24 April 2012

Dams: After the Flood

As I walked with my home-stay family through the forest in their village, it quickly became clear that their eyes could see far more than mine. While we both saw the same scene, the landscape before them was filled with much more meaning than I could even imagine. Where I saw a hole, they saw a lizard’s refuge, whose inhabitant had buried deep beneath the dirt but could be driven out with a little prodding, and would later make a satisfying meal. Where I simply saw trees, they saw edible vines growing along their trunks, branches made heavy by red ants’ nests, all to be cooked later for dinner. It was incredible for me to see how intimately my home-stay family knew their forest, and how many things my family knew to collect from it.

Many families in the area, in the village of Mai Huay Hin Fon* called the forest their “supermarket”. They could find most if not all that they needed right within their land. Yet in this village, this resource, this supermarket, is under threat. The government is currently planning a dam to be built in their village, a dam that would flood this forest, their fields, and all the land they know and use. All their fields of cassava would also be inundated. The village has had no say in these plans. There have been no consultations. It was simply decided.

Rasi Salai was such a community over 20 years ago. They lived along the Mun River, an area rife with wetlands. They used to collect several edible plants from these wetlands, grow organic food, and catch several kinds of fish. Many couples also used to meet in the river. It was the place where those from different villages could come together, and later where people could even meet their lover. Yet this was not to last.

In 1994, a dam was built in the river by their village, the Rasi Salai dam. This dam changed the land they had previously known. The wetlands were covered with water, the fish population dropped, and their gardens were flooded. The river even became dangerous for people to be in. Several people died trying to swim near the dam; lovers no longer met in its waters.

Now the villagers of Rasi Salai are trying to preserve their traditional way of living. They still try to collect food from the wetlands, yet it is much harder. They used to use this area communally; they all used the wetlands and shared with one another. But now that the area has been destroyed, the sharing between villages has decreased. Many farmers have switched to using chemicals in their fields. Most can no longer use the area as their supermarket, they have to buy food elsewhere.

This Rasi Salai dam was promoted by the government as contributing to the irrigation problems in the area. Isaan is traditionally a dry place, and rice farmers are typically able to get about one crop a year. Yet with the stored water from a dam, many farmers would supposedly be able to increase their yield by being able to have two crops in a year. But this is not always true. While some farmers are now able to have two crops a year, one in the wet season and one in the dry season, this will not forever be the case. One effect of dams is that the water they reserve eventually becomes salinized, which dries out croplands so farmers will have to find new land. Yet in Rasi Salai, the reserved water is even more salinated than usual because the water has leeches into natural salt deposits that used to be too deep when the water was simply a river.

Now, the International Rivers Network calls the dam "currently useless"1 because of its high salinization level.

All of these issues is what Mai Huay Hin Fon is currently worried about, currently fighting against, and have been, for the past 20 years. They don't want to lose the land they know. It's their way of life, and a major part of their community. They don't want their land destroyed when they will get little benefit from the dam. And while compensation can be possible, as seen in Rasi Salai where some have received it from the government, this cannot bring back what the river provides to the community. Their self-reliance, self-sufficiency and connection to the land is something that cannot be figured into baht.

1. International Rivers Network. Reviving the World’s River: The Global View of Dam Removal.

Hannah Kitchel

Bates College

Solidarity in Isaan Cold vs. Hot Issues of Affected Dam Communities

The organic garden at the Rasi Salai learning center

Getting a tour of the area that would be submerged in Mai Huay Hin Fon village if the dam was built.

When a new dam development project is about to displace over 300 villagers, it is easy to see the frustration and rage in their eyes, standing together in solidarity. But when the dam has already been built on their wetlands, they’ve been relocated and have won the battle to receive compensation, what is there to keep that community organized and unified? This past month, we got the privilege to see this intensity played out as well as witness what the organization around cooler issues looked like.

We had the chance to meet with and stay in some of the village households that comprised the organization called the Chiang Tha Preservation Group (CTPG) in Chaiyaphum Province. These households would be submerged by the proposed dam reservoir, along with around 13,000 rai’s of land they relied on for sustenance everyday. Staying in the village was great; many of our families took us out to the scavenge the gorgeous landscape of rolling cassava fields, forest land, and giant palm trees for morning glory, sore throat medicine, and the nest of the red ants (a delicacy to eat). Several of us got to pick the morning glory by the small stream and eat it in a traditional Isaan dish for dinner that same night.

