flooding created or exacerbated by dams is not just detrimental to the crops in the farm land or the homes in the area, but it completely destroys livelihoods.

For example, in communities affected by the Rasi Salai dam, the end of the rainy season has led to absolutely no source of income for the people. The wetlands, their original source of food and crops, are flooded. They cannot gather crops that have been sustaining their families for hundreds of years. Their farmlands are also flooded because of the dam reservoir, to the point where the can only get around some parts by boat. Many cannot even walk to their farms to see how much damage has been done. The final aspect of these villagers’ income come from handicrafts made and sold at the local learning center. The center is up to the roof with water because the land the people were given for the project is located on the banks of the reservoir. The supplies to make most of the crafts come from their fields as well. So without farm land just a few weeks before harvest, no crafts and no place to sell them, the dam has led to no financial stability or security for the people of Rasi Salai. Their homes may not be flooded, but they continue to band together because without the other community members, some families could easily go hungry.

This community serves as a mentor for that of Ban Huay Top Nai Noi. They have provided guidance, comfort, and support during the hard times. They inspire the people of Ban Huay Top Nai Noi, and encourage their fight. Even through the violence that has occurred, the people of the protest village stayed in their new location. Their presence is a fight, it is a message. “We do this for the land. Land cannot regenerate but people are born everyday.” Their strength comes from each other. “Where ever we go, we go together. We share everything, not just knowledge.” These words of the community members are what enable the movement they are a part of. They have a cause and support and the strength of their community is what true solidarity looks like. They stand, fall, live and fight together.

Julie Yermack
University of Richmond

Rethinking Development

The road through Rasi Salai District is lined by water on both sides – an enormous lake stretching as far as the eye can see. However, I notice a handful of trees poking their leafy crowns above the waves, and realize that this vast lake is in fact a floodplain resulting from the Rasi Salai dam. CIEE students spent three days in this village, learning about its history, the construction of the dam, and the diverging opinions of ‘development’ between anti-and pro-dam citizens.

Our first day in the village, our group met with a representative of the Royal Irrigation Department (RID), the governmental division that manages the dam and its irrigation systems. The representative noted, “I have to admit, I don’t think conservation and development go in the same direction.” This notion is popular within the international community, particularly in the United States, defining development in terms of economic gains and linear ‘progress’. In terms of dam building, the United States began this move towards ‘development’ with the Hoover Dam, constructed in 1936. Since then it has continued this trend, and financially benefiting from such projects, further reinforcing this as a norm of development and setting the precedent for the international community.

Eager to develop in the same way, Thailand established a number of development policies, beginning with their plan for economic development in 1961, which would focus on managing natural resources, industrialization, and infrastructure. For dams in particular, Thailand proposed a number of dam projects, including the Kong-Chi-Mun Project under which the Rasi Salai Dam was built.

However, development need not be defined strictly by linear progress and economic gains, as the villages affected by the Rasi Salai dam provides an alternative approach. NGO and dam-affected villager, P’Blaa contends that Rasi Salai is using community organizations and projects so that conservation and development can work together.

In this way, Rasi Salai’s approach to development is based very much around their traditional relationship with the environment. For decades prior to the dam’s construction, the villagers relied heavily on the free-flowing river and wetlands for their livelihood. Their knowledge of wetland plants, roots, and mushrooms is extensive, and their style of catching fish and other aquatic animals is rooted in old traditional methods. But today, the environmental changes caused by the dam, including flooding, habitat alteration, and water quality changes, has forced the villagers to change their old way of life and adapt to the now less fruitful environment.

Despite these problems, caused by the government’s ‘development’, the village still develops in accordance with its own values. In their approach they use education to preserve cultural traditions, and create projects and organizations to provide community support. In this way, the village is able to support each other culturally, emotionally, and financially (through their own welfare fund), to develop with strength and sustainability.

This alternative approach to development is one that Thailand has yet to fully appreciate. Development is still popularly viewed to be synonymous with economic gains and linear progress, rather than something in harmony with conservation of local traditions and the environment. However, by not valuing conservation, development plans will eventually dead end due to ecological imbalance or resource depletion, and take local culture and community with it.

Liza Wood
College of Charleston

Media in Movements

Most recently we spent time in the Rasi Salai community located on the Mun River, in Srisaket province. This community has experienced substantial and ongoing effects from a nine-meter concrete dam built by the Thai Department of Energy Development and Promotion in 1992. Local groups protested this dam and pressured the government to conduct sufficient environmental and social impact assessments. Since, the Rasi Salai dam has been recommissioned for seven years under the Royal Irrigation Department.

We spent time speaking with both villagers and NGOs about ongoing projects from the recommendations in the Social Impact Assessment. As the community has settled some of the compensation issues, they are looking for more long-term support in restorative community projects. At the time of the protest, there was media coverage regarding the demands of the people regarding the resource and livelihood deterioration the dam was causing. Even then, one news source ran a story requesting the interviewees refer to the dam as a “big government development project.”

Now, many years later P’Banya, an NGO working with the Rasi Salai community is still using media as a way to document the wider communities’ restorative efforts. “Media is an import part of grassroots movements,” P’Banya tells us, “it’s a way of telling stories about our own struggles, to communicate these with others.” In exploring mechanisms for telling human rights and grassroots messages, our student group has gotten the opportunity to see media as an important tool.

Since 2009, there are more local reporters who are interested in stories on people’s movements including events in the Rasi Salai community. Both video and images can also tell a story through the media, as it is important to present a more objective perspective that allows the audience to understand factors at play and the people’s perspectives. Thai PBS is a channel on mainstream television that has aired stories from the people’s movement. NGOs hope their work with Thai PBS will eventually lead to the inclusion of more community stories in mainstream news. The NGOs themselves work on stories for The Isaan Voice, a regional newspaper, Facebook and blogs. A community radio station is in the works, but funding is hard to come by so long after the dam construction captured the attention of a wider audience, both in Thailand and abroad.

For now, Thai PBS is funding a project to document the Wetlands People Association and their organizing around cultural celebration at the Rasi Salai learning center, although the area is currently flooded due to high water levels in the dam reservoir. Meh Sii and other community members are excited about the media as a way to gather support for ongoing community development projects, including the prospect for a green market in the future.

Morgan Tarrant
Davidson College

Fragmentation of Responsibility in Government

During this past unit in which we learned about the dam and water management problems in the Issan Region, we had the pleasure of visiting the Rasi Salai District office of the Royal Irrigation Department (RID). At the beginning of the exchange, Banya Bak Cha Goon, the exchangee, gave a short PowerPoint presentation. In describing Thailand’s governmental structure for managing natural resources, P. Bak Cha Goon explained the complicated network consisting of sub committees, committees, district offices, national offices, and the vice prime minister, among other branches. When I heard this, I couldn’t help thinking that this framework would make communication and decision making between governmental groups extremely difficult. This sentiment was reverberated when we asked him about the status of the Hua Na Dam, another dam in the Rasi Salai district and he responded saying that because he was not on the subcommittee that dealt with the Hua Na Dam, he was uninformed of the current situation. I was very troubled that the Head of Water Operations and Management did not know about what was happening to a contested dam in the same district.

This was not the first time, however, that our student group received this type of reply, as we heard a similar comment when exchanging with the Phu Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctuary. These two incidents are evidence to me of the fragmentation of responsibility within Thailand’s natural resource management offices. I think that this lack of discourse within governmental branches and field offices has also hindered community participation in decision making because the paths of communication villagers could use to voice their demands are often fractured.

Although some responsibility should fall on villagers to continue trying to convey their problems, the serpentine top-down structure that I have observed does not aid their cause. I am not suggesting that the Thai Government should abandon their organization tactics but I am proposing that a better exchange of information would help ensure that the demands of those whom the government is trying to help (the people) are being heard and met because right now, based on my experience, they are largely being ignored and communication has been a common excuse for these failures from government officials.

Alex Waltz
Carleton College

Is There Room for Thailand at the Preservation Table?

I’m confused and uncomfortable. I’d even venture to say that it feels like I’m in a state of mental limbo of sorts.

I left my beloved Ann Arbor this past summer and descended upon Thailand thinking I knew exactly where I stood in terms of my own environmental ethics and practices. I mean as someone who is finishing her last year as an undergraduate I should know.

My views were challenged on a recent unit trip we took, the topic of which was land rights. The problems that the communities we exchanged with encountered mostly revolved around their relationship with nationally established wildlife sanctuaries nearby, which are essentially preservation areas. At the core of the issue was rights to the land and accessibility to resources on said land. In many cases, the villagers had been living in a given area and growing crops there or foraging in a nearby forest for several generations. However, the establishment of a sanctuary resulted in drawing of boundary lines that excluded villagers from their land and denied them access to resources they’d been reliant on for decades.

