21 November 2011

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


Julie said...

What I found most interesting about the conversation on development was that not only the government saw it in this light of economic gains. When speaking with P’Blaa, she was asked what her definition of development was. She went on about its negative impacts on the villages and large scale changes to the environment. She referenced the dam and how it changed the villagers’ ways of life. I then asked what she thought about the learning center that was recently built. It provides a place for meetings, education, and even a location to sell local handicrafts. It was almost an, “oh yea” response. It is easy to cloud your thoughts with large scale dams and mines when envisioning development, but small scale development exists. In my opinion, it is incredibly beneficial to the villagers because when working within their way of life, it can projects, like the learning center, provide access to information and even some “linear progress”.

Alex Waltz said...

Liza, I enjoyed reading your post and thought that it gave a good synopsis of the development issues affecting the Rasi Salai dam. I agree that the United States’ construction of dams such as the Hoover and the success of the Tennessee Valley Authority projects has set the precedent for what development is in other countries but do you know why? I could only speculate that it became the standard because other countries saw the economic strides the US made in such a short time, especially coming out of the Great Depression, but I think this only benefitted the US because its economy needed new jobs for the unemployed. I do not know the unemployment rate in Thailand but it seems that the construction of dams benefits industry and urban centers but harms the agricultural sector that is responsible for producing rice, Thailand’s largest export. Also, I agree that Thai society has yet to embrace the theory of development on the community level rather than through mega-projects, but do you have any speculation why?

Courtney Newsome said...

Liza, I appreciated reading your blog entry. For several reasons. I am a CIEE student studying in the Dominican Republic and getting to hear from other students about what's going on in the world is really quite amazing. It is unbelievable to hear about the dam phenomenon that's happening but inspiring to read how Thai communities are coming together to preserve their culture, traditions, and dignity in-spite of all the outside forces demanding that they push it all away. I thought you made some really good points to which I strongly agree: it is like we are struggling to combine the concepts of development and conservation because we (or perhaps I should say those who are supposed to be supporting us, aka: people of the government) have lost an understanding of what the purpose should be of “developing” and “conserving”. This is what needs to be clearly defined which means (and this is not new information) that a reassessment of priorities is necessary. Okay, fine. If the goal is to make more money, then I ask this question: If it’s not for the betterment of life on earth, then why (on earth!) insist on making it?
I have found it challenging to think and talk about the concepts of development and conservation in the Dominican Republic while being so bombarded with the commercialism that exists here. It has dug its roots deep into the culture and seems to be a big way in which people define what is development (much as it is in other countries, like the US). Mentioning commercialism adds an interesting dynamic to the conversation about development and conservation but I won’t get started on the topic of US influence, even though it’s an unavoidable subject when it comes to talking about that. And it’s always a question of it being good or bad.

Molly Francis said...

Development has been a key part of our studies in the Dominican Republic as well. We are all working in communities with Dominican organizations trying to aid in their "development." I think many of us, through research and personal experience; have come to a similar conclusion: that does not go hand and hand with environmentalism or the common good but rather with the destruction of those things. One fellow student even said that she had come to the conclusion that "development is at the root of all evil."
I think the reason these links have been made so much is that small scale, environmentally sound, and locally driven development seems so scarce. This village sounds like it's starting the ball rolling. It's what CIEE SL in Santiago is trying to do too, but sometimes it moves very slowly. I think the important thing that I've had to keep telling myself is that it should go as slow as it needs to, as long as it is respecting the community it involves, the environment as much as possible, and is keeping its short term and long term goals in mind throughout the process. The hard part is the patience. I’d be interested to know some of the thoughts from your group about development after spending three months “in the thick of it.”

Natalia Salazar said...

Liza, I disagree with the representative from the RID: conservation and development are completely compatible! They might even be synonymous in some cases! Well now, I’m talking about sustainable development... was he? Reading your blog and the comments on it, I am not having a crisis of debating whether these two can coincide, but wondering, what does “development” mean? Especially in the “development community,” there is not really a definition for the word, but in my opinion in this context, development is not development unless it is sustainable. It is just destructive, as in the case you have witnessed in the Rasi Salai District.

I believe the problem at hand is an issue of control. Who defined “development” for the whole world? Who decided that dams would equate development? Any development projects or initiatives that are not meant to be sustainable are destructive because they only do harm unto the people involved in it or generations to come. The construction and maintenance of dams may create jobs and energy, but their other effects are devastating: flooding, displacement. Like Julie said though, a learning center has been built in the community. That is a perfect example of sustainable development (given its construction and maintenance are sustainable, etc) whilst providing the opportunity to conserve the nature and tradition of the community. Conservation and development can indeed go in the same direction.

Natalia Salazar said...
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