I had fun hanging with kids from the village running around the beautiful land surrounding the village, but I also felt a sadness as I imagined it all under 24 meters of water. That night we met with the leaders and several families from not only the village we stayed in but also, the other three villages that comprised the CTPG. Action was hot. The one leader of CTPG, Paw Wilai, answered our questions asking about how they felt about the proposed dam. He has already accepted that the dam will be built and that he needs to fight for their villages’ compensation. “We have been fighting for 22 years, and now it is time we ensure we have a future.” Phau says. However, not all of the members of the CTPG were in agreement with Paw Wilai. Mae Et , one of the first to move to the Ban Huay Top Nai Noi village area in the flood plain, refuses to abandon land. “I will never leave.” Mae affirms. This very hot issue shows the intensity that can come when up against what see like huge odds. It shows how one community is working together to remain a unified front against the government agency that would oversee the dam, the Royal Irrigation Department (RID).

As the hot issues cool down, another community, Rasi Salai, stays organized for different reasons. The dam in their area has already been built and displaced several villages out of the wetlands they once used everyday to raise their buffalo, pick wild herbs, fruits and vegetables to eat. “We want to build a foundation for our children.” Mae Si, one of the leaders of the community says. The Rasi Salai community is made up of several villages in Srisaket Province that would not probably otherwise be united; everyone has their own lives, farms, and children to keep them busy and now the compensation has been given, there is no need to fight the RID.

Instead, they stay unified around cool issues to continue the growth that they have started. One cool issue is getting a green market for some of their farmers to sell organic produce for a greater profit. By building a learning center near the beautiful reservoir, they have a place to demonstrate the organic agriculture system growing there complete with green beans, morning glory, tomatoes, and peppers surrounded by a mote to keep the moisture in the soil. It is a tangible next steps for the benefit of the health and livelihood of the villagers. “Maybe we’ll start ecotourism here, having tours around the dam, showing them the effects it’s had on our livihood and how we continue to pass on our culture through sticky rice basket weaving, and serving delicious, organic Isaan food.” Mae Si says. They fight for growth, for improvement, and to allow a larger group to see what’s happened due to the dam, giving others the opportunity to learn from it. Staying connect, whether the issue is burning hot or cooling down, is something we can admire to build community, partnerships, and friendships.

Ellery Graves
University of Wisconsin Madison

23 April 2012

The Motivation Behind the Rasi Salai Fight

Since 1994, when the Rasi Salai dam project was built, communities from Rasi Sali District, Srisaket province have been constantly fighting the government and the dam companies from destroying their way of life. For generations, the way of life of communities living in Rasi Salai depended upon Mekong River. Also the culture of Isaan people emerged from the ecosystem, which they depended on for generations. Villagers had the freedom to catch fish from the river, grow crops on the wetlands when there was flooding, and let their livestock graze on the land. But after the dam was build and the gates were closed to provide irrigation to Rasi Salai the wetlands the families depended on became flooded and the river stopped.

Even seventeen years after the dam was build and the gates were closed many villagers have kept fighting to in reclaim their way of life and culture of life. Instead of leaving the land and finding work elsewhere many villagers have found alternatives in keeping their way of life and traditions that have been affected by the dam.

The community’s main motivation for keeping that spirit alive for years is, passing along the way of life they once knew to their kids. Many villagers say this is important because if they don’t pass the way of life that their ancestors passed down to them than the culture of Isaan will be diminished.

Even though they way of life has been disrupted, villagers in Rasi Salai are trying to fight and preserve what they have currently have. Now how are the communities fighting to keep their Isaan and the way of life going? For one, by the help from CIEE and NGO’s the Rasi Salai learning center was build. Aside from teaching the villagers the effects that the dam has had on the communities the community run learning center serves as a space to teach the community and visitors alternative agriculture irrigation techniques. The learning center has also provided information to youth to help preserve local wisdom and demonstrate the value of cultural traditions in Rasi Salai and other communities such as Hua Na. In demonstrating cultural tradition on of the leaders helps youth by teaching them how to create crafts like pots, sticky rice holders and mates.

On of the Mae’, Mae Si who works at the learning center said she learned these techniques from her mother and now it’s her duty to pass it along to her daughter and other youth. She said this is important because they won’t have to purchase the pots and handy crafts from the store because they will know how to make it. In addition, after the dam affected Rasi Salai, many of them have been finding alternatives to agriculture techniques. For example, Mae Si has moved her agriculture to higher ground so when the raining season comes her crops weren’t get destroyed. By doing this Mae Si and other communities are currently trying to create a green market for the community. Mae Si believes that many of her neighbors are capable of growing food for the community but currently she and others from the learning center are in the process of building a green market for the community.

Mae Si said one of the main reason she has been growing her crops and wanting to create the green market is because of her kids and the next generation. She believes that if something like the green market or learning center is left for the next generation than the way of life of Rasi Salai will keep going.

Fatuma Youb

University of Minnesota