To anyone who has even a basic understanding of what preservation means, it might seem logical that the wildlife sanctuary severely limits villagers access to resources within the sanctuary’s boundaries. It makes little sense to have a preservation, the purpose of which is to protect an ecosystem and all of it’s components, only to let people come in and take things to sell or use for their personal consumption. At least this is the viewpoint I more or less adopted. I’ll defer to Aldo Leopold, the father of ecocentrism, who came up with a fantastic working definition of preservation in The Land Ethic when he said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

I have good intentions behind why I believe preservation of unique ecosystems is important in that I like to think there’s intrinsic value in nature. Thus, the importance of preserving such ecosystems outweighs human reliance on or desire to use and [potentially] exploit such resources.

However, I came to find that my view is too simplistic in the case of Thailand. This is not a country where wilderness was overpowered in favor of industrialization and thus confined to an existence in national and state parks. Thailand is still green, and very green at that. With this in mind, I wonder if the western idea of what preservation means is appropriate for Thailand. I don’t mean imply that I think Thailand should not be concerned with preserving its ecosystems; rather I think that a different definition of preservation is more feasible and applicable here. Of course I don’t hold the answer to this question, but I am starting to recognize some of the components that might prove useful for such redefinition in the context of Thailand.

In the past two months I have been here, the fog has started to clear and I’m coming to understand that the culture behind peoples’ interactions with nature here is totally different than in the US. Villagers here have a longstanding relationship with the land that many of us have lost touch with back home. Given that their livelihoods are dependent on their immediate surroundings, many villagers show genuine respect and appreciation for nature. I think they see both the intrinsic and instrumental value in nature, which is why they’re able to strike a balance between using nature but also cherishing it given that their lives, and the lives of their predecessors, depend on the preservation of such a relationship. Thus the western construct of what preservation is seems inappropriate in the case of Thailand, and possibly the rest of the global South, given that the western ethic it is based on is also completely different.

In an exchange we had during this unit, the way that the leader of Huay Ra Hong [village], Paw Praset, explained the relationship between people and nature is telling. In response to a question one of us asked, he said without any hesitation, “The community relies on the forest. Without the forest, the villagers cannot live their lives. The soul of preserving nature is within every farmer.”

So does preservation have to be put in the hands of a national organization, such as government, or is this idea simply one way to practice preservation?

Jenny Vainberg
University of Michigan

The Last Farm: The Next Generation of Farmers and Land Rights

Coming off of the agriculture unit, we learned that many Thai farmers are worried about whether there will be a next generation of farmers. As farming becomes a more difficult and less financially stable livelihood, fewer youth are interested in pursuing it as an occupation. Moving into the land unit, questions about the next generation of farmers continued to come up. We learned that this issue is even more complicated for communities who have been evicted from their lands by the government and are currently illegally squatting. It is not just a matter of getting youth engaged in agriculture but also ensuring that the community has the land for them to farm.

The communities that are struggling most to keep the youth engaged in the fight for land reform are those that have also internal conflict within the community. Huay Ron Ha, a community in conflict with the national park and government established wildlife sanctuary, has had problems with divorce, drugs, and alcohol. Meh Die, a representative from the NGO who is working with Huay Ron Ha, explained that “land issues have created domestic problems that drive many youth in the community to use drugs and alcohol.”

The communities succeeding the most are those who have an organized structure that promotes the success of the community as a whole with a focus on helping youth develop an appreciation for the land. In the Baw Kaew community, villagers hold each other accountable to a list of standards, have regular village meetings, and are currently working with the Isaan Land Reform Network to obtain a 1500 rai community land grant that would include a 150 rai community farm. Kao Baht provides education for the youth about farming and has grown one of the last varieties of sugarcane in order to teach the younger generation about the history of agriculture in the area.

Even with these efforts, all of the communities are struggling to grow a next generation of farmers. Many depend on youth to get jobs in order to financially support the family. Land rights battles have resulted in villagers having to pay bail when they are put in jail, money for their court cases, and other emergency needs. Although communities want farming to continue long-term, teenagers and young adults must go to the cities to support their families in the short-term. As a result, youth are forced into the cycle of working in the city and often never learn the skills to be a farmer.

Some villages are confident that the youth will return when they get too old to work in the factories. Witchoonai Silasee, a community organizer in Baw Kaew, says, “farming is in their blood so it won’t be hard for them to re-start that way of life when they come back”. Others, however, are worried that their farms and the fight to take back their land will not be sustainable. As Pie Toon, a villager from Kao Baht emphasizes, “we are worried...the government is always trying to advertise people to go in and work in the labor sector. We are fighting to get the land back but the government is trying to steal our land back. But because we don’t have land and nowhere else to go, we have to go to the labor and the industry.”

It is scary to think about the long-term effects of losing land (that may not be so far away). We are dealing with very similar issues in the United States as the “average age of farmers climbs to 57 and farmers under 25 drop by 20 percent” (npr). Losing land means losing farmers, and when the farmers are gone, we no longer have a voice over where our food comes from. It is time to remember the importance of being connected to the land, the source of our survival. As Paw Muung, a farmer from Kao Baht emphasized, “the relationship between land and people is not just reforming the land but reforming the mind of the people”

Kaitlin Roberts
Davidson College

Ethics of Forest Preservation

Transitioning from Unit 1 to Unit 2 has presented an unexpected experience - as if the glasses we wore for Unit 1 to read between the lines weren’t working well enough for our new unit. In Unit 1 (Agriculture), it was easy to see that chemical agriculture promoted by the government was clearly wrong and that organic, integrated agriculture was right but Unit 2 (Land) had more gray lines.

The general situation is as such - communities had lived in the forest for at least 50 years until the government came and set up national parks and wildlife sanctuaries around 1999. Afterwards, the interactions between the state and the communities became very tense - the park officials would constantly arrest the villagers for trespassing on their own land or forcibly remove them and destroy their crops. The villagers suffered from unclear boundaries and lack of cooperation from the courts and local leaders that hindered their process of attaining community land titles.

However, from analyzing the conflict of land titles and forest preservation, it seemed like the villagers weren’t completely right and the government wasn’t completely wrong either. The villagers were being denied their livelihoods and kicked off their land but they weren’t truly living sustainably in the forest. On the other hand, the government unfairly charged the villagers for trespassing and global warming but the officers had to enforce the laws set in place. So I began to see another argument - why should these villages be given a community land title if they didn’t practice sustainable development and drew an excessive amount of resources from the forests? Why couldn’t they live somewhere else so the forest preservation officers could do their job?

Hearing all the different opinions on forest preservation - I struggled to define my personal ethics on forest preservation to try and reconcile the differences. I wondered whether our values of conservation and preservation were subconsciously influenced by the American idea of an “untouched wilderness” that caused us to believe that perhaps these villages shouldn’t be living in the forests. Now I believe that people don’t belong anywhere else if not the forest - how often do we see such an intimate connection between individuals and the land? The conflicts mainly exist because of the lack of communication between the state and its citizens and the government’s unwillingness to change its outdated, inaccurate laws that directly clash with human rights principles. The gap between our ideal values and reality create this dichotomy I wasn’t fond of. I find myself wistfully wishing for a perfect world where these conflicts did not exist because the forestry departments preserved land the villagers weren’t living on and the villages always practiced sustainable agriculture.

But that would only happen in the world of What-Ifs two hundred steps back into the past. What counts is that one step forward. Many of the villages we talked with have created rules for community forest management and seeking sustainable development. The new officer of Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctuary even expressed hope for future cooperation and collaboration with forest communities to resolve issues.

In the end, I realized that despite the imperfections on both sides, reconciliation would be possible if we chose to look at the situation in the best light. The ethics of forest preservation exist not to judge but to guide. With that as a supplement to the Thai Constitution and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, we should support the fight against these human rights violations not because the communities are perfectly right but because they are perfectly human.

Mary Lim
Georgetown University

Lands Rights and the Global Role

On our Land Unit, our group focused on land rights and visited communities in the Northeast (Isaan) that have been directly affected by the economic development of Thailand. Thirteen villagers in Huay Gon Tha of Phetchabun province have been charged with causing Global Warming for working/trespassing on a corn field that belonged to the Wildlife Sanctuary. While the protest villagers of Baw Kaew of Chaiyaphum province are being sued/evicted from their land because their land was given to the Royal Forestry Department who turned it into a “reserve forest” and then let the Forest Industry Organization clear it and plant eucalyptus trees for paper.

We also had a chance to speak with the Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctuary and the Pha Phueng Wildlife Sancturary who have carried out/monitored these situations. Both of them made it clear to us that preserving the forest was for the overall good of society.

