30 November 2012

Inner Peace: Step 1 For Creating Change

On the last day of Unit 5 (mining), we had our final exchange of the semester. We were given the opportunity to ask any questions about the issues discussed throughout the semester as well as philosophical questions. While sitting in the exchange, I realized that this semester has taught me an immense amount not about specific issues, but about the various ways to analyze these issues. I realized that any project, governmental or local, has consequences/effects on multiple groups of people and the environment. More than that, I realized the wisdom of those affected by these issues. All the villages we stayed in, all the people we met with, all the stories we heard; they all carried with them life lessons that I will carry home with me and hold on to for the rest of my life. I learned my final lesson in that very exchange.

Suvit Gularpwong (P’Suvit), an NGI (Non-Governmental Individual) residing in Loei province, taught me this lesson.

It is easy to become caught up in the race of life. Whether to get a promotion, to find the next big thing, or to simply to make more money; our lives are constantly on the move. To aid in this race, are technological gadgets such as laptops, cell phones, and of course, the Internet. We are constantly focused on external goals—a meeting, a business deal, an assignment. Rarely do we stop to take time for ourselves. Rarely do we take time to simply enjoy the beauty of the world around us.

Our final exchange of the semester was at P’Suvit’s home. Located in a remote area, his home is surrounded by a lush organic garden and his roof boasts a set of solar panels that generate enough electricity to last 2-3 hours per day. He spends his time working with villagers fighting against local mines and dams. His lifestyle is simple, but at the core of it is his realization that happiness comes from within.

P’Suvit realizes the importance of seeking your inner self to find peace within this fast-paced world. He states, that the limited electricity requires him to use creative methods of living. He has to figure out different ways to cook due to not having a fridge; he has to figure out how best to use the 2-3 hours of light. He finds great peace in living this simple life. It carries out onto his work as an NGI as great patience is required when organized villagers and creating effective change. He said that in the beginning, when he did not see results of his work, he would easily get frustrated. He said that overtime, he realized that now, it’s not the end that matters. It’s the fact that he is indeed doing something about the problem. He is taking the action he can. In the end, the journey is what matters.

Many of the villagers we visited this semester lead very simple, hardworking lives. Yet most of them are happier than people back home in the States. Issues like development, politics, and globalization can easily consume us. However, change begins from within. Corporations are run by human beings who are still caught in the race of external happiness; of obtaining endless heaps of money. They cannot be told to change, because they will not understand. The realization must come from within and that is how good living begins. The same applies to politicians caught up in winning the race. Effective governing can only come when instead of focusing on winning the race, or “keeping the seat,” politicians take time to truly analyze issues and implement policies that will create effective change.

I have learned to focus on inner change, because only then will I be able to create any kind of change in my outer world. 

Gargi Bhakta
University of North Texas

29 November 2012

An Intellectual Gold Rush

As a group of students studying major development issues in a Thai context, the issue of mining was largely a mystery to many of us. In the past, when I heard people speak of mining I often flashed back to childhood memories of the Seven Dwarfs singing “Hi Ho” in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When I learned we would be covering mining as a major topic in our final unit I was interested to learn more about mining beyond the idea of cartoon characters dancing around with pick axes. Throughout the course of the unit many in the student group, found the material to be especially engaging.
            In light of what little most of us knew about mining processes and impacts, the information we learned was rather shocking.  Prior to our unit we learned about mining as a general practice and specifically explored some of the techniques and dangers of the gold mining industry. Modern gold mining is a far cry from the river panning done by prospectors during the California gold rush of the 1850’s. It was surprising to learn how chemically intensive and environmentally reckless mining tends to be.  One of the issues that stood out the most was the amount of cyanide used in the mining process. As noted by Earthworks and Oxfam America in their publication, Dirty Metals, cyanide is a chemical that can be fatal in doses as small as a grain of rice. Yet, in the gold mining process, gold ore is saturated with cyanide in amounts of up to several tons a day in order to precipitate gold from the ore compound. The thought of such a dangerous chemical being retained and utilized excessively was unbelievable. After visiting Tungkum Limited, a gold mining company in Loei Province, the process became even more real to us. I, personally, had a better understanding of why villagers in nearby Na Nong Bong village were concerned about the mine’s presence.
            One of the factors that also stood out to us was the fact that mining is a process that plays such an active role in all of our lives. Though we don’t actively participate in harvesting the materials ourselves, there was a sense that we as consumers inadvertently contribute to many of the ills caused by mining. Minerals obtained through mining can be found hidden in the vast majority of the items we possess. Not to mention gold jewelry and other obvious byproducts of mining which only serve cosmetic purposes. Throughout the student group there were many questions of our own level responsibility and implication in issues associated with mining. In light of the damage that mining can do to people and the environment we were left to wonder if the benefits of mining actually outweighed the cost. If the demand for byproducts of mining were decreased, could we put an end to many of the ills associated with the practice?
            These questions and more helped present the issue of mining on a more personal level. In addition, the fact that mining is such a prominent industry throughout America also made it a notable topic. As a group of students from towns all over the United States, we realized we probably wouldn’t have to journey very far to see examples of mining and its effects in a more familiar context. In reality, the development issues of Thailand didn’t seem so foreign after all. 

