Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pics in Exhibition

Three of my pictures from Thailand were accepted to a photography exhibit at Columbia called "Views In--Undergraduates Photograph a Year in East and Southeast Asia." Submissions were supposed to reflect key themes in the societies and and cultures of the region. The exhibition is taking place on the fourth floor of the School of International and Public Affairs building. The photos will be on display until November 13th. Also, one picture from each photographer is online at

One the pictures is shown above, and the captions are:

FISH: Wheels of dried fish are sold at a riverside market for six Baht. Fresh fish, fish paste, and other fish products are a key component of Thai cooking in both coastal and inland communities. Global fisheries collapse threatens to undermine this important source of protein for southeast Asia.

[not pictured here]
RAPID DEVELOPMENT: Riverbank erosion upstream of the infamous Pak Mun Dam has led to serious infrastructural problems. Here, a paved walkway in a public park threatens to detach and collapse. Local communities face other hardships such as fish shortages and declining water quality.

FAMILY: Members of the Duangputtan family of Chiang Mai share sliced guava and mango on a Sunday afternoon. Kinship ties are the glue that hold Thai social life together.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Sawadii ka, NYC

I'm sitting in a coffee shop in downtown NYC in my red Karen skirt and a couple of strings of beads I acquired in Baan Nam Hu. I don't feel at all uncomfortable, which surprises me. I got a compliment on my skirt while waiting for the subway, but other than that it feels pretty normal to be walking around in these fine threads.

What I keep wondering is if anyone recognizes them. Are there any anthropology professors roaming the streets with a history of working in Thailand? Did they silently register the Karen patten on the skirt and remember that the red color is for married women? Has a Thai woman passed me on the street with memories of her home village washing over her?

This city has so many secrets...

Saturday, June 6, 2009


Every morning with my host family in Baan Jow Mai, I would get up and stumble off to the back deck for my first shower of the day. The back deck is raised on stilts above a channel where the tides come and go. If you look through the cracks in the back of the bathroom wall, branches of the mangrove forest that back up the house are at eye level. The prop roots of this mangrove forest are twisted and souped in garbage. The channel is the neighborhood garbage dump.

From our first night in Trang Province, trash was a striking presence. Every coastline we had the pleasure to visit was full of dumped or washed up bottles, Styrofoam, light bulbs, shoes, bags-- any and every kind of discarded item. After seeing my family's attitude toward dumping in the channel, the amount of trash we saw on the beach no longer surprises me.

What did surprise me was when the recycling guy came by a few days into my home stay. I had not noticed the huge bags of recyclables laying around in the yard. The recycling guy pulled out a big scale to weigh the plastics, aluminum, glass, and broken sheets of tin roofing offered by my Ma. He tossed all the stuff in the back of his truck and handed Ma 100 Baht. My family says he comes once or twice a month, so they save up materials to earn a little extra cash. The recycling guy told me he drives the stuff to Pattani and it is then taken to Bangkok.

I didn't ask specifically, but I get the feeling Ma was recycling for the money and not out of a sense of the need to conserve resources. Recycling can be incredibly lucrative. In NYC, the mafia is tied up in the garbage/recycling business. During the recent economic recession, though, recycling programs were one of the first things dropped in municipalities around America. The materials were being treated as a commodity, rather than a moral imperative. Programs were dropped as soon as the value of the commodity plummeted and recycling became a money-sucker rather than a money-maker. I imagine the recycling guy in Jow Mai would stop driving around the province collecting recyclables if money were not involved.

What options do we have for our waste? Nothing seems ideal. Ocean dumping, landfills, incineration-- all have major drawbacks. Even recycling could be deemed problematic because of the massive amount of energy required to reprocess materials. An oft-cited solution is to replace packaging and containers with biodegradable materials made from corn or other crops, but this has its own set of problems like the proliferation of monocropping. There's little chance we will do away with garbage altogether, especially with the health codes in the U.S. that require food and other items to be sealed and packaged in certain ways. Of course, packaging isn't the only problem. We live in a world full of cheap stuff that constantly breaks and is often cheaper to replace than to fix. The huge number of cheap, broken plastic shoes we saw on the beaches is testament to this.