Naturally our program’s themes of Development, Globalization, Oppression, Human Rights, Community, and Grassroots lead us to critically examine these situations. However, our group had a hard time with the idea of “preservation” while also analyzing the relationship between individual rights and collective rights through the lens of these themes. Analyzing the question of who should really be accountable was not as clear as our last unit on agriculture.

We looked at collective rights in a setting that debated National Forests’ meaning to protect and preserve nature for the benefit of Thailand and global citizens, especially with global warming and other environmental impacts, we now more than ever need to sustain what we have.

However, individual rights, in this context, are being heavily debated; meaning that individuals can now be blamed for the consequences of Thailand and the collective global citizens. The mentality is that collectively we should save the global community and preserve the forests because we (as a larger global community) have ruined it.

Our group began to break down and deepen our conversation about accountability. Who should be blamed and punished? Should it be the individuals who, according to the Thai government, caused Global Warming by harvesting corn for a private employer? Apparently the villagers (not the employer) are single handedly, “1. Causing the increase in Temperature, 2. Causing water to disappear from the area, 3. Causing reduced rainfall, 4. Causing the loss of soil, 5. Causing the loss of nutrients in the soil, 6. Causing the soil not to be able to hold rain water , and 7. Causing damage to the forest.”

Looking at it from a collective context, globalization has everything to do with the system and creating problems like these. I would like to identify the term eco-colonialism. Colonialism in general has become a huge part of globalization, but now the negative consequences have led to the destruction of the environment. How we deal with that has become a shallow effort in reconciliation. As a result eco-colonialism is happening in these villages. The spread of half-thought-out environmental factors has now affected individuals and infringed on basic human rights. Some villagers lives are affected because the world can’t seem to respect the environment and now the blame is being put on individuals who are trying to live a more sustainable life than most.

More questions. Should it be the structure? Should we all be held accountable for our actions, collectively? Which should it be and how would we determine a punishment? Personally I keep seeing these connections on such a personal level. I know, as an individual I am a part of this web or system. The main question for me now is how do I deal with it?

Kati Fithian
Whittier College

Protest Villages in the Northeast

Had I not known better, the hour long jungle trek on a huge makeshift monster wheeled truck through flooded dirt roads felt more like the trip to a rebel base camp instead of the village of Kao Baht. Yet, it could as well been a rebel base since the establishment is a protest village, where the villagers illegally reclaimed land that they were expelled from by the government in the 1970’s. The government’s reason for this eviction was to protect the villagers from the communist groups that were located in the surrounding forest, but later the government sold the land as a logging concession. The village of Kao Baht is small, but the villagers live in a very communal way with each member getting a small plot of land for their own subsistence farming and then each corner of the village there is a plot of land left for shared use. The village of Kao Baht is not the only establishment of its kind. There have been other protest villages springing up in the jungles of Thailand over the last ten years. Another protest village is Baw Kaew, which is a protest village located in the mountains of Issan. Baht Gao has multiple rules and conditions that members need to follow including, no alcohol or drugs and no promiscuous sexual relations. Despite the severe nature of those village laws, they serve the purpose of keeping the communities from giving the government a bad image of their community as well as to prevent internal conflict. For instance in Baw Kaew for a long time the villagers noticed a men in black stationed right outside the village gate, and later found out it was an employee of the government’s Forest Industry Organization (FIO) who was recording each person who came in and out of the village. Actions like this by government agencies trying to find every possible way to reclaim the land from the villagers, makes harsh rules necessary in these protest communities.

Both Kao Baht and Baw Kaew are extreme movements since they have literally occupied the land that they are trying to reclaim, even though this might lead to severe consequences for themselves and their families. What is interesting is why these occupy protests are starting to become more common. Most of these villagers were forced out of their land over thirty years ago, and yet are only resorting to these measures now. From interviews with the villagers, many of them talk about writing letters and attending protests but then admit that these efforts haven’t been fruitful at all. Of those who were relocated, usually the land they were given was much smaller than promised and much less desirable. Some villages were even promised that one day they could return. The constantly changing governments and coups that have defined Thai politics for the last century have not helped the situation. More importantly is the complicated system of land deeds in Thailand, and many villagers can only prove that they have rented the land. A lot of villagers also claim that the government took away their parent’s land deeds, and then denied that they ever existed. Thus, this occupation of the land is the build up of years of anger and a complicated and ever changing legal system.

What is even more fascinating is that these villages have been able to remain multiple years despite constant fear of eviction and numerous lawsuits filed against them. Although, many individuals are in legal trouble and there has been some violence, these protest villages are still standing. The success of these communities seems to be spreading elsewhere. For instance, in the news right now there are countless articles about the “Occupy” movements that started on Wall Street and have moved around the world. Just like the protest villages, the “Occupy” movements are people who are coordinating as a community and physically inhabit a space until their message is heard and their demands are met. It has yet to be seen if the method of occupying as protest will work for the villages and the “occupy” protestors in the long run, but so far these methods have created more attention than just having a short protest or writing letters to the government.

Ariel Chez
University of Rochester

05 October 2011

Sticky Rice in the Northeast

While at my university in Los Angeles, California, I occasionally order one of my favorite desserts—sweet mango sticky rice—from the numerous Thai restaurants in the neighborhood. Until I came to Thailand to participate in CIEE’s Globalization and Development study abroad program, this dish constituted the extent of my knowledge about this dense, chewy variety of rice. I never imagined sticky rice would be used for anything else.

I could not have been more wrong.

Sticky rice, or khaaw nieo in Thai, is a staple of Northeastern Thailand’s traditional diet. It grows well in the region (henceforth referred to as “Isaan”) and is typically consumed by rolling the rice into a ball with the hands and using it to pick up other foods in the meal. Unlike jasmine rice—a “standard” variety globally—sticky rice is steamed rather than boiled. It is glutinous and also comes in a number of colors, such as red, black, and white.

The Unit One Trip of the program, which focused on human rights and environmental issues surrounding agriculture and food, brought the CIEE students to numerous villages in Yasothon Province. We learned from organic farmers and community organizers about the significance of national agricultural policies, the effects of globalized technologies on farming practices, and the importance of food in Thai culture.

As Leedom Lefferts writes in his work “Sticky Rice, Fermented Fish, and the Course of a Kingdom,” Isaan people “make references to khaaw nieo . . . as mechanisms for the assertion of regional pride and ethnic group identity and cohesion”. Rice farming, likewise, is more than a profession; it is a way of life, oftentimes determining the activities of whole villages during planting and harvesting seasons.
Thus, when the government began to support monocropping of the genetically engineered rice variety Jasmine 105 in order to integrate Thailand’s national agriculture into the global economy, it was an affront to the very cultural foundations of Isaan people.

“Since 1960s, many developing countries worldwide, including Thailand, began embarking on the Green Revolution as the central goal of their agricultural development,” states Vitoon Panyakul, author of the report “Thai Rice: the Rice of Freedom”. He elaborates, “When farmers began adopting the improved varieties, they also had to adopt the rice farming technology package developed for the Green Revolution. This includes application of chemical fertilizers, intensive pest control with pesticides, and efficient water management through irrigation.”

As Supanee Taneewuth writes in Free trade Agreements and their Impact on Developing countries: The Thai Experience, “the government . . . developed high yielding varieties and hybrids with no concern for the impact on long-term sustainability. Farmers lost control of managing their own seed. Farmers have to buy seed, which was added to chemical fertilizer and pesticides as part of the input burden on farmers.” These hybrid seeds have to be bought every year, and the amount of chemical additives must constantly be increased as soil quality degrades with its continued use. With almost all of the seeds trade controlled by transnational corporations, the Green Revolution and its agricultural reforms have deprived farmers of the traditional wisdom, self-sufficiency, and autonomy they once took pride in.

In response, many Thai farmers have joined organic movements and grassroots organizations to resist and advocate against national policies promoting “improved” agriculture. They are renouncing the farming practices that alienated them from their traditional livelihoods, caused extensive environmental and health problems, and marginalized their indigenous food preferences.

After relishing red khaaw nieo at least twice a day during the week of the Unit One homestay, after seeing the deep connection my host family had with their rice fields and native foods, I can fondly declare:

Long live sticky rice.

Mariko Powers
Occidental College

04 October 2011

Northeastern Thailand: On the Verge of a Life and Debt Situation?