Alex Marable
Miami University 

A Number Affair

A few weeks ago, CIEE students had a lecture with an Asian Development Bank employee. Our past few months have had a strong emphasis on the human voice of development. We have entered into the lives and homes of people who have been directly affected by development projects in the Northeast of Thailand. But this lecture provided us with a context beyond the human voice it provided us with numbers.
And, man, I really love numbers. Numbers don’t lie. Numbers rarely can be disputed. Numbers are unbiased. Numbers speak the truth. But before we get into the numbers, let me give you some background on the Asian Development Bank.
The Asian Development Bank, or ADB, goal is to ‘fight poverty in Asia and the pacific.’ According to ADB’s website, environmental damage and resource depletion are already impeding the region’s development and reducing the quality of life. Their website claims that the ADB has transformed the region with construction of thousands of schools, bridges, health clinics, and roads, providing opportunities for people to lift themselves out of poverty.
Within Thailand, they have be the key player for many development projects, such as the greater Mekong Sub region Highway Expansion Project, railway sector reform, and several energy projects.
So back to the numbers, the Asian Development Bank employee presented us several numbers. He explained to us that since ADB’s presence in Thailand, the country is now classified as an upper middle-income county, with a gross national income per capita of $4,210 in 2010. He explained how Thailand’s unemployment rate continues to decrease from 1.5% in 2009 to 0.7% in 2011. He continued to compare Thailand’s growth to neighboring nations, and how there has been vast improvement; the middle class country still has a lot of development to go. His numbers made a strong case for development projects across Thailand.
But while he continued on his lecture, spinning off numbers, something happened. I usually have a love affair with numbers, devouring them up, and wanting to search for more numbers, more meaning.  Numbers usually win me over. But as the ADB employee spat out the numbers, I wasn’t won over. Instead of numbers, I saw the homes of people I have lived with. Instead of growth, I saw displaced families. When he talked about a highway project that connects Thailand with other neighboring countries and how it was going to increase trade revenue for Thailand. I didn’t mentally see GDP increasing for Thailand, or the standard of living being raised, I saw all the families who would be kicked out of their homes, forced to relocate because of the new highway. I saw lives being turned upside down instead of numbers moving on up.
My mind was in a conflict. What’s more important? The numbers or the lives? And if this Asian Development Bank employee had seen what we, students, have seen would he be able to talk to confidently about development and all the good it is bringing to Thailand? I wanted to argue with him, I wanted to tell him about all the harm these development projects were doing in Northeast Thailand. But my mouth went dry. There’s no arguing with numbers. What did my stories about villagers have against his numbers? How can the villagers fight against development projects when there is such a clear case for development in Thailand? 