I'm not sure what the answer to the waste problem is. But I do know that I cannot judge the disposal methods of my Jow Mai host family because tossing stuff in the channel may actually be no worse than any other form of disposal.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mangrove haikus

Octopus garden
Mangled mangal suction cups
Neoprene graveyard

Lives in mud footprints
Three-eyed rippled elephant
Turning worlds to slime

Snorkels gasp for air
Holding tight as water drains
Dribble castles grow

By Acadia Roher and Stephanie Roussel

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Nameless, Nationless [Missive 6]

Dear All,

This is your final installment. To continue your subscription, please fill out the enclosed post-marked card with your credit card number and drop it in the nearest mailbox. Ha. But seriously, if anyone wants to sponsor me to write more I'd certainly appreciate it!

As many of you know, I've been back the States for a little over two weeks now. I never had time to be jet-lagged or grumpy about my sudden re-existence in Western culture because my excellent mother, brother and sister kept me busy and full of laughter. Rebecca also deserves honorable mention.

The last month of my program was focused on oceans. The breadth of issues that coastal areas face runs a breathtaking gamut from climate change to pirates. We traveled to Trang Province in southern Thailand to spend a few weeks in the Andaman Sea. Some of our activities: kayaking, snorkeling, struggling through knee-deep mud in mangrove forests (AKA mangals), wandering around the intertidal zone at low tide, living in a Muslim fishing village, swimming in bioluminescent water at night, visiting a commercial shrimp farm.... just to name a few. Coastal areas are highly complex ecosystems, so to make the ecology more manageable our program focused on seagrass beds, coral reefs, and mangroves. Academically, this course was probably the least challenging, but was very rich experientially.

The emphasis of the first part of the course was on coral reefs. We snorkeled on some of the most amazing reefs I've ever seen, filled with a great diversity of coral, fish, sea cucumbers, anemones, sea urchins, worms, etc. There were iridescent colors I've only ever seen in aquariums, plate corals as big as a truck, schools of fish that shimmer and sway around you, glowing limestone tunnels to go through underwater. The reefs we visited were at the base of limestone towers sticking out of the shallow Andaman Sea. Their bases had been so eroded from constant wave action that is seemed they were floating above the water rather than in it. I had never been snorkeling with a scientific purpose in mind, clutching a dive slate. It really makes you see things differently. Rather than just floating around taking pleasure in looking at random stuff, one is forced to size the reef up, to pull back and look at it as a system and a structure, but then also to zoom in carefully to identify different species and take note in the details. I gained a much greater appreciation for SEEING with a purpose-- observing a fish in order to look it up in a field guide later requires you to scan it's body shape, colors, tail and fin shapes, and take in as many subtle features as possible. Just being in the ocean shifts your perspective... it's like being in another world. The dimensions of the ocean are unfathomable when you have paused underwater above the reef shelf, the last visible portion of the sea floor before it begins to slope down into the dark unknown depths of the deep ocean. One of my friends described how refreshing it is to experience the shifting perspectives of the ocean... "you get tired of looking down on the world all the time. It's nice to look up... to the bottom."

Seagrass beds are prime feeding spots for dugongs, a marine mammal similar to a manatee. There are only about 200 of these creatures left in coastal Thai waters. Needless to say, there were no dugong sightings during our trip, though we saw quite a few feeding trails on our survey of a seagrass bed. "Dugong" became my new nickname because of my playful antics on one of the beaches. Apparently my cartwheels and somersaults into the surf were a "little too awkward" to warrant naming me after something sleeker like a dolphin.

Magroves are incredible places. To describe them, I give you a short poem-- a haiku, to be exact:

Octopus garden
Mangled mangal suction cups
Neoprene graveyard

Because it has been over two weeks since my return and I have been trying to craft this email since then, I'll just have to direct you to my blog for more. Apologies for the abrupt ending. I must say, however, that this cycle of naming has come full circle. I went from Alice to Sapbalot to Naessa to Dugong... but then an instructor reminded us of something important about Thai culture during our last week. Names are much less important than the relationship of someone to you. It is completely appropriate to refer to someone simply as "older/higher-up than me" (Pi) or "younger/lower-down than me" (Nong). It is rare that you even know someone's real, full name. What matters is whether you are older, younger, boy, girl, father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, grandma, grandpa. In the U.S., I might get offended if an acquaintance forgot my name... but maybe Thai people have got it right... as long as your relationship to someone is clear, do individual names really matter?