After spending five days in the Kudchum district Yasothan, northeastern Thailand’s “Organic Province,” I have an even greater respect for small-scale, organic farmers than I had before coming into our first unit (Food and Agriculture) as a self-declared, “Foodie.” The farmers of Kudchum reap the bounties of the land without using chemical inputs as a crutch, relying instead on traditional knowledge as well as community organizing and support. Along with other members of Thailand’s Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN), the farmers of Kudchum are role models for farmers all over the world, demonstrating the potential of the collective, bottom-up action of grass roots movements to effect change.

Reflecting on this unit, however, I am also left with the sinking feeling that some twenty years from now, the green, integrated, organic fields of Yasothan may once again be showered with chemicals, unable to withstand the agribusiness-powered monsoon. In our last exchange, one sub-district official in Kalasin province admitted, “We cannot withstand the influence of transnational corporations. We can only try to be as self-reliant as possible.” The sentiment carried throughout the rest of the unit’s exchanges; nearly all of the speakers emphasized the importance of work done at the community level, farmer-to-farmer, rather than any that was done to push government policy to protect small-scale farmers from the influence of transnational corporations.

“We have learned enough to know we can’t put all our hope in [government action],” explained one NGO official. Even coming from a democratic society, I know this to be all too true. Politics can certainly be a hindrance to effecting change. Up against the Monsanto “monster,” however, I remain unconvinced that grass roots movements can make any long-term changes without government support. The one example that still stands out in my mind is detailed in the documentary, Life and Debt, about the effects of international economic policy in Jamaica.

As Jamaica incurred more and more debt, government officials found it necessary to take on loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which would require opening up more local and domestic markets to international influence. In one case, Jamaica opened up the market for the import of powdered milk from the United States with zero to minimal tariffs. As a result, the sudden influx of cheap powdered milk pushed local Jamaican dairy farmers out of the competition. Forced to dump out gallons of fresh milk daily, many farmers were eventually left without a livelihood.

If Thailand continues to incur debt from international loans, and therefore continues to increase dependence on foreign governments and mainly, transnational corporations, what will protect the small-scale farmers of northeastern Thailand from a fate similar to that of Jamaican dairy farmers as depicted in Life and Debt? Even if small-scale farmers continue to decrease their dependence on external inputs, they cannot necessarily guarantee that they will be safe from the loss of markets in Thailand’s ever-globalizing economy.

I by no means have the answer to what strategy small-scale, organic farmers in Thailand should take, only the concern that without the support and protection of government policy, the movement will be unsustainable in the long-term. The same Kalasin sub-district official explained that farmers have “no power to negotiate with the government.” So how do farmers gain that power? Again, I certainly do not have the answer, but I am not sure that grass roots movements do either. It is certain, however, that the question must be answered to protect the people of northeastern Thailand from a situation of Life and Debt.

Amelia Evans
Santa Clara University

Cycle of Greed

Prior to coming to Thailand, I viewed food safety as something the U.S Government took care of. As a country, I was aware that we had banned agriculture chemicals from our soils to not only ensure the safety of the workers but the consumers as well. Never had it crossed my mind that the chemicals were banned from use, not production.

The exhaustive issue of chemical use on products externally from the States that are then imported in stuns me. This had been a topic long removed from my thought. I knew of complexities in food issues, but I never thought I had to worry about banned chemicals still ending up in my food.

Exchanging with organic farmers throughout the Issan provence of Thailand with CIEE, we were continually ask to take action against U.S chemical companies importing banned chemicals into Thailand. It was through this that I came to understand the worldly impact of a ban on a chemical. “There are many banned chemicals from the United States for sale in Thailand,” describes the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN), a national NGO that assists farmers in transitioning into the organic market. With growing awareness of food systems within the U.S., chemicals now seen as unfit have found new residence in developing countries that lack the governing restrictions.

Corporations have been able to successfully make deals with the government to support and encourage the use of chemicals on crops. “From 1991 onward, imported pesticides were exempted from all taxes and levies,” states Vitoon Panyakul in a study of Thai rice by Green Peace South East Asia. Through this transaction, corporations have an outlet to distribute product and governments can now hope for higher yield and production.

Yet, these products create vas health issues. “I feel that they are trying to destroy us,” says Meo a small farmer who has switched to organic production since witnessing health effects from chemicals. “Thailand is amongst the countries with the worst records of pesticide abuses, especially from over use,” state Panyakul. Currently the Thai Government is in the works of allowing four new chemicals to be introduced for agriculture use. A protest held to rally against this had a span of multiple generations of farmers who voiced their voices against the chemical industry.

In an exchange with the AAN, regional leaders left us with this, “Although the chemical is used in Thailand, please remember that the products that are produced in Thailand are being exported to your country. This chemical is bad in the States and is used in Thailand. But you go back home and you still have a chance of consuming a product that has been contaminated by the chemical. So in order to stop this, Thailand cannot fight on its own, it needs allies from other people and other countries as well.” The small scale farmers have switched to organic farming for a reason, “It isnʼt right to grow food that isnʼt safe for consumers to eat,” explains Anon Nieulai, a Green Market Farmer.

Itʼs been asked for us to take action against this violation of well-being. Itʼs our role as students, itʼs our role as Americans, itʼs our role as humanitarians. Stop the suffering from these harsh chemicals of the producers and the consumers, they were banned from the U.S for a reason.

Sara Stiehl
Pacific Lutheran University

Community & The Urban/Rural Divide

We stayed in two villages over this past unit. The first, Bahn Dong Dip, was transitioning to farming organic sugarcane and rice. We stayed there for one night, and had an exchange with them about their process. The second, in Yasothon province, had transitioned long ago to integrated organic rice farming, growing most of their own food and selling the surplus. (The group was in several different villages, we never learned exactly where we were.) We were there for four nights, exchanging with the villagers and NGOs. Both villages had their own distinct struggles, but both showed a commitment to community support that struck me.

It seemed like everyone had a part to play. Especially in Yasothon province, where I sat in at a meeting for one of the groups involved in the area. I’m pretty sure it was called the Love Nature Network, but a Google search pulls up nothing, so perhaps something was lost in translation. There were about 90 people there representing 90 families, my host dad being one of them. He was actually a speaker, one of the earlier members in the group, when it came to Yasothon province a few years back. These 90 people gathered to learn about and discuss the organic movement in their area, and how they could work within their own community to include others and improve the process. This is the way it was in Dong Dip as well. Villagers came together to improve their lot in life through a shift in process.

It was all very impressive to see. There was a spirit of self-sufficiency in everyone we exchanged with. The government isn’t looked on too kindly here, to varying degrees. At the very least, everyone agreed that the government doesn’t have the best interests of the farming majority in mind. Corporate interests take precedence because of the Thai government’s interest in joining the global economy. Progress is seen as raising the Gross National Product, and these farmers feel like their needs are being ignored. Most farmers in the country are growing for profit, growing the Jasmine 105 rice that the government supports, and have to buy their food from market. On top of this, the government is supporting the use of chemical fertilizers that are banned in the US, the EU, Africa, and most of the other Southeast Asian countries. This is the issue the villagers in Bahn Dong Dip and Yasothon province have gathered around, and the reason they have decided to remove their ties to the government where possible, growing organic and selling their surplus in their own markets.

Since the beginning of our trip it’s been apparent that most people living in these villages are older. My parents this last trip were in their mid 50s, and all trips before that, my parents ages were similar. There are children running around, but no one who could really help on the farm. Thailand only guarantees education up to the 6th grade, but many families see their children through high school and into university. These children typically don’t come back to the farms; instead, they find work in local cities. For those who don’t complete school, they try and find work in bigger cities. What’s interesting though is that when these children have children of their own, they typically get sent back to be raised by their grandparents. It’s unclear whether or not all families eventually come back together, but there is still this bridge between the urban/rural divide that keeps the community bonded, somehow.

My second host mom this past trip spoke a lot about warm families; her two children are working or are in university. She misses them a lot. Hopefully, she said, they would come back to help on the farm. Otherwise there won’t be anyone else to keep it alive. She seemed confident, though, and she still has a whole community of support behind her.

Aiden Forsi
Cornell University

12 June 2011

Spreading Knowledge

A professor once said, "Knowledge is meaningless if you don't affect multiple levels." What I've learned during these intense last three months is that the scope of knowledge itself is relevant. An organic farmer will value how to make her/his own compost fertilizer over knowing how the chemical components in fertilizer help break down the soil; on the other hand, an NGO covets the skill to conduct research so that they can provide as much information to a community as possible. What is important to know shifts relative to where a person is and what that person is doing. Most importantly, knowledge, as a general rule, should not only serve the area where it was gained, but must transcend to higher and deeper levels to be more effectively sustained.