Caroline Dobrez
University of Missouri-Columbia

External Pressures on Loei's Gold Mine

On our 5th unit trip, we visited two communities in Loei Province. The second community was Na Nong Bong. This community was affected by the nearby open pit mine. Throughout our interactions and exchanges with the villagers the mine was viewed as an evil entity. Fortunately we were given the opportunity to exchange with the Loei Office of Natural Resources and Environment, the Vice Governor of Loei, and Tungkum Limited Mining Company (TLM). Throughout these exchanges, I realized the external forces at play involving the mine.
            In 1987, the Thai government invited mining companies into the country to survey the land and determine if there were any valuable minerals to be found. The Thai government and mining companies reached an agreement in 1989 and the companies moved into Thailand. Tungkum is a subsidiary of Tongkah Harbour Public Company Limited (THL). Its creation in 1991 was a result of successful bidding by the holding company. TLM had to get permits from seven different government agencies before being allowed to even scope out the site. The TLM gold mine was finally opened in 2007.
            Gold mines are expensive to run. There are many production costs and maintenance is constantly required on every part of the mine. The total fees thus far are $11.8 million. For every ounce of gold found, royalties and a 1.5% profit share must be paid. To date, the total royalties paid from this one mine is $11 million. In order to pay the necessary costs, TLM had to take out a gold loan with Deutch Bank. A gold loan is a loan, which must be paid back in gold. In 2004, an agreement was signed predetermining the price of gold for the next 25 years. TLM agreed to that one gold ounce was worth $850 or market price if lower. The price of gold is currently $1,751 so TLM is doubtlessly feeling cheated. The gold company is still very much in debt and so must continue mining until the gold loan is repaid. TLM’s stock value is $0.01 per share and it looses more profit each year.
            The villagers in the area surrounding the gold mine have experienced a multitude of health issues including toxic levels of arsenic in their water source, presumably stemming from the mine. We spoke to the Vice Governor of Loei about the villagers’ health concerns. He responded by saying “there is never going to be any evidence that mining contributes to contamination.” This from the office that withheld results of water tests from the villagers. All the evidence villagers presented to the local government was dismissed because villagers used chemical fertilizers, planted Cassava, or smoked. The toxic arsenic levels were even blamed on the underground minerals in the region. This defensiveness begs the question, why is the Thai government placing more value on the mine than Thai citizens? Royalties and increased GDP are two possible explanations. The local government offices receive 20% of all gold mining royalties, which gives the more ruthless government officials good reason to overlook village protests. The Thai central government also receives a cut of royalties, with the benefit of an increased GDP.  Rural farmers seem much less important to the Thai government than economic profit.
            The TLM gold mine is not a separate entity, but a small subsidiary with many external forces pressuring it to continue mining for gold. THL wants the mine to profit, the Deutch Bank wants its underpriced gold, and the Thai government wants royalties and increased GDP. After all, the Thai government invited mining companies into Thailand; they certainly aren't going to kick them out.

Ashley Farley Shimota
Carleton College

Meet Me Halfway

“The problem is that the villagers that we deal with are made up of two groups: those that are willing to listen to what we have to say, and those that do not care to listen because they have their own agenda,” explained the director of The Loei Office of Natural Resources and Environment. This was not the first time our student group had heard such a sentiment. Throughout Unit 5, an underlying theme that we encountered was the fact that the government and villagers are unwilling to work together. Resistance is the name of the game. Neither side will budge. No wonder efforts for substantial progress are at a standstill. At this rate, compromise is an unlikely occurrence.
            This mutual stubbornness from the government and the villagers concerning the development of dams and mines in the Isaan region really resonated with me. Throughout the units leading up to Unit 5, I found myself frustrated and confused due to the lack of compromise between both sides. I did not understand why it was so hard to put aside their differences, create some sort of an agreement and cooperate in harmony. But this unit finally provided me with the answer I was searching for. 
            The Loei Office of Natural Resources and Environment is a government ministry department that focuses on environmental control, resource management, and environmental restoration in Thailand. Although they identify themselves as an environmental organization, after exchanging with them it did not seem as through their job description involved much in the way of protecting the environment of the local villages directly affected by the gold mine. Instead, it seemed as though what their job truly entails is conducting research into the cyanide and arsenic contaminations in the water, and then sending that information off to the health office to deal with. When you look at it from this perspective, it makes sense that the villagers are not entirely willing to cooperate with this office, because they do not actually aid the villagers. And besides, the office is a government ministry department, so it is no wonder that the villagers are reluctant to work with them in solidarity.
            On the other hand, the villagers claim that the government never holds a space to educate them on the projects that are destroying their way of life. Sometimes the government even resolves to evicting them entirely before initiating the construction process. During our exchange with the villagers of Kok Wao and Na Nong Bong, we learned that public participation rarely happens when the government constructs such projects. As Sadsai Sang-Sok, an NGO and member of the Thai People Don’t Want Nuclear Power Plants Network, told our group during Unit 4, “if the government wants to build a dam, then it probably just will anyways without consulting the villagers at all prior to its construction.” It seems as though public opinion does not factor into the decisions made by the local Thai government, and this is an alarming problem. Without public participation, a crucial part of any public project, the villagers are truly blindsided. This lack of transparency between the government and the villagers is disturbing, and reveals just how corrupt the current process in place for the construction of such a project is. The government decides on a project, and without notifying the villagers, begins said project, fully disregarding how it may affect the villagers.
            In our exchange with Governor Phonsak Chiaranai, we were told that the local government has attempted to hold forums for the villagers in order to notify and educate them on current projects, but that no one shows up. However, with the villagers speaking in one of our ears and the government speaking in the other, it is difficult to sort out the truth from the lies. Hearing these conflicting perspectives has helped me make sense of the situation of the gold mine in Loei province as well as the other issues we have previously studied this semester, specifically dams and land rights. Unfortunately, it has also left me feeling less hopeful that justice will eventually be restored to the villagers. Perhaps the dream for compromise is just wishful thinking. But one thing is for certain: the government is never going to become an institution that is powerless and at the mercy of the villagers. The villagers need to understand that, and the government needs to be upfront with the villagers in terms of the projects that will directly affect their livelihood. Moving forward, both sides need to swallow their pride and meet halfway. Without compromise, substantial progress is unlikely to occur in upcoming years.