Back in the U.S., I'm on to other things. I just moved into an apartment in Fayetteville, Arkansas. My summer project is surveying the natural and historical features of the Williams Woods Nature Preserve, GIS mapping the property, writing a land management plan, and seeking out as many swimming holes as possible. This project is for the Centennial Scholars Program at Barnard. I've started a blog about this project... check it out at

Thanks for your wonderful audience-ship this semester!


Friday, May 29, 2009

Control = Surrender?

As we came back to our guesthouse on Ko Mook from snorkelling off Ko Chu-ah, the tide was very low, exposing the extensive mud flats offshore of Ko Mook. Our boats went in as far as they could and we walked the rest of the way in to the island. While a long pier juts out a little ways down along the road to remedy (partially) this problem, it is not used much by local residents. Instead, they walk and haul their catch sometimes 150 yards, preferring to leave their boats cradled in the soft intertidal zone. Thinking about another extreme, NYC, where every shoreline has been extended with landfill and concrete piers, it seems in many ways the villagers on Ko Mook have got it right.

The night before, students reflected on how people here seem to have stronger relationships with natural cycles and phenomena than we do in the U.S. This has been a recurring theme throughout my time here in Thailand. In part because of the favorable climate, folks are able to incorporate a lot of outdoor space into their primary living area and seem to like this set-up despite the bugs and rain and critters passing through. Nature still has the upper hand in the local community on Ko Mook, as well. Low season for the tourism industry occurs during the monsoon season when the channel is too choppy for the island's small boats to safely transport visitors. On a stormy day, the fishermen stay on shore and talk with their friends or do chores around the house rather than brave the elements as larger trawlers are able to do. Women follow the tides out and collect clams on the mud flats, only one example of how intimately their lives are tied to the moon cycle.

I thought about the 2004 tsunami in terms of this flexibility people exhibit in their relationships with non-human cycles. While the tsunami did cause considerable damage up and down the Andaman coast, imagine the scale of damage that would have occurred if the massive waves had hit D.C. or NYC instead. From a view of the global economy, the destruction of property and productivity on the American east coast would be much higher (monetarily). In non-monetary terms, a natural disaster might be just as devastating to an island community in Thailand as to downtown NYC. But in this case, might flexibility in relationship with nature mean more control, more resilience, more power?

When learning tai chi last semester, my instructor told the class how what is often seen as weakness can be strength. She mentioned a tai chi master who uses "yielding" in brilliant ways to outdo an opponent during a martial arts competition. Often, a display of force can be outdone by yielding, and the opponent falls. Transferring this idea to natural disaster preparedness and the ability of communities to bounce back after a disturbance, perhaps yielding to non-human nature is a good path. Allowing some of those resorts to revert back to mangrove swamps, rehabilitating the wetlands around NYC-- in short, seeking to work in concert with nature rather than impose our every will on it-- will result in stronger, healthier communities.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Intertidal Zone

In only two days-- once on the beach of the peninsula where we camped the first night and again on Mook Island-- I was mesmerized by the surprises that the intertidal zone holds. I explored the limestone formations of the peninsula at low tide and found brain corals, sea cucumbers, clams, barnacles, and fish all holding on for a few hours until the sea would cover them again. On Mook Island, the expansive mudflats were a veritable traffic jam of crabs, starfish, clams, and creatures of all kinds. Walking out at low tide was not at all the peaceful exploration I imagined-- sea creatures crunch beneath your every step and the clacking and tapping of the clams and crabs is quite loud. I have never seen such productivity (in terms of animal life) in the wild. It was surprising in part because I expected the intertidal zone to be a stressful zone and therefore sparsely populated. For example, holes dug by the crabs during low tide are quickly filled in at high tide. But day after day the millions of crabs of all sizes continue to rebuild their shelters in the moist sand.