Like "knowledge," the words "development" and "globalization" also have very different meanings depending on a person's perspective and location. For a company like the Puthep Mining Company, development plays into globalization when erecting a copper mine in order to give Thailand more clout as a global player in the international market. To a community of fishermen working to preserve their wetlands after being flooded by a dam, development and globalization might look like increasing members in their movement by extending to other communities in the world dealing with the same issue.

If knowledge is dependent on where you are, and knowledge is meaningless unless shared, then different places' knowledge-base must be shared with other people in other places. To some, this sharing of knowledge is one method of development. To others, this is also globalization at work: It is spreading skills and resources to increase knowledge in other plans. But the paradox comes when the resources being shared are destroying the integrity of a place, then the resource is irrelevant to have. As soon as infrastructure as development impedes on intellect as development, then something's gotta give.

Just as knowledge must be shared and interpreted through different lenses in order to practically implement it, there needs to be interaction between multiple players on the global scale when discussing ideas of development. Large-scale development schemes that have the potential of impacting hoards of people need to first reach an understanding with the people it would be affecting to weigh the pros and cons of erecting the project. Ideally, this is what an EIA is meant to fulfill (whether or not this process is righteously carried out or not is another story).

The daunting "project time" has begun. Our DG group is splitting up to spread our collective knowledge on globalization, development, and human rights out among the Isaan region. Despite our separate focuses and goals with each project, each of us are playing the role of educator in one form or another. We are all acting in part as researchers, compiling information to enhance the fight of the effected community with which each of us will be working, based on the need of each community. Our development is our globalization: we are taking the knowledge that we gained while studying here and our previous knowledge from before we studied abroad, and spreading it throughout multiple communities so that they may develop their organizations to become more efficient and more powerful.

Jamie Martina
University of Pittsburgh

What does it take?

Excitement is illuminating rainy mid afternoons, late nights finishing assignments and time intensive work with small groups as we move into the last phase of our program. It is a high siphoned from our new found understandings about the world and the places we want to fill within it and the realization that we will go home empowered to take action in our communities because of what we have seen and discussed here.

After every unit, we make ‘next steps’, a brainstorm of the things we as individuals can do, or do differently, to remediate the serious injustices we just studied. This easily escalates into a very frustrating experience: what can we actually do about dams in Thailand, or more importantly, the globalized capitalism informing anyone who initiates these large scale development projects in the first place?

My question tonight is why it has taken a trip around the world, afternoons navigating rice fields, eucalyptus forests, tropical wetlands and mountains rich in copper ore, for us to begin analyzing our world?

The need for 20 students with a new found consciousness, willing to take the time to engage in the actions we dream of taking, is immeasurable within the country we will be returning home to. But, this is exactly the point. Our own communities are victim to many of the same injustices we have mourned here.

The unresolved affects of the BP oil spill, two public wars as well as many private interventions such as plan Colombia, a torture center in a country whose existence we ignore, growing wealth disparities, immigration, gay marriage, segregated and unequal opportunities in our public schools, a democracy that seems to be representing the interests of major corporations rather than it’s citizens…
Moreover, while in Thailand, the articles which struck me most were written by people like Michael Pollan and John Steinbeck, or published in the New Yorker and Orion Magazine. These articles not only focused on problems at home but the sources in which they were published came from the states as well.

Not only do we have the problems, but the resources to discover the information of these atrocities are almost too accessible. Every student here has a laptop as well as a university library overflowing with details, informed professors, public commentators that can share their differing opinions unabashedly…
Why were we so unaware; what was getting in our way?!

I think it’s a façade that Thailand gave us a perspective far enough removed in order to see problems at home for what they are. I think that we exist is spaces too comfortable to force us to look outside ourselves and not only question the bigger picture but empathize with those in our own community suffering from less opportunities than we have had the privilege to enjoy.

In the end, why it took Thailand may not matter, because we have pushed the boundaries that were limiting us. We have begun questioning ourselves and our world. Our experiences together are impossible to account completely, and what we have learned, for now, feels like something that will extend into the parts of our lives that last beyond this semester, but, it is just something I have been considering.

Cassie Peabody
University of Michigan

Buddha on a Mountain

Huay Muang is a community in Thailand fighting against a copper mine being built on a mountain which many villager’s livelihoods depend on. It is also an important cultural component of their village. This mine would potentially contaminate their drinking water, destroy the environment and wildlife that is engrained in their culture, and ruin the farms of hundreds of villagers. I was able to visit this community and tour its beautiful landscape, help my host mom on her farm, as well as eat and talk with the villagers.

One of my most memorable moments there was one easy going night after dinner. My host mom told me and a fellow student to get on the back of her and my little sisters motorcyes. We went off-roading past banana trees and then through her rubber tree farm. We then got to a dirt path which led to her farm next to a small mountain. We picked herbs while the sun was setting and then headed back home. Driving through the beautiful green mountains at dusk with nothing but nature surrounding me was surreal. The nature entranced me and I felt so connected to this place I had only been in for two days. I cannot imagine the connection the villagers have with this land which they have working on their whole lives.

During my time there I was also able to learn about this community’s strong connection to their religion, Buddhism. I helped build a Buddha statue on the mountain that the proposed mine would be built on. The statue was not built for the purpose of stopping the copper mine but rather it was a serendipitous event. A monk living in a different province said he was contacted by a spirit, to build a Buddha statue on the mountain next to Huay Muang. So the monk traveled to this community in order to build this statue. The motivation and dedication of the villagers and monks, working morning to night to build this statue was inspiring. The entire community coming together to make something that would benefit everyone was a beautiful things.

The energy and attitudes of these people were contagious and overwhelming. It was amazing to see this statue built from the ground up with people who believed in the purpose and were strongly connected to this statue. This statue was so much more than rocks and concrete, it was a symbol that represented their culture and solidarity of the community and nature together. It was made for the love of Buddhism, love for the mountain, and love for the community.

The villagers told me this statue could act as a protest. So if the mining company came to destroy this mountain with the Buddha statue, they would be destroying Buddhism. Even though I only spent a few days in this community, I was already connected and it would break my heart to see a copper mine put in. How could anyone who has spent more than a day in this community contribute to building a copper mine which could ruin the environment and destroy the way of life these villagers have had for so many years? I thought about this more and came to the conclusion that this mine will not be built by people who have lived with these villagers, participated in their cultural ceremonies, and hear their stories. To the people deciding to build the copper mine or not it is nearly a dot on a map with potential to make large profits. And the share holders probably have no idea what their money is going towards, but just want their dividends every month. What does it mean that the main investors and people in charge have the power to make such large impacts on places they have never been to and people they have never met?

Anna Craver
Northeastern University

19 April 2011


“There would be no suffering if there was justice.”

Wanida Tantiwittayapitak made this statement in 1997 during a speech entitled, “Why do we have to help the poor?” As a founding member of the world-renowned Thai social movement, The Assembly of the Poor, Wanida pinpointed systematic discrimination and injustice as the avenue for change. In empowering villagers throughout Thailand to join the movement for political and social transformation, she organized some of the largest protests known in Southeast Asia. The protests of the Pak Mun dam on the Mun River in Ubon Rachatani Province has lasted over twenty years, and nearby communities still continue to fight. Her model has been replicated in the modern movements against dams in the Isaan region of Thailand.

During the Water Unit, we had the opportunity to visit villagers affected by the Rasi Salai and Hua Na dam construction. These dams are intended to produce electricity and irrigation for surrounding regions and the country as a whole. Instead, the results have been the displacement of tens of thousands of villagers, the loss of traditional fishing and agricultural livelihoods, the depletion of wetlands culture, the ecological destruction of the rivers and dependent habitats, and the salinization of water sources that consequently make intended irrigation impossible.

Oftentimes, the effected villager’s voices appear quieter than the corporate businessmen and government officials who control development practices in Thailand. However, with the help of organizations like the Assembly of the Poor, they have learned their collective voice can speak volumes. It can be heard past the walls of the concrete dam and its rushing windows of water. It can be heard past the police and military officials who blockade peaceful protests on dam property. It can be heard all the way to the central government in Bangkok after spending months protesting as democratic citizens in front of parliament.

After witnessing the profound changes in individual lives that came from participating in people’s movements, we’ve started to question, is there still a need for protest? In American culture, our post-industrial society has subtly turned citizens into consumers. Instead of feeling empowered when we vote, we feel empowered when we buy. In this context, it’s easy to misplace consumer responsibility for systematic change. Instead of asking, why do I need so many products, we recycle them. Instead of asking why people are poor or uneducated, we volunteer to tutor the underprivileged. Instead of asking, what are the root causes of hunger, we donate to a food bank.