Sean Burke
University of Pennsylvania 

Energy Security: Thai Perspective

Thailand finds itself at a crossroads. Like many other Southeast Asian countries Thailand has experienced significant economic growth in the last 15 -20 years. Concurrently, Thailand has also seen its energy use increase - a phenomenon common in many industrializing economies. This is a problematic situation for Thailand because it posses very few of its own indigenous energy resources. Consequently Thailand relies heavily on natural gas and oil exports from other countries. Thailand finds itself increasingly vulnerable as it imports more energy and resources from other countries. Much of Thailand’s natural gas imports come from Myanmar, a historically turbulent region prone to civil and political unrest. While most of its oil imports come from the Middle East, which also experiences its own instability from time to time. Unfortunately, acquiring more energy takes more than just flipping a switch. Energy production relies on an increasingly complicated and interdependent set of processes and systems that are vulnerable to disruptions and interferences.  The problem lays in the inherent nature of current energy systems, which rely on finite energy resources – fossil fuels – for energy consumption. Like any other resource that can be exploited, resource competition holds sway in this sector. Lacking its own substantial reserves Thailand must compete on the global market for energy resources, even more so than countries with considerable natural resources. It is clear that securing energy supplies for the Kingdom of Thailand is of paramount importance for the economic well being and continued development of the country in the coming years.

Alex Alvendia
George Washington University

18 November 2012

Who’s Got the Power?

One of the greatest problems facing our generation is continuing to supply our global energy demands. Thailand is no exception to this issue, and the problem accompanies both social and environmental inequalities. Especially in Isaan.
Over the past 20 years, energy use in Thailand has grown rapidly to accommodate the dramatic development throughout the country. Private investors dominate the energy business in Thailand and hold an enormous amount of power, both literally and figuratively. 66% of energy use in Thailand is dominated by natural gas, however in Isaan biofuel is largely produced.
Our lecturer, Professor Santiparp Siriwattanapaiboon explained to us that despite being a large producer of energy, Isaan only consumes 8.92% of the total energy used in Thailand, while central and eastern Thailand (Bangkok) guzzles 74.14%. These numbers become staggering when you consider that Isaan comprises 30% of the total land in Thailand. Essentially, Isaan produces a majority of the energy in Thailand, while the rest of the country consumes it.
So herein lies the injustice, the people of Isaan are surrounded by the facilities of private energy companies; dams, biofuel production, nuclear power plants and all the environmental and health consequences that accompany these sites. However, they reap none of the employment or economic benefits of these facilities, nor do they really consume a sizeable portion of the energy produced. The people of Isaan are displaced, their livelihoods threatened, and their safety at risk. They are exploited and sacrificed for the economic benefit of private investors, while unable to profit from the presence of these facilities.
            While on unit we met with NGO worker Sodsai Sang-Sok. Her work challenges the presence of a nuclear power plant in a small village in Isaan. During our exchange, Sodsai explained how nuclear power plants were initially proposed to be built in southern Thailand, but when met with opposition, private companies decided to relocate their sites to Isaan, because the people have less power, and companies therefore met less resistance. So, a biofuel plant capable of producing up to 10,000 megawatts was constructed smack-dab in the middle of this small village. No Environmental Impact Assessment was conducted, nor were the villagers given knowledge or any form of public participation prior to the construction of the plant. Additionally, these villagers do not benefit from any employment with the presence of this plant. All but two jobs on site required degrees in physics, something your average Thai-rural villager tends to lack.
            Whether or not you agree with nuclear power, the presence of this plant (and dozens of other energy production sites in Isaan) presents several injustices. As Sodai Sang-Sok suggested, “I’m not protesting the presence of all nuclear power plants, I’m protesting the ideologies of large scale projects.” While talking to the people during Unit 4, it seemed as though the villagers were more offended by the way in which the government and private companies went about pursuing these projects, as opposed to the presence of the projects themselves. A serious lack of public participation and any sort of transparency insults the villagers, their way of life, and their economic independence.
            The amount of unregulated power these companies hold is really quite frightening. But perhaps what is most frightening, is a short comment Sodai presented, almost in passing, “there is a great possibility there is oil under Isaan.” The devastating amount of exploitation and social conflict this would produce is difficult to imagine. But, what’s another war over oil? With power comes power I suppose.