It was not only the ecology of the intertidal zone that impressed me, but the way the local people used it, as well. At low tide on the peninsula, several women appeared on the beach with buckets and digging/scraping tools to harvest clams. A man with them was stringing gill nets between the limestone formations. As we pulled up to Mook Island with our pod of kayaks (endearingly named "Pad See-U"), a group of women had already assembled, tools and buckets in hand, to follow the tide out and collect the bounty that low tide affords. Anna and Rebecca went out to make friends and see if they could help harvest, while I took pictures of them digging in the sand for clams. I don't know how much local people rely on this resource for their daily lives, but the intertidal zone seemed to be an extension of their world every 12 hours-- women harvest, children play, men haul things to and from their beached boats, even motorcycles navigate through areas of compacted sand.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"An Evening Rainstorm"

Paw has started a fire in the road
Just as the wind begins to gust and growl.
Flames are leaping up,
Licking the wooden fenceposts.
Molten gold climbing vines
Flutter violently as the fire
Screams higher and higher.
Great billowing smoke
Relieves itself from the road
And hurries off across the valley.
Fingers of the dark clouds
Grip the sky above,
As if tearing at the fabric,
Pleading with that great expanse
"let out what weights me."
Something like acquiescence leaks out,
The fingers retract,
Form fists of concentration instead.

The fire is out.

Community Based Tourism

CBT is tourism that takes environmental, social, and cultural sustainability into account. It is managed and owned by the community, for the communities, with the purpose of enabling visitors to increase their awareness about the community and local ways of life. -- Thailand Community Based Tourism Institute
CBT sounds great on paper. It sounds like one of the best ways to keep communities developing in a way that is non-extractive and still gives them the power. At the same time, it can protect the environment and foster cross-cultural awareness. But is it really a good or bad thing? Our first village stay in Baan Hua Nam, was not in a CBT village, but the headman mentioned at the community meeting that they would like to become one. In one sense, CBT allows communities to enter the global economy without doing too much damage to the forest like growing cash crops or logging might. It also means they don't have to leave the village to find work in the city so they can afford to send their kids to school (compulsory in Thailand). But in another sense, what does it mean for the people living here? The more they engage with the global economy, the more likely it is that consumer goods will change their way of life. And while I don't necessarily think it is right to deny anyone the kind of junk that everyone else around the world is clamoring for, this more simple and biodegradable way of life that keeps communities here quite self-reliant seems so cozy.

Also, because tourists would be so interwoven into day-to-day life-- sleeping in homes with families, eating their food-- they are so much more likely to change the culture on fundamental levels. For example, the villagers may cook and eat different food. Pi Carrie already mentioned that the villagers use a lot more eggs now that they ever did because they were told it is what farang like to eat when they come. Or maybe they will start dressing certain ways ("authentically") to please the tourists, like the Long Necks have done for the most part.

Then, this question of "is culture static or evolving" takes on a new shape. Some things will evolve and some will stay the same, but tourists make things change/stagnate in different ways than would happen without them. And the power lies with the tourists because they have the money. The tourists, in today's market-based economy, have no obligation to return if they are not satisfied and so in some ways the community is stuck having to please the tourists for their livelihood. However, Hua Nam is a very economically diverse community and so their engagement in CBT would be only as for supplementary income. My host family grows many things, gathers from the forests, and raises animals for their own subsistence. They also sell a little bit of each fruit, vegetables, and pigs.

In the village of Huai Hee, villagers expressed satisfaction with many of the foreigners they have hosted from around the world, though they described students as the best guests because they tend to be more respectful and interested in learning about the Karen way of life. The international clientele has allowed some of the Karen to learn Korean, Japanese, English, and Thai.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


More than any of the other students, I know roads. I went to the hospital in town three times during the Forests course, one time each from Nam Hu, Huai Hee, and Huai Tong Gow. Huay Tong Gow is three hours away from town at the end of the road (dead ends there), but the most paved sections are between there and Huai Hee. For some reason, I would have expected that the closer to town, the better the road would be be. This is patently not the case. In fact, the section I thought most likely to be paved, from the checkpoint near town up to the 3-million-Baht viewpoint area, is one of the worst sections of the entire road.

