24 April 2012

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


Jennifer said...

This is a great overall summarizing post of what unit 3 was all about. It was beneficial for our group to see how villagers went about dealing with the proposal of a dam and a dam already built and its effects on the community. For me, with no prior grassroots movement experience, to have witnessed visible disagreement and tension between villagers in Mai Huay Hin Fon and Huay Hin Fon demonstrated that even movements begun within a village community, lacking outsider influence, is not free of problems. It is difficult when a community decides on solely one leader because they yield overwhelming amount of power in community decisions and the individual, though fighting for the group, is prone to biases. I think that having a specified group, consisting of both women and men from all parts of the community will yield decisions that address most villagers than one opinion to lessen the influence of biases due to the multiple perspectives involved.

Fátima A. Avellán said...

yoooo I really enjoyed your post, not only because I’m hella down for community organizing (duh) but because it clearly describes the differences between “hot” and “cold” campaigns that sustain a grassroots movement. After some critical thinking, it’s always pretty tight to notice that the balance between both the different types of issues is essential to nurture a long-term movement striving for social change. For instance, if organizing solely revolves around a “hot” campaign such as demonstrations, then without a doubt the movement won’t last because it will possibly most likely overwhelm and exhaust everyone involved. Plus, organizing and leading a grassroots movement by itself can already make some feel over-extended, so only focusing on “hot” campaigns is definitely no bueno. However, when a movement adds in a “cold” campaign, or a project of sorts that is less “energy draining” (such as educational or leadership development programs, an organic market or a learning center like Rasi Salai) then that brings a balanced element to the movement. So wait, does that make it “lukewarm”? LOL

hannah said...

This was such a wonderful post. It really hit me because I have been struggling myself with the issue of maintaining energy in issues that can last for several years, such as the sustained fight to stop the dam in Mai Huay Hin Fon. As an environmental studies major, I have often come into contact with people that understand the issues of global warming, yet see it as an inevitable evil, as something that will take too long and be too hard to fight. While communities organize around cold issues to keep their efforts sustained, I often wonder what would best sustain people to keep fighting against global warming. It seems to be such a large fight, and where little rewards are seen for ones efforts. In my classes we often talk about picking the small fights and finding reward in their success, yet when one looks at the larger issue, these efforts seem eclipsed. Does anyone have any ideas? What sustains people in a fight that seems at times to be larger than the human scale?

Mina said...

In context of what Fatima said about cool issues being necessary for sustaining a movement, I wonder if Huay Mai Hin Phon and the surrounding villages focused too much on hot issues. At least one person is ready to give up fighting against the construction of the dam. (Of course, there are power dynamics at Huay Mai Hin Phon that don’t seem to exist in Rasi Salai). In retrospect, it was a shame that we didn’t get a chance to ask them about hot/cold issues during the exchange.

Molly said...

While I was not on Unit 4 because of the Sisaket English Camp, your post really provided a great analysis of what it means for a community to handle both a “hot” issue and a “cold” issue. This type of distinction is extremely helpful for assigning priority and timelines, and I would love to see this terminology used in other community organizations. It is one thing for a community to come together in the heat of the moment to fight for their rights, but when a community like Rasi Salai can remain united even in “cooler” times, I would like to especially applaud these efforts. Seeing the organization of an organic market in Yasethon earlier this semester really reminded me of the importance of working together as a community. From carpooling at 4 AM to setting organic standards for its members, the community Green Market instilled a sense of ownership and pride in every participation- both for its positive effects in the community AND on the environment. I sincerely hope this type of green market can be established in Rasi Salai as well and I look forward to seeing the work of this final project group!