Hannah Palkowitz
Whitman College

When Faith meets Fireworks

Imagine smoke, everywhere. Not in a way that is unpleasant. It’s just swirling in the air around you, either perfumed with spices or with the sharp smell of gunpowder. In your ears flow Buddhist prayers, interjected with the crack of fireworks nearby. Everything is lit with orange glow of the little candles perching around the temple.

This is Ok Phansa, the celebration of the end of Buddhist lent, which happens once a year at the end of rainy season. We were lucky enough to experience this unique event while on a homestay in Sisaket province. It was beautiful and chaotic and smokey, and a joy to experience with my temporary Sisaket family.

As a Religion major, I had some preconceptions of what Buddhism might be like when coming to Thailand, but the reality of it has been full of surprises. Hoping to participate first hand in Buddhist ceremonies, I was disappointed to find that there were no temples nearby my homebase in Khon Kaen. Fortunately, religious life is more essential and intertwined in village life. I’ve had the opportunity to give alms to monks early in the morning, and I’ve been entangled in several impromptu string-tying ceremonies.

What really strikes me about what I’ve observed of Buddhist religious practice is how relaxed it is… so completely different from the stiff and stillness that exists in the cannon western religious practice. Even while wai-ing and chanting along with the monks, the women present at the temple for Ok Phansa turned to chat and laugh with each other, as fireworks popped and cracked constantly throughout the entire time, lit by the pre-teen rascal boys of the village. Feem, our four year old sister, was much more interested in playing with the dripping orange candle wax than sitting still, and her mother made little attempt to keep her in attention.

The practice was so much more based in action than in silent contemplation. For these villagers, religious observance is carried out through the lighting of candles and the donation of pillows, mats, rice, and banana-leaf-wrapped snacks, accompanied by the carrying out of the rituals of the ceremony; lighting incense that is strung in a vast web across the courtyard, and circling the temple three times with our candles.

If you’ve studied religion even a little bit, you’ve probably learned Émile Durkheim's theory of Collective Effervescence; the idea that just because of the sheer amount of people participating in religious ceremonies (or any other event), an energy is created and felt by those involved that is perceived to be larger than the sum of its parts. 

Never having been particularly religious, explanations like Collective Effervescence are what I have to explain how I felt that night. A unique feeling arose in my chest as we moved slowly with our candles to light the webs of hanging incense. We lit the incense methodically, and fragrant smoke began to swirl around us. This was nothing like anything I had ever experienced before. Maybe all of the smoke was getting to me, but I really felt part of something big, even though I didn’t know what most of our actions were for.

I think we were all grateful to get to experience Ok Phansa, but, at least for me, I’m even more grateful for the persistence of the kind, yet unexplainable actions of our host families. The easy way that they really truly include us as a part of the family, with little ceremony, really makes me feel like I’m part of something much bigger.

Molly Johanson
Whitman College

Girl Power

As college students, our group is aware of the oppression women have faced and still do face, especially in working environments. As a result, we have taken this into account while planning exchanges with women NGOs or villages that have a strong female presence. Our group almost always sets aside a section to ask questions pertaining to whether being women has caused them to face more difficulties in their leadership positions.

            However, quite contrary to our preconceived notions, we have continuously been told that being a woman is actually often advantageous for Thais who are working for change. 
            One of the first places we saw how powerful a group of women could be was during Unit 1 in Yasothon Province, Thailand. Some of the families in this village recognized the harmful effects of pesticides, which influenced them to pivot back to using entirely organic farming practices on their land. To spread this food supply and awareness of this healthy lifestyle, in May of 2008 a group of women in the village came together to form a Green Market. This market has made great strides in the past 4 years; it is open every Saturday with many loyal customers.
            We also encountered this unexpected trend in the villages of Huay Gon Tha and Huay Rahong, in Chaiyaphum Province. These villages have experienced violations of their land rights as a result of the nearby Phu Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctuary. During our exchange with the villagers, they said that when dealing with confrontation with officers, the women play an important role by being strategically placed at the front of their protests. As a result the officers are less likely to immediately respond in a violent manner, increasing the villagers’ chances of having their concerns be heard. We specifically asked the woman villager present at the exchange if she felt as though she was an equal to the male members in her community while working to obtain land rights. She responded by saying that she had the same voice as the men in her community.  
            During Unit 4 we had an exchange with Sodsai Sang-Sok who is a female NGO for Thai People Do Not Want Nuclear Power Plants. One of the students asked her was whether she faced any difficulties in her leadership role due to her gender. Sodsai Sang-Sok responded by saying that it is easier being a woman because women tend to be more compassionate than men. This allows females to be diplomatic in order to make the changes that NGOs are working to accomplish actually materialize. 
            This strong female presence is not as unlikely as our group expected it to be. There is an entire social movement referred to as Ecofeminism, which argues that the oppression of women and the environment is interconnected. Since women have a history of exploitation, they can relate to the experience of nature, which does not have a voice of its own.
            Even though we went into these exchanges assuming that the stereotyped characteristics of being a woman would be a disadvantage for Thai women, we have learned that these are the exact qualities that give them an advantage in their movements. The many Thai women we have met with have taught us that being compassionate is not a weakness; rather it is a tool to make a difference, especially while working with opposing parties.