In some ways, I thought that paving the road entirely would be a great investment for the villages of Huai Poo Ling sub-district. Children would have a much easier time getting to school, their vehicles would be in better shape, and farang would have an easier time getting to the hospital (ha). A quicker way to town affords the community a whole host of new opportunities.

But in every community meeting so far, elder villagers have voiced concern about the road contributing to the loss of Karen culture. Some of the younger generation do seem to be returning to live in the villages, even after experiencing all of the pleasures of town life. But some do not.

In other ways, having roads at all seems more trouble that they are worth. Living in the US, I have completely taken for granted the existence of quality roads, without much thought for the massive amount of maintenance they require. The road to Huai Tong Gow has many sections that are unpaved and each year the villages may decide to pave another stretch. But many of the sections that have already been paved are in need of repair, too. The roads worsen flooding issues in the rainy season, for example, and many are cracked and broken with deep potholes. The villages have money from the government, but the more they put towards roads, the faster their culture may be eroded by external forces and the less money will be going toward the community's other goals, like health care, watershed protection, and education.

The current condition of the roads serves as a buffer between the villages and destructive outsiders. On my last trip to town, the pattee who so kindly drove us in his truck said that he once met a group from Bangkok driving up to see the view from Doi Pui, but when they heard about the condition of the road ahead and that they would have to park and walk up the mountain, they turned around and went back to Mae Hong Son. If the road were paved like the road to Doi Suthep, you can be sure Huai Hee would have a lot of unwanted traffic through their quiet village.

I certainly don't fault the villagers for wanting a better road (or, in the case of Huai Goong, wanting any kind they can get) because it is apparent that they could not really survive in today's context, with the central Thai state grabbing more and more power, without a road. Still, I mourn for what has been and will be lost because of it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

From Alice to Naessa [Missive 5]

Dear people of my heart,

Stunning: the only word to describe the jungles of northern Thailand. The light is incredible-- darkest dark and brightest light; rock canyons curving down like protecting arms to nurse clear mountain streams; forests of magical proportions brimming with life and leafiness and corkscrew vines; expansive views onto sunlit ridges that bleed with limestone cliff faces down into deep valleys; boulders seized by desperate tree roots that seem to want to suck the soul out of the rock in their desire to thrive. Soul-eating trees... who knew?

For the past 2 1/2 weeks I have been in Mae Hong Son province, hiking through the mountains to Karen villages that in some cases were accessible only on foot. We lived for several days in each of four villages, learning about the Karen way of life, their connection to the forest, and the political struggle between preservationists and forest-dwelling communities.

Our journey began on a long ride into the mountains... instead of the usual vans we traveled via public transportation, which meant a bright orange bus I expected to rattle to pieces as soon as we left the bus station. Imagine embarking on a 7-hour journey into the mountains in what resembled a trolley car from the 50s. The highlights of this bus ride included roadkill, racial profiling, and near-death experiences. Read the tale HERE.

Luckily enough, our trip was preceded and accompanied by bouts of rain so the rice fields were ready to plant. The Karen communities we visited rely mostly on upland rotational farming, or "swidden" agriculture, though some communities also plant paddy fields (a recent development). Swidden agriculture is common in many subsistence cultures around the world where farming is done in places with poor soil quality or steep, erosion-prone land. In the case of the Karen, the community allocates each family a plot of land large enough to feed them for one year. A typical family needs about four rai, or 1.5 acres. The family will clear the forest and plant for only one year. They will then allow that field to return to the jungle to gather nutrients and build up soil until they come back 7 to 10 years later to farm the same plot again. Key words: short cultivation, long fallow. The upland rice field, once you get over the initial shock of what resembles "slash and burn," is a truly magical place. The two-week planting cycle, where each family helps the others, is an important courtship opportunity. Women follow behind, dropping rice seeds into the holes poked by men wielding long bamboo poles. A woman might follow closely behind a man who has shown interest in her. The rai feeds the families physically, builds community as a group activity and a courtship ritual, and protects the mountains that might otherwise be denuded by permanent agriculture. Look into a seed bag in the rai and you will find that rice, peas, papaya, mustard greens, herbs, beans, and over 20 other kinds of plants are being sown in the same field. An explosion of biodiversity, to be sure. The students were able to follow along and help plant, but when we started sliding around and falling all over the place on the steep slopes our families relegated us to the sala.

