31 March 2011

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


Jennifer said...

When we return from our unit trips it is interesting to try to connect and relate our experiences to our lives back home. Sometimes we find similarities and sometimes we find that our lives are drastically different than the way of life in these villages. It is very true that land has much less value and meaning to me that it does to the people in Toong Lui Lai.

During this past unit reflection, one reoccurring concept was development and changing the way of life in communities. Pawh Somkiat, a village leader we met, told us that before development came, people were very happy with their lives. They had an abundance of natural resources and lived off the land. Electricity only came to the village a few years back. This is their way of life. In my life back home, I would be unable to live off the land. I have become conditioned to needing my conveniences of electricity or big supermarkets. I don't know if I could live that lifestyle.

It is easy to feel like we are very disconnected to these people because their way of lives are different from ours in America. What makes me feel better about that is simply recognizing that I was raised in America, in a western world and context. I can not change my culture but merely acknowledge the differences that exist and where they come from.

Dan said...

Hey, Maddisen,

I'm so happy the reflection question inspired you to make connections you were struggling with.

Like you, I grew up on a little less than an acre of land. Though it isn't much, my family is deeply connected to it. At age 57, my dad still prioritizes mowing the lawn regularly and planting flowers every year. For us, the yard is a symbol of pride.

Aside from my land at home, I did a lot of growing up on the farm I worked at for more than 8 years. I don't think I'll ever forget how the tall, dewy grass felt against my legs as I walked the fields as the sun rose every morning. Sometimes, I close my eyes and imagine the deep breaths I've taken overlooking the lakes and forest that surround the farmhouse.

Like you, these connections to land are not just nostalgic. Instead, they are deep, spiritual connections. I had never considered "land" before this trip, but I'm so glad to understand it on a more personal level.

Great post!

Austyn said...

This unit also made me really reflect on the places I grew up, and whether or not the actual "land" mattered, or if we had commodified it to such an extent that it no longer had ecological value. Instead of land I've grown up seeing a yard. Instead of agriculture, I've grown up seeing my parents mulch, pull weeds, and plant bushes. It's aesthetically pleasing instead of necessary to sustain myself.
However, in trying to think of land rights, I instead compare their experiences to the lighthouse my family rents from the Coast Guard in Canada every 5 years. During the past few years, the transition in government has also met a transition in who we rent our summer house from. Although it's been in our family for over forty years, our retaining a place full of memories and connections depends on what new government offices want to do with the land. Should it be made into an uninhabited national historic site? A tourist location for the nearby mainland? I know that I would fight for this place, the place I grew up and the land I feel the strongest connection to. In this way, I relate to their struggle, to retain something that feels inherently their right.