Galen Hiltbrand
Georgetown University

The Insertion of Capitalism and its Clash with Community Rights

Many of the villages that we have visited throughout the semester have shared their respect and aspiration of community rights. They emphasize the importance of community within their daily life and cultural traditions. 

Large institutions have altered their way of life and have even displaced many of them, which has had many negative affects on their culture and traditions. These institutions have an apparent relation to the insertion of capitalism within the Kingdom of Thailand.

This has been true for the village of Rasi Salai. They have been greatly affected by the construction and implementation of the Rasi Salai Dam. The dam has now been in place for many years and the people of Rasi Salai have begun the process of coping with the reality of the dam.

The creation of the dam represents capitalism within Thailand because it has benefited many large corporations through its construction and upkeep. The dam cost millions of Baht to construct and many manufacturing companies were able to benefit from this production. Large-scale companies and wealthy business owners were able to profit from this dam project and have subsequently contributed to the corruption and oppression of local villagers. Those who have been able to benefit from the dam are largely those who do not live in the affected area and many of them have much more capital then those who live in Rasi Salai village. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence among capitalistic conditions. Those who have more money often have more influence in critical projects and decisions, and they also happen to be the ones who benefit the most. 

The dam was also constructed for the purpose of avoiding major flooding in Bangkok and industries near by. The importance that has been placed upon Bangkok and creating industries has a large connection with Thailand’s yearn for development and capitalism. This has had many affects on the rural villagers of Thailand, which make up majority of the country’s population. For the Rasi Salai community, it has affected them through the creation of the dam and its affect of permanent flooding in their village. On behalf of the villagers, this has meant their farmland being flooded, years of protesting, changes to their traditional way of life and much financial uncertainty. The value and significance placed on capitalism has directly affected this people and their culture.

The villagers have opposing views to the principles of capitalism. The villagers of Rasi Salai made it clear that they greatly value community rights and a desire to be self-sufficient. They have stayed together through their fight against the dam and continue to support each other just like they have for generations. They fear that they may loose parts of their tradition and culture if they to let go of their emphasis and value on community rights. Their lives are dependent on each other and they are content with the culture that their ancestors have been practicing for hundreds of years. They do not value capitalism in the same way as many people with wealth and many of those who come from western societies.

Rasi Salai is currently considering the implementation of a co-op. They are very interested in working together as a community and creating optimal use of the compensation that they will receive from the government. By doing this they would be able to resourcefully support the community ideals and values of their culture.

The Rasi Salai villagers are fighting for more than just their flooded farmland. They are fighting to uphold their culture, to preserve community rights and to give a voice to those who are not financially wealthy. 

Ryan Kammerman
Occidental College 

Does any of this make a difference?

On October 31st, our group of CIEE Development and Globalization students had an exchange with a woman named Sadsai Sang-Sok to close out our Unit Four homestay. Sadsai Sang-Sok is an NGO and independent researcher who spoke to our group as a representative of the Thai People Don’t Want Nuclear Power Plants Network. The exchange brought up some very interesting issues that I would have never considered had we not spoken with Sadsai Sang-Sok. According to her, the key reason people are resisting nuclear power plants in Thailand is not because they are opposed to nuclear power itself, but more because they invisible in the government’s consideration of the issue. Thai people who are most affected by the construction of these power plants are not allowed to participate in the government’s conversations over the plants, and are largely never informed in detail about the building of plants in close proximity to their villages. This complete lack of public participation in nuclear projects lies at the heart of the network’s resistance to nuclear power plants.