This style of farming, though in many ways the best option for subsistence communities in mountainous areas, is viewed by uninformed government officials as forest destruction similar to pioneer farming in the Amazon. In fact, the tiny communities we visited have been in the same location for over 200 years, farming the same rotational plots that their ancestors farmed. These communities do not have titles to their land and many inhabit areas that have been declared National Parks or other types of protected areas. The villages we visited have managed to retain use of their land through creative, sophisticated measures including prudent political action, community-based tourism, and counter-mapping. The struggle of forest-dwelling communities to stay on their land is too involved for this email... read my longer description HERE.

Despite the increasing intrusion of roads, the central Thai state, and the global economy into this part of the world, the villagers in Huai Poo Ling subdistrict are greatly self-sufficient. They make their own clothing, farm their own food, build their houses out of materials found locally, and use solar panels for the little energy needed for their lifestyle; 95% of their ecological footprint is in the few acres they farm and materials collected on foot from the surrounding forest. The community is strong, affectionate, and joyous. Houses are thinly constructed and incorporate a great deal of outdoor space-- neighbors can walk by on the road and chat with the people inside, friends and family are constantly helping with cooking or building a new shed or watching the children.

On love: One day, as I sat in the bamboo kitchen with my family from Huai Hee village, I witnessed something beautiful. My host brother had a toothache and had been crying quietly under a blanket on the floor for a good part of the day. His mother came over and sat cross-legged, putting his head on her lap and stroking his hair. My host father walked up the steps and immediately came over to sit with them, his arms wrapped around them both and his wife's head on his shoulder. The family stayed like this, quiet and cocooned together, for something like 20 minutes. This kind of confident, snug affection was on display throughout the village-- men giving each other massages in community meetings, children constantly cuddled, women sitting close together to rub each others aching hands. To accompany this physical closeness was the strongest sense of social accountability I have ever witnessed. The villagers laughed at us in a community meeting when we asked how they dealt with crime. Apparently they don't have crime, and the minor disputes that do arise are mediated by the village headman. American communities have broken down so much in this respect... I'm searching for ways to bring this sense of community back to America, but I'm not sure it can even translate. What is "community"?

In the last village, and our longest homestay, I was given a nickname. I have never really had a nickname before, but my host mom insisted. We came up with Sapbalot, which means "pineapple" in Thai. Sapbalot then morphed into Naessa, the Karen word for pineapple. In some ways, having a nickname makes me feel like my true identity is somehow hidden. Names are powerful. But this time the name fits... like a pineapple, I may still be green on the outside and quite rough, but I feel increasingly more mellow and mature on the inside. The experience calmed me in many ways, showed me that beauty and resilience and creativity and community are strong in many parts of the world... there are solutions, there are ways of relating to one another and the Earth that are productive and sustainable. In terms of my education, I don't think I have thought or discussed so much ever in my entire education. You Barnard women know-- NYC is a crazy, overwhelming place and we are all so independent and busy. I feel like I'm re-learning how to engage with the act of studying, even how to write.

Power: The headman of Huai Tong Gow village queried the students, "do you have headmen in your country?" We attempted to explain the role of government in the United States with mixed success, emphasizing the fact that public officials are not as intimately connected to their communities as Karen headmen. Then, he asked, "do any of you want to become a headman?" Before I could even think, my hand went up. I was the only one, and many of the students nodded and smiled, some saying that I would make a good headman. Both my own spontaneous reaction to the question and that of the the other students surprised me. Since coming to Thailand I have been thinking more and more seriously about going into politics on the local level in Arkansas. A friend of mine here told me that when she listens to me talk she sees a whole bright future for America spinning out 50 years from now. So look out-- you may have an aspiring public servant in your midst!


