03 April 2013

Baa Nong Tao Village and The Desire for Development

      The hill tribes of Northern Thailand have been living off the land for the better part of 300 years. They have learned how best to use the land and how it can support their communities. However in the age of globalization, rapid development has reached all corners of the world including the once isolated village of Baa Nong Tao. A few years ago they received solar panels from the government which power a few lights in each house. However they have watched as nearby communities receive full access to electricity, television and internet. As a result their isolationist mentality in the face of government sponsored development has quickly changed.
    Less than thirty years ago there was no road leading up to the village. No cars or motorcycles existed in this small village nestled in the mountains above Chiang Mai. In 2005 they received solar panels while the communities lower down the mountain already had full access to television and internet. Education followed electricity and eventually all the hill tribe communities built schools for younger children. Still only 30% of people went to school and only 10% finished high school, while in the lower communities everyone graduated with a GED equivalent. The road offered, for the first time, healthcare to villagers who were sick. When asked what happened when someone got sick before the road was built the villagers simply said, “they died”. The villagers of Baa Nong Tao are eager to work with power companies to catch up with their neighbors.
       However the ones with internet and television are hesitant about promoting the integrity of electricity. They claim it has already made them seem more distant towards each other and foresee themselves becoming more “westernized”. They are starting to slowly be assimilated into central Thai culture, and are thus losing their own. They do however speak very good english, are more educated on world issues and understand why the Thai government wants the land they live on. The villagers of Baa Nong Tao are envious of this kind of education and are focused on the positive benefits of electrical development. Specifically the access to education about health, environment, the outside world, and the actions of the government. All of this which internet and television could bring. 

Jeremy Starn
Art Institute of Boston


Anonymous said...

Until we had our exchange with the Karen village, I had never considered what a profound impact electricity has on the social fabric of society- how it affects the way we spend our free time, our education, our sleeping schedules, etc. Thinking back to home I wonder how different my interactions with people would be if there was no electricity, no tv, no light to read by, and no computers to keep me distracted in my room, isolated from my friends and family. When we were in the village you could feel how closely knit the community was, and for one of the first times since I’ve been in Thailand, I saw kids playing in the streets in the afternoon. Part of me wonders if America was also like this before electricity.

I left our exchange that night wondering if there is any way to maintain the interactions in the Karen community as they currently exist if the village were to get electricity, or whether you can only have one at the expense of the other. Knowing the potential consequences of electricity, is there a way to manipulate its affects or does electricity inherently result in certain social interactions?

Holly (CIEE Santiago SL) said...

It was interesting to read about the pros and cons of the technology on the people of Baa Nong Tao. While the arrival of technology is usually applauded as an inherently good development, it's important to recognize that with western developments come both the positive and negative characteristics of western lifestyles.

In the US there has been a lot of discourse about the effects of technology on personal relationships in the last few years, but I think it's quite telling that the people you've talked with have already noticed the distancing effects that technology can have shortly after their exposure to it.

Heather White (CIEE Santiago SL) said...

Reading your blog post was very interesting especially after visiting many under developed towns in the Dominican Republic. It was very informative to hear about the difference between two towns that are at different stages of development and the positives and negatives that have come from it. Although we all think that technology is the best route, looking at the other side of things is always very important in development. Hearing the results of the how the development in one town lead to such great education there while at the same time their new electricity has made the town have less tight knit relationships really shows the pros and cons. With development comes unknowns and always changes that may or may not be positive. This shows the need to look at things from every angle and weigh the benefits.

Sara Hutchinson said...

I also enjoyed reading your article about the effects of development and technology on the community of Baa Nong Tao. I appreciated hearing both perspectives: the pros and cons of technology in the community. Often it easy to lose sight of the loss of culture or closeness within a community that can result from an emphasis on globalization. In the Dominican Republic, students in the CIEE Service-Learning program have also been visiting different communities, seeing the effects of local development, and hearing first-hand how it affects the community members . After a visit to Rio Limpio, many of us were also left considering the balance between globalization and sustainability on local communities. The community uses organic farming practices to support their land for future generations. Your post shows the importance of considering multiple perspectives of development, especially the approach of local community members.

Walter Wuthmann said...

To begin, you are a boss. I've been writing my op-ed on the issue of access to electricity in Baa Nong Tao for the last couple of days and reading your thoughts really helped me develop my thinking. I think what is so powerful about this program (and it seems like CIEE D.R. as well), is that we do not only witness and learn about first hand the issues this communities are facing, but they teach us about the issues we are facing ourselves. As both you and "Anonymous" observed, there was an energy and social cohesion in the Bogagayo village that few of us had witnessed before. I think few of us realize how our connection to our phones, computers, and televisions not only influence how we relate with other people, but the way we feel about ourselves. There were few people I've met that are as confident and fun as our Pa was. You have to wonder what our constant exposure to screens does for our own self-conceptions.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, this is some great writing. It clearly summarizes the main issues that the people of this community are facing. You hit all the major spots, the delima of electricity and the incoming development movement of Thailand. This idea of development is tricky, and only becomes more and more so as time goes on. When does the government stop bringing in power to villages? Who has the right to say one village gets power and another doesn't? It becomes even more confusing when you have the village leaders fearing for their culture and communities well being with and also without the aid of electricity. I remember this one villager from Baa Nong Tai who was one of the most interesting people I've ever met. He expressly described his fear for the future of his community if the internet were to be introduced to everyone in the village. He said that, once you had something like electricity to run Tv's and computers, than all you could do is focus on how not to loose that thing. He hit the issues of materialism right on the head. For most westerners, buying and being able to buy things is what keeps people going, brings their happiness and rules their world. And the loss of those things is the loss of happiness.

Who is to say this village can not and should not live in happy bliss? Which is right?

Anonymous said...

After spending a few days in the hill-tribe community, but before exchanging... I wrote off the introduction of electricity to their community as something that would bring very little positive change. I thought of internet and television as something that would only take away from how connected the hill-tribe people were with the nature, each other, and themselves.
After exchanging with the community I see that it is not that black and white. Your article does a really good job highlighting this.
I think that the key to all of these steps in development is moderation. The hill-tribe should be be able to enjoy what the internet and television has to offer, and I think if this technology is introduced gradually- benefits can be reaped as well as way of life maintained.

Aziza Seykota said...

Jeremy - This is a really interesting topic to think about, I remember feeling confused about this struggle when we stayed in this village also. I do agree that access to hospitals is a positive thing in the case of people who have serious injuries or illnesses. It also can increase the number of healthy childbirths and quality of maternity care. But I am so torn because I do not agree with many of the practices in western medicine. In America, I think we have gone too far in this direction, scheduling our c-sections out of convenience and prescribing drugs to anyone who walks in the door.

Also, with education I am torn too. It does seem beneficial to have electricity and access to computers to help them develop skills for jobs in the city, to increase their language skills and be better informed on world issues. But I remember the villagers saying in the exchange that electricity did not always make people happy because with it sometimes followed greed, debt, attachment to it and fear of losing it. I feel they are striving for something we are in some ways striving to get away from, yearning to regress back to a way of life similar to Baa Nong Tao.