If we were to start asking these questions as a society, we could create justice-oriented citizens. By identifying where inequities stem from, we can find ways to contribute to the deeper issues. For example, instead of donating food, we can find out why the food system has unequal distribution across borders, why monocropping has replaced self-sufficiency, why chemical fertilizer is more expensive than food for one’s family. By articulating the root causes and finding the key players, such as corporations and government policies, we can begin to demand political and social change.

How is this change best affected? As we’ve learned throughout the program, change occurs through groups. Oftentimes, these groups work from the bottom-up, from marginalized sectors of society, and with deep connections to their local communities. Seen through movements like those against dams in Thailand, one might expect protest to be the answer. But it also requires redefining protest. I see protest as justice-oriented citizenship. Not necessarily rallies or direct action, unless those are seen to be effective, but instead how one chooses their job, raises their children, partakes in community, raises awareness among family and friends. To me, these are all acts of protest.

Through my experiences in Thailand, I see protest through education. By raising awareness among both youth and adults, by empowering our minds and our collective voice, we can create positive and peaceful change. At the Rasi Salai dam, a learning center was founded in December 2010 to teach younger generations about the importance of local wetlands culture. As Wanida stated, there would be no more suffering if there was justice, and to promote justice, we must each enact our own small form of protest.

Austyn Gaffney
Transyvania University

Sustainability, According to the Villagers

The sun is rising, the day is starting out sizzling, and there are nearly 100 people standing within feet of the nine tents where sleepy students lay. Any other day I would most likely still be asleep, however it’s 5:30 in the morning and I hear the sounds of pickup trucks and people laughing, and decide it’s time to get out of bed. I craw slowly out of my tent to find villagers piling into the 30 Rai area, housing the Tamm Mun Network Community Sufficient Economy Learning Center, in the Northeastern Thai Province of Srisaket.

Today is the day; the day the villagers have spent months planning for. Today villagers from all different districts and provinces in Northeastern Thailand will gather along the Mun River to celebrate their (wat tan a tam) culture and (wit tee chee wit) way of life. The need for such celebration stems from the necessity for the villagers to preserve their culture and way of life. For the past 20 years, residents have been fighting to sustain their livelihoods from the Khong-Chi-Mun Irrigation Project and the potential construction of more dams in the northeast; which, if built, would destroy the culture of river communities.

Sustainability, according to the villagers, means sustaining their livelihoods so future generations can know and enjoy their lifestyles. Meh Rampan Chantarasorn, a Learning Center leader, explains it perfectly, “Before the dam was built these different communities were friends. They lived together. They were brothers, sisters, and lovers, living in the wetlands. The flood has broken culture and relationships. This center is to bring this culture back for future generations. If we don’t preserve it, youth will never know about it. They won’t know the word wetlands, only the word dam!”

Thinking about the usage of the word sustainability in northeast Thailand dared me to think about how the term is used in the villages of Isaan verses the ways in which the expression is commonly used in America and other first world countries. For these Isaan villagers, the word sustainability is far removed from the culture of the word in developed countries. In America, the word sustainability seems to pop up on every supermarket shelf, on every billboard, and on every commercial advertisement. Being sustainable has turned into a fashion craze that the mainstream media has picked up on. But what does this world really mean? For most Americans, and people living in developed nations, I believe the term generally refers to the desire to protect the planet by reducing our carbon footprint, buying more “eco friendly products,” and driving a high-gas-mileage vehicle. While applying these practices to our everyday lives seems sustainable; is it really?

Over the past couple of weeks I have learned how to fish using a homemade fishing net, how to weave a sticky rice basket, how to look for and catch crickets, how to plant and harvest rice, how to properly do an Isaan dance, and how important it is to preserve culture. For the villagers effected by the Hua Na and Rasi Salai dams, sustainability means sustaining their livelihoods from the destruction of commercialism and capitalism. Sustainability to these villagers means living off of the land that they grew up on, it means eating food that is caught or grown on the surrounding land, continuing ancient celebrations, using instruments reflecting the culture, speaking in the local dialect, and eating the incredibly delicious treat of (kaew neow), sticky rice. Sustaining and protecting the planet doesn’t happen by supporting large corporations and businesses selling products made halfway across the world, or buy buying items that contain a “green” label. According to the villagers, in order to really be sustainable we must preserve ancient cultures and protect the livelihoods and way of life for villagers, threatened by corporate greed, around the world.

Julia Peckinpaugh
Transylvania University

Is GDP the Way to Measure Success?

This past week our program has been focused on water issues specifically on Dams as a source of energy and irrigation. Over this week I expected to think of grassroots movements, the environmental and cultural impact of dams, as well as the political forces that guided their building. While I did learn about these things the topic that was on my mind most during this unit was GDP (Gross Domestic Product.)

As an economics major at Beloit College I decided to study abroad in hopes of taking a break from studying the economy in order to explore my other interests. In actuality, being on the CIEE program in Issan, Thailand has only served to bring me into direct contact with the economic theories I studied in the classroom at Beloit. I can not get away from economics because it directly guides government policies, especially the concept of GDP.

After only a few months we have noticed a very dominating pattern in Issan. The Issan people live in a traditional sustainable way, the government decides that the region is not contributing enough to GDP so implements a project that will “help the poor people of Issan” by boosting their economy. This past unit it was a dam that would destroy fishery and flood several communities but increase government spending. They were also built to create domestic energy, reducing imports, and to irrigate non-native jasmine rice fields to increase exports. Though it was discovered that Issan region is not suitable for irrigation dams because salt deposits underground are released by the pressure caused by the dam’s reservoir.

During our first unit the government encouraged previously self-sustaining farmers to contract farm and use chemical fertilizers. Our second unit, we learned that farmers were kicked off of their land so that tourist resorts could be built and companies could come in to start eucalyptus plantations. All of these actions created a poorer quality of life for the Isaan people but potentially boosted the overall GDP of the country. The problem is that GDP does not measure wellbeing, it is the measure of a countries yearly output. All the money that has been moving around the economy is added up. So if one person, say Thaksin, generates a lot of money, while all of his neighbors are impoverished and starving, the GDP will show that the community is doing great. But the GDP of a fishing village, that sustains itself from the land and the community around it, will be extremely low which people will use as an indicator of extreme poverty.

While GDP is obviously a poor indicator of the wellbeing of the economy it is the measure used by all countries to guide its policies. That is all countries excepting Bhutan. In Bhutan a measure called Gross National Happiness is used. While happiness seems immeasurable Bhutan has come up with an intricate system based on nine domains: “Psychological Wellbeing, Time Use, Community Vitality, Cultural Diversity and Resilience, Health, Education, Ecological Diversity and Resilience, Living Standard, and Good Governance.” Though only here for a short time, all of my peers know enough about Issan to realize that if the Thai government was focused on GHP instead of GDP, Issan would not have many of the problems it is facing today.

Sofia Noorani
Beloit College

“I Will Not Shut My Mouth”

Lèse majesté, or crime against the monarchy, has been prohibited in Thailand for more than a century. Since 1932, when it was first introduced to the Thai constitution, lèse majesté violations have included any “insult” against the King, whether written or spoken. In 2009, Thai courts accepted 164 charges of lèse majesté, far more than any other country in the world. That year also saw what seemed to be disproportionately harsh sentencing against Red Shirt activists, who oppose the current Thai administration.

Red Shirts have been persecuted outside the legal system as well. In the April-May 2010 military crackdown, the Thai Royal Army killed 92 people, almost all of which were Red Shirt demonstrators on the streets of Bangkok. After the crackdown, public outcry forced the administration to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate the events surrounding the violence of April-May 2010.

In Unit 3, we traveled to Bangkok to speak with Dr. Khanit na Nakhon and Somchai Homla-or, two leaders of the TRC. We also spoke with human rights experts Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree and Kwanvaree Wangudom to learn about the ways students can get involved in fighting against human rights violations in Thailand and elsewhere. What we learned was that political activism starts with educating ourselves rather than educating those around us. We also learned that real progress is made when we can identify core problems and fight to remedy them. One of the core challenges facing Thailand is limited speech, which has taken the form of the Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté laws.

Upon returning from the unit trip, I was able to interview Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a woman who may face 50 years in prison under a regime which is unwilling to accept criticism. As you can see from the profile below, Chiranuch taught me about hope and perseverance in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge

“I Will Not Shut My Mouth”
Chiranuch’s Fight for Open Dialogue

Two days.

That is how much notice Chiranuch Premchaiporn is given when she must make the long journey from Bangkok to Khon Kaen each month. The scramble to Isaan is a reality she faces while detained on bail, as she is required to travel at least six hours by bus to check-in at the provincial police station, located more than 470km from her home. After her March 25 hearing, she was notified that she would not have to return to Khon Kaen until police hand her case to the court. The handoff is still yet to be determined.

