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


Kyle Overman said...

Great post! You really gave it an emotional and sentimental feel to it. The salinization issue is huge and after reading this I was left wondering if there is any way fix this issue?

MavaMarie Cooper said...

After reading your post I became very sad that I was not able to come with you all on this unit trip. It sounds like the communities you stayed with were truly amazing. Your first paragraph was beautifully written but it left me with a very eerie feeling. You and I are from states that we love for their nature and lack of over-developed big cities. I can’t imagine the government coming to Michigan and cutting down my beloved forests. Although I don’t rely on them for my livelihood like the communities in your post, I cherish them for their beauty and simplicity. Without that I am not sure what I would do. I can’t help thinking that the issues you think are a world away can just as easily appear on your doorstep. It makes me want to fight even harder for the communities affected by the dams. We are together in solidarity.

Anonymous said...

Hannah! This is a really wonderful mix between the cultural significance of the land for these villages and a lot of really useful and relevant information on what is happening legally/currently. I think that it is important to recognize these two factors as you have done because clearly compensation by the government, only monetarily, does not adequately address all the things that these villagers have either already lost or have the potential to lose. I like how you have also framed the issue according to the environmental impacts, such as the high increase in salinization/inability to actually use the water from the dam for irrigation. It is good to showcase how incredibly large this issue is and that it does not impact just one aspect of village life but three (if not more) huge ones that you have written about here. Thank you for giving such a well written and accurate portrayal of the issue so that readers can see the true meanings of dams in Northeast Thailand.

brennkelly said...

Hannah I loved the way you left off this blog post by saying.."Their self-reliance, self-sufficiency and connection to the land is something that cannot be figured into baht". This holds so true and it is a great point to make. It is so common these days that as a whole as a developing world we believe baht or any form of money can be seen as a sort of compensation for what is taken away. But it is obvious after not only living with these people but living off of their natural resources as well the type of connection that is made with their land and so on.

Fatuma said...

Fatuma Youb Said..
Hannah, I really enjoyed reading your piece. With such poetic language you explained in details the sense of attachment these communities have with their land. “Where I simply saw trees, they saw edible vines growing along their trunks, branches made heavy by red ant’s nests, all to be cooked later for dinner. Losing their way of life to the dams cannot be an option for these communities. And the government providing compensation will no solve those issues. Good Job!

Rachel said...

cHannah, you have such a way with words. I didn't get the chance to go to Rasi Salai but the way you wrote makes me feel as if I had. Your piece is a good summary to the pressing issues there. Water is such a huge issue, and even though dams makes it a little more specific, I usually never know where to start with this problem. But the way you wrote the cultural significance of lovers meeting in the water and farmers relying upon the forest for their 'supermarket,' and how dams are changing all of these customs emphasizes the importance of preserving traditions of the local community. It's always hard to discern whether technological advances are good or not, but obviously the dam benefits others at the cost of local communities. I think it'll be interesting to work on the Isaan Development Plan final project and see how dams projects are connected to other major economic projects that will interrupt the villagers' traditions.

Anonymous said...

Similar to Mava, your first paragraph captivated me. I can remember walking with my Mae in that first village, and where I saw some pretty pond flowers, she saw food for dinner. It was very interesting to be part of gathering their food in the forest. I also remembered her periodically mentioning that everything we saw would perhaps soon be under water—including when we were at her house.

I remember thinking, over a meal of morning glory and sticky rice, how incredibly sad I felt that this community was probably going to lose everything they knew. No longer will they be able to walk on their land, pointing out those edible vines on trees, those lizards under the ground, and the morning glory in the ponds. I loved how you related the forest to their supermarket, as it really is the place where most of their food comes from, and on top of that, most of it is free. When the dam comes, their free supermarket will be under water, and ruined.

Morgan said...

Hannah what a beautiful post! I love the way you describe how your family sees more in the forest than you! You really bring a human aspect to this issue and show how important the forest is to the villager’s way of life. I felt the same way when I went into the forest with Mea Ed. Seeing both these villages and it is easy to see the dam’s effects on Rasi Salai. You also show these effects really well in your post.