Moo-sah-toh Recipe:
The Karen eat this stuff with everything... it can be spooned over plain white rice, or made into a soup with chicken and vegetables, or used as a sauce for something... basically, it is a tasty wonderfood. It can be incredibly spicy, though, so you may want to experiment with the number of chili peppers you can handle. My Karen family in Huai Tong Gow often used over 20!

15 small, dried chili peppers
6 small red shallots
1 medium tomato
2 t. sea salt
handful of cilantro/other herbs to taste
hot water

1. Slice shallots
2. Roast tomato over fire on a skewer, or in the coals
3. Roast dried chili peppers until puffy and black
4. Grind salt with chili peppers (use a mortar and pestle if you want to be super legit)
5. Add hot roasted tomato to salt and chili peppers, then mash
6. Spoon the paste into a bowl, add sliced shallots and chopped cilantro
7. Add a dollop and a half of water

Monday, May 18, 2009


Biodiversity is often a term applied in the study of ecology, not culture, but in the case of the Karen way of life and relationship to natural resources it seems the only really appropriate description. What I noticed above all during the first week in Mae Hong Son is the commitment to (bio)diversity of all kinds. I put "bio" in parentheses because the emphasis on diversity sustains both the people themselves and their environment. The Karen thrive in a location with a variety of forest types, land uses, food sources, forest products, colors of dye, income sources, and languages. All this richness, however, is housed within small, isolated communities of interrelated, ethnically-homogeneous people. I think a focus on (bio)diversity in every form should also be the goal of the society in which I grew up and intend to return.

Before coming to Mae Hong Son and after spending a week reading and discussing the Karen and political ecology, I assumed that the attitude of the Karen toward natural resources would be born of subsistence necessity and utilitarianism. Now, I see that the situation is much more complex. Outside forces, such as the central Thai state, world religions, and the global economy have caused reactions from these mountain communities that have moved them away from traditional relationships with the natural world and toward a redefined culture-ecology connection. For example, increasing state control in conservation areas that are also home to Karen villages have caused the villages to systematically classify and distinguish their lands into different use areas in order to show that they are not pillaging the landscape as is commonly portrayed and also to lay claim to lands that might otherwise be taken away. Community members in Nam Hu described their forest classification system as having four categories: conservation forest (logging prohibited, but some forest collection allowed), use/utility forest (logging for non-commercial use in village, forest collection allowed), rice fields (trees cut for rotational farming), and burial land (a new development since the spread of Christianity). Another example is the Orchid Preservation Zone on the way to Doi Pui summit. The orchids do not serve a specific subsistence purpose for villagers, but are instead preserved for their beauty and the cultural connection the Karen have with this particular plant. This connection is manifested in part by naming daughters after different types of orchids.

Observing and participating in the Karen way of life has certainly made me reflect on my own perspective on the environment and cultural norms, but I have had a hard time reconciling my own opinions about the way my society/community should operate with the reality of the cultural norms that exist. Such things as the overconsumption of material objects as a status symbol are prevalent in my culture, but do not resonate with my personal norms. Certainly, the above cultural norm has no place in Karen society. These communities are not conspicuous consumers, but instead have a much simpler, low consumption lifestyle. In this sense, my own lifestyle and perspective are much more in line with Karen cultural norms than American cultural norms. I strive for modesty, frugality, creativity, and simplicity. Sure, my Karen family in Nam Hu had a TV and two motorcycles, but they also made their own clothing, ate all of the leftovers, and built their house out of sustainable, renewable materials. But (bio)diversity is much of what American cultural norms and my own personal lifestyle lack. We may embrace ethnic/cultural/racial diversity in a way that the Karen do not, but we also get our food from monoculture factory farms, our fashionable colors from the season's latest styles, our income from preferably one source, etc. Committing time to one hobby is more desirable than dabbling in many. We box ourselves in and homogenize ourselves to fit in with all the others. Just as our American farms MUST embrace biodiversity to move into a healthy 21st century, our identical suburban neighborhoods should, as well. