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


Mary Lim said...

The solidarity I witnessed on Unit 4 showed me history doesn't have to repeat itself, not if the villagers have a voice to inspire one another and another chance to fight for hope. To see the Ban Huay Tap Nai Noi villagers send their love and support to those of Rasi Salai expressed such sincerity and helped me see the limitless definition of community.
I’ve reconsidered what truly drives and sustains a movement for so many years - is it the problem itself or is it the solidarity the community builds up? In the exchanges, we learned that the villagers had both hot and cold issues - there wasn't just one problem. There were several obstacles to overcome and yet the community wasn't divided or weakened. They realize the necessity of having each other for support and they have made that necessity an advantage and a blessing, never a burden.

Anonymous said...

Good post Julie. That’s an excellent point you bring up about how the solidarity of the people of Khon Kaen allows them to resist the will of powerful industrial elites in a way that they would not be able to at an individual level. However, to play devil’s advocate (and probably repeat the position taken by the project heads), couldn’t the argument be made that the dam construction could have been for the greater good; that is to say it brought the greatest good to the greatest number of people? For example, perhaps the same dam, which ruins the livelihood of a village of 500, provides electricity, including the electricity necessary to power hospitals and schools, to a city of 50,000? In addition, is it in the villager’s long-term interest to preserve a life of subsistence farming anyway? Do they want their children to be subsistence farmers also, and not doctors and lawyers? Their grand children? Their great grandchildren? These are the questions that you need to be able to answer in order to present an effective case for why these types of projects shouldn’t be undertaken. Anyway good luck with everything and have a blast in Thailand!
Joe Strzempko CIEE SL Dominican Republic,
Clark University

Anonymous said...

Julie, I really enjoyed your post, I thought that it outlined the issues currently affecting the communities of Ban Huay Top Nai Noi and those surrounding the Rasi Salai dam. I think that solidarity for these communities is a very important topic and how they have organized in the past and continue to do in the present and on to the future reinforces how they work together to try and reach a common goal. I also like how you connected the two communities. I think this connection serves as a good example of how two villages separated in proximity are very close in terms of the problems they are trying to solve. This relationship is one that other communities across the world could use as a model for trying to work together. I also liked the quote you included at the conclusion of the piece because it tied what you were talking about together very well. I do have one question though, do you think this intercommunity communication would be feasible in the United States? If so, how?

-Alex Waltz

LaurenBH said...

Julie I laughed when I read the first paragraph of this. I believe that I have heard the word solidarity more times over the past month than I will ever hear it again in my life.
To Joe the sole eager DR commenter, your point about the benefit that dams have for the greater good is a tricky topic. The problem is that many of the dams in Thailand are not managed terribly well and they end up harming more people than they benefit. However, we recently visited Na Nong Bong, a community that has had a gold mine developed on one of its local mountains, and the way of life in the village has been dramatically altered. The villagers cannot see any benefits to their community from the mine; however, the mine is unquestionably generating incredible sums of money that go to the national government. The local versus national paradox of development is challenging and I suppose that one way to look at it, as far as overall benefit, is to ask whether or not the gains are sustainable. If a local community is suffering but the gains for the country are sustainable maybe it is worth it? However, if the suffering is paired with unsustainable profit generation it seems overly damaging.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Julie - I completely agree that the solidarity expressed by Ban Huay was inspiring. Joe, your questions about sacrificing communities for the “greater good” of the country is an interesting one, but I disagree that “the ends justify the means” in this situation. The communities we have partnerships with are generally socioeconomically less well off than communities closer to Bangkok (though students have stayed with families that are exceptions to this rule) and therefore appear to have less power in the governments eyes to protest the completion of dam, mining, and other land development projects. (As Julie has noted however, communities have demonstrated a remarkable solidarity which has allowed them to overcome these injustices in remarkable ways.) Additionally, it is not necessarily true that people want their children to go on to become doctors and lawyers. Some tight-knit communities value their relationship with the land and their cultural heritage as rice farmers more strongly than any offers or influences that city life could provide them with. While it has increasingly become a common trend in Thailand for young adults to move to the city to work, they tend to move back into the villager when they become older, most often to raise their children’s children. Village life and farming life still plays a central role in their lives.

Megan Harrington

Kate Rochat said...

Julie! Good job with your blog post. I think that Alex raises a good point when he asked “do you think this intercommunity communication would be feasible in the United States?” I agree that it seems like the two Thai communities seem to have a general sense of solidarity between them, but how do you feel about the CIEE relationship with the communities? Do you believe that such a level of communication is possible not only amongst communities in the US but also between groups of students such as the CIEE program and villages?
It seems like a lot of the elements that you have mentioned as composing true solidarity are at the exclusion of outsiders. What would solidarity like that look like? I definitely don’t have the answers to these questions but your comment on solidarity brought them to mind for me.
Kate Rochat