Her trips to Khon Kaen were precipitated by a local Khon Kaen business man that she had committed lèse majesté. “[Making me come to Khon Kaen] is obviously meant to harass and intimidate me. I think the person who filed the complaint did not expect me to enjoy Isaan. But I have some friends here who try to make sure I have some activities to do every time I travel to Khon Kaen so I don’t just go to the police station for five minutes and leave.”

Premchaiporn is one of 164 people charged last year under the lèse majesté law and the Computer Crimes Act. She was first arrested in March 2009 for not promptly removing comments that were allegedly insulting to the monarchy posted to the online forum she moderates at Prachatai news source.

Despite the sensitivity of her case, she has never closed her story off from the news media. “I don’t want to be involved with a conspiracy or some lobby behind the scenes. I want to do everything in public, and I want to be transparent,” she said.

Her desire to be transparent lies at the foundation of what she wants for Thailand: the freedom to have open discussion about the issues facing the country.

“In the past we were under the illusion that Thailand was at peace and people were friendly and open. But actually we are not open. Now people are beginning to understand that we live in a conservative society,” she said.

She began to champion open discussion and non-judgment long before her work at Prachatai. These ideas stemmed first from what she calls a “flexible upbringing” and were fostered in her work with ACCESS, an NGO aimed at providing support for people living with HIV/AIDS.“HIV/AIDS work is about being non-judgmental and about counseling. It helped me open my mind to something else, rather than sticking with what I had always believed.”

This attitude of non-judgment translates directly into her work with Pratchatai, where her main concern is to create an open space for all ideas and perspectives. “There are political conflicts. People have frustrations. They want to talk, and they want to discuss,” she explained.

But for now, open dialogue is not possible because people live in a climate of fear. And cases such as hers do little to encourage Thai people to express themselves freely.

“We used to think we lived in a country where we could say anything we want. But there really are limitations on the things we can talk about.”

That is why she now dedicates her energy to the new Article 1-1-2 Awareness Campaign, which seeks to disseminate knowledge about the lèse majesté law. The campaign, which launched March 27, also encourages debate about solutions for the issues posed by lèse majesté. The movement is encouraging to Premchaiporn, who finds strength in growing public interest surrounding the issue.

“I will not shut my mouth. I will keep talking to the press,” she explained. “This is not my problem. It’s a social problem.”

Despite the legal challenges she is soon to face in the Khon Kaen judicial system, she has remained remarkably optimistic.

“It’s not nice when I have to go to the police station, but I like Isaan. I really like Isaan people,” she said.

Dan Cohn
University of Rochester

31 March 2011

Copper in the Backyard

Unit 3 has been a whirlwind –in less than 72 hours we have been able to connect with different villages to talk to them about solutions, and not just the problem they are facing. My team of six traveled to Huay Muang, a village that relies heavily on the surrounding mountains for their livelihood. Phu Taeb mining company is threatening the integrity of this community and 14 surrounding communities by proposing a copper mine in these neighboring mountains.

What struck me the most was a recurring theme of conflicting intentions within the government. The land the mountains lay on has been declared as National Preservation Forest, yet the government granted Phu Taeb company permission to survey the land. To summarize, this surveying involved digging 280 holes throughout the “Preservation Forest.” It is ironic to see that the land is being destroyed by the same stakeholder that aims to preserve it.

We learned in the past unit the complexities surrounding land tenure in Thailand. For Thailand, ideas of preservation and conservation sprouted from a department that was formed to oversee a logging and later cash-crop industry. Ideas of preservation arose to keep up with global players, like the United States. But in reality the motivation of capital gain and economic growth that the government was formed upon still lives on.

I don’t want to automatically assume Thai government is bad, but in every unit we have studied thus far, the root of the problem always lies at the hands of the corrupt government. For Huay Muang this sentiment manifests itself through the lack of transparency from the government and Phu Taeb they have received.

Villagers from Huay Muang were approached by Phu Taeb in 2005 asking to dig 28 holes on the land. After securing 230 rai of land from the villagers and government, they dug 280 holes. Besides these holes, villagers were unaware of the intentions Phu Taeb had for their community –the proposal of a copper mine. Further, community members had no idea about the potential health and environmental implications of a copper mine.

The Loei Network of Monitoring Effects of Mining Industry Policies funded under the Loei Fund for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development enlightened the communities of Phu Taeb’s plans.

Since 2008 this community has been mobilizing to prevent the construction of the proposed mine by creating the Poohinlekfie Preservation Network (PPN). PPN works mainly to raise awareness about the potential effects of copper mining and also networking with affected communities in an effort to bring solidarity to the cause.

Despite villagers’ persistence in preventing Phu Taeb’s plans, strangers were found conducting tests in the mountain on September 2010. Upon questioning, villagers discovered that they were professors from Kaset University testing ground water in Huay Muang for the Phu Taeb mining company.

There doesn’t seem to be too much government involvement in the events described, but it is really what the government isn’t doing that is hurting the villagers. Villagers wrote several letters to government authorities protesting the mine with no response.

The government’s ulterior motives will indefinitely show during the upcoming April 7 “public scoping” hearing to be held in Loei City. In order to conduct the Environment Impact Assessment, Phu Taeb must confirm majority approval from all stakeholders. This meeting will serve as such. Hopefully the outcome of this meeting and the role the government will play in the EIA (the process is often found to be ridden with corruption) will disprove my theory…

Meghana Anugu
University of Rochester

A Connection to Home: International NGOs in Rural Thailand

I have always thought that I wanted to work with an international NGO in some capacity. In the past month, I started questioning this ideology for the first time. During the last two units, I have seen the importance of grass-root Thai networks such as the Alternative Agricultural Network and the Thai Land Reform Network in empowering villagers to fight for their human rights. Since this empowerment came from such a grass-roots level with everyone in the organization really dedicated and involved in the issues, I started to question how an international NGO could truly help Thai villagers. The international NGO’s I have experience working with provide funding to developing countries, but after seeing the importance of networking, the power in numbers and the importance of empowering people to fight for their rights, I’m wondering how much money from abroad can really do. And is simply providing funding that affective? How do you know where that money is really going and if it is really helping to empower and enact change? How do international NGO’s truly know how to help people when culture, language, and government structures are strikingly different in every country?

Unexpectedly, I gained an understanding of international non-profits in a way that hit close to home while on or our Community Consultation Unit trip. For this unit, I went to Baw Kaew, a protest village in rural Northeast Thailand. The Community Consultation Unit is where we, as students, visit communities and exchange with them to find possible project ideas or campaigns that we can help with at the end of the semester. Baw Kaew is interesting in that in the 1960’s the government took over the land of many villages in northeastern forest regions for commercial use to plant and sell eucalyptus trees leaving these people landless. Baw Kaew was set up as a protest village composed of people from all of these different villages who had been kicked off their land in invasive and violent ways by the government. After protesting for their land rights for about two years, Baw Kaew is finally in the process of obtaining a Community Land Title. Since they are confident in their attainment of land, Baw Kaew has decided to switch their focus towards becoming a truly sustainable community.

Their first step in becoming sustainable is to create a seed bank with the purpose of collecting and distributing local seed varieties that have been lost overtime due to expiration and the government promotion of cash-crops. This was one of many project ideas that we may be able to help with come project time. When I asked P’Promot, an NGO working with Baw Kaew, if he had any relationships with international NGOs, he answered that they had a connection with one international NGO called AJWS that is helping Baw Kaew become more sustainable. I immediately thought of American Jewish World Service, an NGO I have been in connection with in the past. But no, could it be? Could AJWS, headquartered in Washington DC, actually have connected with this small rural village of Baw Kaew?

After the interview, I asked one of the translators to come with me to ask P’Promot what AJWS stood for, and sure enough P’Promot confirmed that AJWS stood for American Jewish World Service”. I immediately asked what exactly they helped with and why he thought their help was valuable. AJWS provides Baw Kaew with the funding of staff and educational activities and also helps connect Baw Kaew with other international communities working towards sustainability. Under AJWS’s Fighting Hunger from the Ground Up Campaign, AJWS internationally promotes local food production with a focus on food sovereignty. AJWS is taking two village members to India in the coming months to network, collaborate and offer solidarity and support with other international communities’ sustainability approaches.

Needless to say, I am ecstatic than an international NGO I am familiar with not only sought out, but is helping such a hardworking and inspirational community like Baw Kaew. I now am starting to see, first-hand, the important balance of the collaboration between international funding and networks with a grassroots movement that empowers people for the success of a movement like Baw Kaew’s.

Lena Morrison
Brandeis University

Students Getting Active

It is one thing to learn about human rights and social justice issues within the confines of a classroom or within a book or article, but it is fully another to be able to feel as if one can go beyond just learning, and take the immense gift of being a student into the realm of project execution, empowerment and involvement of creating change.

