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