03 April 2013

Halting Development


One of the most incredible parts of the Khon Kaen Development and Globalization program is that we are provided with the opportunity to visit a variety of communities facing issues that at once overlap and stand alone. We are left to draw our own comparisons from our experiences in each village. Our recent trip to Chiang Mai, however, allowed us to see the most extreme comparisons to date as we learned about agricultural trends, indigenous rights, and dams in Northern Thailand for the first time. I’m sure each one of us came away from the North with a somewhat altered perception of development in Thailand, but the most striking difference I saw was not between the North and Isaan, but between two communities exemplifying vastly different stages of community organization against large-scale development projects threatening their way of life.

In March we visited villages in the Na Nong Bong area. Six nearby villages had already been affected by Tungkum Limited’s mining operations when their tailings pond broke last October, leaking cyanide-contaminated water into the soil and groundwater. Tungkum limited is now seeking a license to expand their mining operations into a new area, meaning that seven more villages may be affected. The villagers who were not yet affected expressed fear for their health and livelihoods if the mine expanded. However, it was disheartening to hear that they did not think they would be able to effectively organize in protest against the mine. They were hesitant to join the People Who Love Their Hometown, an organization already working in the affected areas of Na Nong Bong, because they perceived the group as somewhat volatile and did not want to join forces with a group that already had a less-than-perfect relationship with both the government and the mine. When asked if they thought they could form their own organization, though, they sadly agreed that their community did not have the requisite local structures in place to allow for effective organization. Our meeting with them was one of the few events where that village has met together about an issue affecting their future.

After witnessing such discouraging morale, it was refreshing to meet with a community that was effectively halting the spread of a project that could be detrimental to their community. The villagers surrounding the proposed Kaeng Sua Ten dam project have been protesting its expansion, which would lead to the flooding of Thailand’s largest natural teak forest and destroy the villagers’ livelihoods. Organizers are taking a number of steps to protest the dam. They have set up watch points on the mountains on either side of the proposed dam site to ensure that no survey activities are carried out. There is a makeshift camp and cell tower set up specifically for this purpose. In addition, local monks ordained a large number of teak trees that would be lost to flooding if the dam is built. In Thai society and Buddhist culture it is highly disrespectful to harm a monk in any way. Thus, by making the trees sacred, the monks hope to make the government think twice about their actions.

So many of the protesters we’ve met have been reactionary—the protest village in Baw Keaw was founded by villagers who had already been evicted from their traditional land, villages surrounding the Rasi Salai dam are now fighting for compensation after flooding destroyed the wetlands where they farmed and collected food, the Na Nong Bong villagers are contesting the expansion of a mine that has already contaminated nearby soil and water…To see a community that is tirelessly fighting for its way of life before it is destroyed gives me hope that large-scale development projects can be stopped before they destroy everything in their path.


Chloe Ginsburg
Drake University 

4 comments:

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Jessica Kruger said...

Chloe,

I really enjoyed reading your blog about the different communities you encountered, the issues they are facing, and how they are dealing with it. Within our experiences here in the Dominican Republic, we have also been exposed to new experiences and perceptions of development, in addition to many different approaches of community organization against development projects that affect the people’s way of life. It’s interesting to read about such similar experiences and attempts to preserve the land and rights of the people cross-culturally. You’re inspiring experience with the villagers surrounding the Kaeng Sua Ten damn project, protesting the further destruction of the forest and therefore, their well-being reminds me specifically of an experience we had in a town called Rio Limpio. Rio Limpio, a rural mountainous community located near the boarder of the Dominican Republic and Haiti is home to the first agricultural high school in the DR, CREAR. In CREAR, the students not only learn about organic farming, but they also learn about the importance of the connection with the environment. Many of these students grow up to be farmers, but many also grow up to work against the slash and burn movement in the national park that surrounds this community. They are educated from a young age within their community of the importance to protect what they have, so they can continue the fight to protect the healthy environment that they are entitled to before it is destroyed as well.

Enjoy the rest of your semester and I hope you continue to be inspired by the experiences that you will encounter!
Jessica Kruger

Eleanor said...

Chloe- I really appreciated reading this post! I had not thought of our visit to the Kaeng Sua Ten dam community from this perspective before and found it to be quite thought provoking. It is very interesting that this is the only village we've visited where the community is, as you said, 'fighting for its way of life before it is destroyed.' I wish now that we had asked more questions during our exchange to get at what, if anything, the main factors are that give them the motivation and courage to stand up to a major development project. I also remember feeling very hopeful during this exchange because of the youth movement in the community. While many of the communities we've visited are facing differing degrees of a 'youth exodus,' many of the youth in this community had formed a group to protect their home town using the skills and human rights/laws education they received in school. A unique community indeed.

Thank you for your thoughts!

Kate Shafer said...

Chloe,
It is incredibly refreshing and uplifting to hear about a community that is working proactively to stop a mining process that threatens to ruin a community and its surrounding natural landscape. While studying abroad in the Dominican Republic, my peers and I traveled to the southwest of the country. While in the southwest, we were shown both sides of mining situations. Larimar is a stone that is only found in the Dominican Republic and, as a result, there is a large mining town and economy that relies on the sporadic discovery of larimar for its families to survive financially. While this business has created hundreds of jobs for local individuals, it has also taken away the somewhat more stable economy of agriculture that exists in other parts of the country. Additionally, while mining may create more jobs proportionally to agriculture, it is not only less economically reliable at times, but it also threatens to destroy local ecosystems and environments. During the same trip we visited Bahía de las Aguilas, a government-owned beach that has strict regulations to ensure that no businesses or trash litter its shores and hires employees to ensure that the beach remains pristine. Barrick Gold is a mining company that intends to build mines on this beach’s property. Their argument is that adding mines would create more jobs for local residents. While this may be true, I agree with you; there are always better options. If a lack of local employment is the issue, the government should work to create environmentally friendly jobs for the locals, rather than allow this mining company to destroy the natural beauty of the Dominican Republic’s last untouched beach. I suppose all we can do now, however, is hope that the locals of Bahía de las Aguilas react in the same way that the villagers of Kaeng Sua Ten have. Because if the locals don’t try to get the government’s attention in defense of their homes and environment, who will?