04 May 2012

Community Organizing

Prior to this embarking of an adventure of a lifetime here in Thailand I was a student at the University of Michigan. There I solidified my studies when declaring my major as International Studies with a focus on Global Health and Environment with a minor in Environmental Studies. In these such classes, I studied concepts and aspects of life ranging from social injustices, environmental pollution, policy issues, human rights, human interactions and community organizing, and even thought processes which can either perpetuate, support, or even battle these various concepts and aspects. My studies were lecture, textbook, novel, and article based which were followed by lengthy, heated, and satisfying discussions or papers which required me to analyze certain concepts study or even worldwide organizations. Essentially, my education of world and domestic issues has been through an academic lens in the safety of my apartment or whatever comfortable study spot I could manage to find in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I am very fortunate to be a part of this rigorous and respected educational institution; however I tell those interested or curious that I excel most through experiential learning. It bridges the gap between the analytical article that can synthesize multiple perspectives and thoughts processes and what really is.
Studying in the field, with those affected, feeling the frustrations and sadness felt by those local powerless community members is simply an education unlike any other. Many experiences such as those where I feel the frustration once understanding how deeply complicated or out of control a situation have stumbled to my feet here in Thailand. Thank God. One experience I am grateful for having the privilege of learning from is a testament to the power of community organizing. Sure, I have read and talked about community efforts to protest, write letters, garner support from allies of varying degrees of importance, or even been approached to join a community organization to fight for a cause. Admittedly, I never had any conviction of any sort to join these organizers. I thought that they were in vain. That fighting at such a simple, small, and seemingly insignificant level would never achieve anything. I was under the impression that the only way to get things done, with permanence was to go from the top down. To change out those in charge, those policy makers, stuff like that. I was proved completely wrong here in Thailand.
On our most recent mining unit, we visited a community of mine protestors in Huay Mong in the Isaan region of Thailand. These villagers formed a community organization to fight two competing mining companies, OLK and TKL, from coming into the area and beginning a gold mine. Their success of preventing a mine from forming for the past 16 years derives from researching and understanding the mining approval process and Thai constitution. As made into law by the government of Thailand, in order to begin the process for rights to mine, the company needs to conduct and Environmental Impact Assessment. However, a company cannot just start an EIA whenever they want, they have to hold a public forum first which would allow an EIA to follow. The community organization exploited this advantage and that is how they’ve managed to fight off the mine for so many years, by simply preventing a public forum from occurring.
Such conviction to protect this mountain is derived from the hearts and souls and these villagers. This is something I have never experienced back in the United States. That is committing oneself to a lifetime of protest and fighting for a mountain.  A piece of land. Sure I love the environment, I am an advocate but for reasons far removed from an emotional, generational, life dependent reason. One community organization member stated that, “if I cannot preserve this mountain it means that I am also hurting my country and other countries”. These community organizers, I have learned, are fighting for so much more than simply a mountain. They are fighting for peace of mind, tranquility, food, a lifestyle, a purpose, a connection that cannot be explained by an anthropologist, sociologist, biologist, or politician.
This community organization of Huay Mong, just as many others I may very well assume, are so powerful because they fight with a common cause. With that common cause, they are very effective and unrelenting. This organization has monthly meetings, maintains relationships with local NGOs, and is constantly working to strengthen their cause and spread the word. 

Kyle Overman
University of Michigan

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