For the first 2 Units within CIEE’s Globalization and Development program, we traveled to various villages within the Northeast, Isaan region of Thailand where we researched, exchanged and physically observed many issues that the people are currently combating. There was a wide range of topics discussed, from contract farming, chemical fertilizer to land title rights. Although these trips were rewarding and immense learning experiences, Many of us were left feeling helpless and distressed, wondering how to move forward effectively with the gained knowledge of these presently occurring injustices and organizations working to contest them.

Finally, within the second month and 3rd Unit of our study abroad program, we were gifted the opportunity to put many of our ideas into action, as well as be able to actively participate in the possibility of creating real results. Three separate groups of students traveled to different locations with specific objectives in mind. One group traveled to a community fighting the construction of a copper mine, one to a village we had previously visited working on creating a local variety seed bank, and another went down to Bangkok to speak with key players involved in Thailand’s current political situation. During each trip the students interviewed and spoke with individuals directly involved in the movements, and were able to ask them about exactly what ways we can help them achieve their goals. Immediately upon each groups return, we worked rigorously to write a CCC report, or “Collaborative Community Consultation Report”. The CCC reports are documents regarding the topic of human rights and social organizing, each one thoroughly recording the issues that affect the community or group that was visited. The report also includes a chronicle of relevant histories, up-to-date statuses on the progress of the cause, and ideas regarding collaborative projects that students can assist in implementing in the near future. The purpose of this was to enforce a continued effort in establishing and maintaining reciprocal relationships with the villages, organizations, and people living within these regions.

In the next steps section of the report, students detailed the suggestions of the communities in what way to act now that they had gathered this information, as well as additional ideas that the groups had come to a consensus on to further their needs. Each community also was explained intricately to all other group members, insuring full understanding of each student in the issues and current situations so as everyone could possibly choose to execute the next steps. The groups all laid excellent ground work for the coming project time, a crucial and final element with our program where the time is set aside for executing these concepts into actuality through these specified project and compilations of educational materials.

I feel that as students, activists and global citizens it is our responsibility to cherish our privileges and resources that are at our fingertips. Unit 3 was our first step towards taking advantage of this, and gave us an idea of just how effectively we can assist in causes creating positive change. It is a great blessing to be able to be granted with such knowledge and work with such courageous and righteous groups and individuals, and I look forward to the coming months where we will be given a continued opportunity to step out of the academic sphere and into the role of taking action; this is one of the beautiful and satisfying aspects of CIEE’s DG program, and I believe should be more alternative learning programs that reflects this model.

Lyric Rafn-Stoffer
University of Minnesota – Twin Cities

A Seed Bank of Culture

When you first look at Baw Kaew it appears like many other poor Issan villages: cluttered wood and grass huts, exposed to the environment and few amenities. But below this superficial speculation, lies a community that has reclaimed their land and is fighting in solidarity to take back what is rightfully theirs. For the last two years Baw Kaew villagers have been living in an illegal protest village to make a loud statement to the government. Their strong resistance to their government led the villagers on a five-day trek from their northeast Issan village to Bangkok. They took their proclamation straight to the Prime Minister demanding a community land title.

Since then Baw Kaew villagers and NGOs feel confident in their endeavors to receive this land title and want to make another statement to the public sphere about their radical community. The community is currently in a campaign transition from fighting for their land to living sustainably. They want to channel their focus and energy in educating the public about preserving local culture.

I had the opportunity to spend some time exchanging with Baw Kaew villagers, and the NGOs fighting with them, to better understand how this community wants to bring back Issan culture to the northeast of Thailand. They explained to me how their culture is disappearing before their eyes. Up until this point I hadn’t fully realized how much culture and tradition were tied to their farming practices. They don’t want other villagers to lose sight of the importance of Issan culture and those that have been using mono-cropping practices and seeds provided by the government have contributed to their vanishing livelihoods.

Issan livelihood is grounded in the land you live and work on. P’Nugain, a NGO for the Thailand Land Reform Network (TLRN), said, “Food shouldn’t be grown for profit but for household consumption.” With mechanized farming practices taking hold of the rice market farmers have to buy food elsewhere to sustain their families. There is little seed variety left in the farmer’s hands anymore and now eight percent of people’s incomes, living in rural areas, are spent on food not grown personally. That is why Baw Kaew’s campaign for local varieties has become the new focus of this protest village. Local seed variety is one step toward a self-reliant lifestyle.

Villagers and NGOs are working on constructing a seed bank in their community to have a common forum for other Issan villages to come and learn and exchange seeds. Today most rural farmers have no rights or voice over their own seeds and farms. By constructing this cultural bank Baw Kaew community members are working simultaneously to secure a land title and restore their local knowledge. A seed bank will allow for villagers to have an opportunity to return to farming sustainably. This campaign transition is legitimizing, even more, Baw Kaew’s fight for recognition as a community.

Sitting before these villagers and NGOs and hearing them all talk about the importance of preserving their culture, gave me goose bumps. The confidence and passion that was exuding from their words about their emotional connections to the land has never made me feel more inspired. This deep red clay building is not just a primitive infrastructure but also a symbol of Baw Kaew’s fight to revive their cultural roots. It’s an opportunity for these marginalized people to speak out on behalf of their heritage.
Walking through the village you are surrounded by handmade protest signs and banners, constantly reminding you of the fight these villagers are living in everyday. The new seed bank will just be one more reminder to the public that Baw Kaew will not step down and they will fight till their story is spread throughout Issan.

Cassie Schneider
University of Colorado at Boulder

The Importance of Land

For the past two weeks we have explored issues of land tenure and land rights in urban and rural Thailand. During this time we read about issues, sat through economics lectures, and lived alongside three different communities currently wrestling the government for recognition of land ownership. As we learned about the history of land ownership, the changes in land ownership, and arguments as well as counter-arguments for who owns pieces of land, several of us were feeling like there was a disconnect. Land ownership being discussed as a human right was a hard concept to wrap our heads around, and I couldn’t figure out why.

I didn’t discover the origin of this disconnect until post-trip. After each trip, we are given two days to reflect on the meaning of the unit, to synthesize our understandings of the issues, and delve into global connections. One of our reflection questions asked, “Looking back at the US, what is your own connection to land?” The answer to this question and other US-related questions shed light on this disconnect I’d previously been experiencing. In that moment I realized why land rights, in a place like Thailand, need to be understood as human rights. Growing up in Hawaii, I lived on my land, not off of it. This distinction makes all the difference when it comes to the importance of land. The ¾ of an acre I grew up on was for luxury- for me to play tag on and later to spend time reading there. It was completely disconnected from either of my parents’ income. Yes, we could always mortgage our house for extra money, but the direct connection between my quality of life and where I lived was insignificant and hard to see.

In the areas we visited, this direct connection between quality of life and land ownership was far from anything I’d ever experienced before. Now that I’ve made this connection I am able to look back on our homestay experiences of this past week and I am able to see the gravity of the problem.

Toong Lui Lai, one of the communities we stayed with, was established in the 50’s. Since that point in time generations of families have established themselves as community members and primarily as farmers. Somewhere along the way the government declared their village as residing under the newly established Federal Reserve Forest area, thus making villagers technical trespassers. Shortly after this declaration, conflicts between the villagers and the government arose. Since 1973, over 100 individuals from Toong Lui Lai have been charged and put through the judicial system for using the land their families have worked on for over 20 years. When people are prevented from farming, their main source of income, and are ordered to pay fines equal to $3,000 per ½ acre worked on, there is more to the conflict than legal issues, it becomes issues of humanity. Most families we encountered have no other source of income besides farming on their land and without the ability to do so they’d need to pick up their families and move to an urban area and start from scratch. The futures of their families are at stake due to land politics.

Looking at how my own family’s income is far from related to our land explains why I didn’t initially understand. In taking away my front (or back) yard there’d just be fewer places for me to lay out- it would have no effect on future generations of my family. I will never be able to truly relate to the challenges that our friends in Toong Lui Lai experience due to their intense connections to the land, but what I can do is work towards understanding why land ownership is so important here in Thailand.

I now see land as more than a parcel or area of soil; I see it as a gateway to other rights and freedoms that contribute to increasing and protecting someone’s quality of life. As issues surrounding land here in Thailand are becoming clear to me, I am left wondering about what other issues I’ve overlooked due to my American understanding of a concept. Although this is a big question, I know that the only way to understand more is to open myself up to the challenges of this program and to not only evaluate what’s going on in Thailand, but what’s going on in my backyard as well.

Maddisen Domingo
Occidental College