29 November 2012

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 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

1. Sean, just wanted to start of and say that I really enjoyed your blog post. My name is Annie Safar and I’m studying at the University of Washington in Seattle. Right now I have been studying in the Dominican Republic for almost four months with the CIEE Service Learning program, while also working at a community-recycling center. After reading your blog about the difficulties in community organizing between governmental agencies and villagers, the sentiments of frustration and not knowing why a middle ground could not be reached are more then familiar. As the first of it’s kind, the recycling center in the DR has faced many obstacles in becoming operational; mainly due to the fact that there is not sufficient infrastructure or governmental support to accommodate this project. I appreciated how you discussed both perspectives of the issue, the villagers and the governmental agencies before formulating your own opinion. I feel like as a student abroad this seemingly simple, yet difficult to do, ability is key. I hope you are enjoying your experience abroad and again thanks for the blog post!