This particular day we visited the network, however, was a special occasion. Immediately after our exchange, Sadsai Sang-Sok was leaving to attend an unofficial hearing concerning the construction of a new nuclear power plant. This hearing would potentially counter the overwhelming problem of the lack of public voices in major decisions concerning nuclear power projects, as it would include a diverse audience of people from governmental departments, the media, networks, and villagers. This hearing was an opportunity for all parties to hear both sides of the issue and have a constructive conversation together. It sounded to me like an opportunity for substantial progress. Upon asked if she believed any great change would come of the hearing, however, Sadsai Sang-Sok replied, “Well, if the government wants to build it, it probably just will anyways.”

These words resonated with me. If the government is simply going to do and build whatever it wants regardless of public opinion, then what was the point of the hearing in the first place? What was the point of maintaining this whole network of Thai people against nuclear power plants if the government will do what it wants anyhow? And moreover, why were we as CIEE students there, looking to possibly complete a collaborative final project to help the network’s progress, if no change were to come of it?

These feelings that villagers’ and our efforts to create change for the better in Thailand are completely futile in the long run are something I have grappled with since the start of my semester here. In Unit Two, our group visited a forest community of individuals who have been fighting to get their land back from the government and have been doing so through the establishment of a protest village since 2009. As of now, negotiations with the government are at a complete standstill. The community must helplessly wait on the government as it decides what it wants to do with the future of the community.

This trend of community powerlessness arose once again in this recent Unit Four trip, as we visited the community of Rasi Salai that has been protesting the presence of a dam in the village since its construction in 1994. It is now 2012, and while some villagers have been slightly compensated for the dam’s negative effects and the government agreed to complete a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) on the dam, that SIA still remains incomplete and the government still controls the opening and closing of the dam gates.

This brings me back to Sadsai Sang-Sok’s quote from the beginning, “if the government wants to build it, it probably just will anyways.” Do villagers and NGOs have any kind of power in these situations? Do we as American students ultimately have any impact on the progression of their projects? I know much too little to fully and confidently answer these questions, but from what I have seen and experienced thus far, I might argue: no.

Mallory West
Tulane University

06 November 2012

Our Baby Steps for Rasi Salai

The Rasi Salai Dam was completed in 1993. It divides the Mun River in Srisaket Province, located in the southern region of Isaan. The dam was originally proposed as a weir, small enough that neither an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) nor a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) was required. Of course, the project was larger than planned. An SIA should have been done, but it was not until 2010, 17 years later, that the SIA was finally completed. But by then the damage had already been done – flooding, a loss of biodiversity, depletion of soil fertility.

CIEE has been working with the Rasi Salai community for years, and a group of us returned to complete a Collaborative Community Consolation (CCC) report. A CCC is meant to be an up to date reference point on a given community. Shorter than our usual home stays, this trip was meant to scope out the feasibility of a possible project for the end of the semester. Because CIEE has been working with Rasi Salai community for so long we were able to see the result of past CIEE projects. In 2010 CIEE students helped the community with establishing a learning center. The semester before us was working to help start a green market.

But we won’t be continuing the green market project. Apparently it’s a cold issue. Instead, the villagers are focusing on becoming economically self-sufficient. We met with P’Banya, our NGO contact for the community, and a few villagers. They explained to us, briefly, about their finances, how they have a welfare fund and are expecting a large sum of money for restoration plans. But they aren’t sure about the best means to manage their finances. There are two methods they are considering, a co-op system or a community enterprise system. The latter involves government management, something the Rasi Salai community is understandably hesitant about. However they aren’t clear about details for either system, which is where CIEE could help.

P’Banya told our group that the Rasi Salai community would like more information about possible financial systems. We spent time learning a brief summary of what the community wants, their finances, and as well as a few other possible smaller projects. Once we returned to Khon Kaen and had been working on our CCC, believing we had a good possible project, we were given new information: Rasi Salai isn’t ready for this project. We were told that before a financial system could be suggested a financial needs assessment would have to be done. The assessment would be a project for this semester. Somehow it just didn’t hold the same weight.

I heard some discontent at the smallness of the possible projects when we were back in the large group. How much help would a pamphlet be? Is a human rights survey even worth anything? Why can’t an NGO find out financial information for the community himself? And I had to agree, just a little. Doing research seems a small step to aid communities facing such huge problems we’ve learned about. But it was explained to me that researching is something we do well as students. American students are, truly, good at it. While some of the projects might seem small it’s what the communities want. CIEE only does projects the villagers suggest; everything is about collaboration. These projects carry on from semester to semester, so our total impact is greater than this single semester. A future semester won’t be able to present the Rasi Salai villagers financial information unless the financial needs assessment is done. Nothing in unrelated, our small part can help.

