01 April 2013

The Dangers of Incomplete Discourse

Throughout our studies in Thailand, particularly on dams and water resources, our understanding of development has become much more muddled and complex.  During the water unit it one thing became glaringly evident: the disconnect between development project proposals and local needs.
Currently the Thai government is conducting the Kong-Chi-Mun project, an attempt to create a water grid throughout northeast Thailand in order to evenly distribute irrigation water year-round.  In large part this project is a result of national discourse which describes Isaan as a dry, barren land where poverty is rampant.  This discourse is not only prevalent in politics, but in the media and popular culture as well.  
However, the idea of “dry” Isaan is problematic; Isaan only appears this way during the dry season- in the rainy season the countryside has ample amounts of water.  Regardless of the fact Isaan is green for much of the year, it is this “dry” image which is perpetuated.  As a result, people throughout the country have begun to understand Isaan in this light and its people poverty-stricken farmers.
The power of discourse is sometimes hard for me to wrap my head around.  It shapes how we talk about and understand a place and limits what a place can and cannot be.  When I go stay in the villages I don’t see mass suffering that we come to associate with poverty, nor do I see people toiling away at the dry earth unhappy at their lot in life.  Instead I see people who are (or at least were before some development projects came into play) fairly self-sufficient and enjoy the “simple life.”  People are happy, just like anywhere else, and often have a fierce pride in their work.  While the images of dry, poor Isaan are certainly true in some respects, they do not paint a holistic picture of the region or the people who live there. 
However, because the idea of poor, dry Isaan is dominant and people are taught to see the region as such, politicians have begun to pursue policies and projects rooted in this understanding.  This has led to the idea that one way to develop Isaan is through massive water projects which would provide farmers with water year-round.  Irrigation, especially under the Thaksin regime, is often touted as a poverty-reduction strategy: give farmers water then their yields, and thus profit, will increase. 
While large-scale irrigation projects benefit some, they interfere with traditional ways of life and farming practices of many.  Villagers have found well-suited ways to adapt to their environment for hundreds of years and large development projects can disrupt this knowledge and practice by altering the environment and implicating villagers in political struggles, such as struggles to obtain community land titles.  We have seen similar trends throughout all of our units where development projects, while well-intended, often disrupt local ways of life.  For example, for years the government has promoted the use of chemical fertilizers to increase agricultural productivity throughout the region.  This has resulted in a huge loss of traditional knowledge about local sustainable farming methods, has increased soil degradation, and has contributed to increased farming debt as costs of inputs become more expensive.
Many other large-scale projects have similar results, drastically altering villagers’ ways of life and undermining traditional knowledge.  I think these effects are amplified when projects like mass irrigation are founded in flawed understandings of a region which stem from incomplete discourses.  Adopting a more holistic view of a place might help alleviate some of the negative repercussions of large-scale development and bring more benefits to the people the project originally intended to serve. 

Melanie Ferraro
University of Colorado


Kelly Hardin said...

I, too, am amazed at the power of words in shaping how we see the reality of a place or community. As evident in the case of the “poor and dry” Isaan narrative, perhaps one of the most frustrating parts of prevailing discourses is that they are created by those in power; those who have the loudest voice and the greatest ability to disseminate information. Although I agree with you that the communities we visit are not necessarily poor in the conventional sense of the word (and are, arguably, much happier in some respects than others that are “more developed”), they are still marginalized in terms of ability to spread their own narratives. Lack of voice and representation is another kind of poverty, after all. In light of this, I admire the efforts of the villagers at Rasi Sali to demand their rights. Their ability to stand up, organize, and protest the dam is what has brought about new working relationships with the RID (e.g., the creation of the Learning Center and involvement in the 10-year restoration plan) and better representation in the eyes of the government. However, I worry about the ability of all politically marginalized communities in Thailand to do the same while the government remains highly centralized and freedom of speech remains limited by law.

Maia Cole said...

Melanie, I believe you have hit a really important point. The real power of a group or government lies not in its ability to inflict violence, but in its ability to create the discourse surrounding an issue. Another discourse we have discussed during this program that has really stood out to me came out while we studied land rights. The Thai government, as well as our own government, has created this discourse of uninhabited land that can and should be preserved.
This same discourse originated in America in a couple of different areas. First was the national park movement, in which the government sought to preserve vast swathes of land that were already occupied by Native Americans and other people. These people were displaced from their land so that the government could offer the public at large an untouched park for their recreation. Even before this, however, the American society constructed a myth of the frontier, the wild west, a place untouched until pioneers came and explored. This myth has become deeply ingrained in our cultural identity, to such an extent that we still have this desire to expand into uncharted territory. Of course, the wild west was not actually untouched, because thousands of Native American lived there. But the society and government ignored this, and used the discourse of exploration into new land to justify the atrocities they committed against the Native Americans.
Discourses of untouched land have permeated Thai and American societies so thoroughly that there is little room for dissent. But there are undercurrents of counter-discourses, and we studied these during the land unit. We heard from the people who had been hurt by such discourses and kicked of their land. As these alternative discourses gain more strength, they will hopefully rival the dominant discourse, and together create a more complete picture.