Anne Sledd
Carleton College

Transitioning from Chemical to Organic Farming

Originally, when studying chemical versus organic farming methods, it all seemed so clear; organic was the obvious choice and all chemical farmers should switch over. It seemed that farmers were scared to do so because it meant more labor and possible lower yields for the first few years. But why didn’t chemical farmers see that after the first few years it gets easier and the yield and quality improve? Why did they continue to choose chemicals over organic?

After going to a village where 100% of the farmers used chemicals, I got a new perspective. Most farmers in Ban Na Samai switched to use chemicals about 7 years ago. The whole village made the transition at the same time. Some farmers like Songsri and Chalong Sailabad explained that they made the switch because of weeds. Over the years, the region has gotten drier with less and less rain each year. Without the rain, weeds started to take over more of the rice paddies which meant much more physical labor for farmers in order to remove the weeds. Most farmers were not willing to put in more physical labor, as farming already demands so much. With chemicals they no longer have to weed.
On top of that, when farmers use chemicals, they still have a chance of harvesting rice even if there was not enough rain for the year. This food security issue is what almost every farming family we spoke to brought up. Their reasons for using chemicals are legitimate. The constant comment throughout our stay in the village was, “without chemicals we will not eat.” These farmers are using chemicals because they are afraid that if they don’t, their food will not grow. Chemicals almost guarantees them a harvest for the year.

The villagers have also not experienced the negative effects of chemical use than can occur. One family boasted that their soil was the best it’s ever been. They could tell by our faces that we did not believe them so they said it over and over again. Most families had not experienced any health problems relating to chemicals either. There was one woman, Sric Veruwanarak, who was widowed because her husband had died from walking in a newly sprayed field when he had an open wound on his leg. The wound became infected and spread to both his feet and hands and two weeks later he died. Although people know about the negative effects of chemicals on health, many feel they are safe as they have not experienced any problems yet.

Even Sric Veruwanarak continues to use chemicals because she too is afraid she won’t have food on the table if she doesn’t.

The head of the health clinic, Vira Seangchat in the area also uses chemicals on his farm, although he has reduced his use and has plans to dig a well next year. The well would provide his land with the water it is starved for. He is sure that once he has that water, there will no longer be a need for chemicals.

Could irrigation systems like this work for other families as well? These farmers are not bad people for using chemicals. Their concerns for switching are legitimate, as food means life. They know and understand the benefits of going organic and it is something they all want to do. Although they want to transition, they don’t see it as a possibility until they have more water. More water would mean less weeds and higher yields making it possible for farmers to make the switch.

Anya Chang-DePuy
University of Massachusettes

A Chemical Compromise

The villagers that we went to visit used unpronounced amounts of chemicals. So much that normal mills would not buy the rice from any farmer in their sub-district. (Of course, the government sponsored mills do buy the rice.) This was shocking, to say the least. But, what boggled my mind rougher than any of these gruesome numbers was the fact that these villagers were willing to change.

Let me lay down some background. Our students group of CIEE representatives went to a village called Na Samai 11. This village has little to no water supply, no irrigation system. Their parents started using chemical fertilizer and now they’re all about the pesticides too. We sat through exchanges wondering why. It wasn’t always like that- their grandparents, and ancestors never had that chemical advantage. How did they make it work? The answer (it’s simple and sweet): They had water back in the day. There’s the epiphany that’s been slapping us in the face for years and years to come: Global warming.

Now, back to the point. The people in this village have no way to harvest their rice crop without some help from chemicals. Otherwise, the leaves will turn yellow and the rice will grind into the ground like sand. Secondly, perfect enough, the villagers gain about four times as much yield, and so profit, from using chemical agriculture. That’s right, four times! They make bank, so to speak. And although, we know morals are the ‘right way’ to travel through life, we know that it’s much easier to live the life as close to a king as one can get. The villagers were willing to drop this sort of profit, because they have come to understand that chemical farming is bad.

Someone has got to give these guys credit. Alternative Agriculture Network is going to help the transition from chemical to organic be as smooth as possible, but let’s be realistic. The transition is not going to be easy. They will likely gain little yields for the first three years of transitioning. They may loose all hope in organic farming. They will have to work harder than they have worked in last seven years (since switching to organic.) And, they may have a hard time grasping why they have to be responsible, when millions of others are reaping off the ill-morals of industrialization and chemical heavy productions. In the long run, though, they will be thanked. By the soil, by their health, and by the silent thanks that run deep into the veins of the potential future prosperity.

Jahala Dudley
University of Vermont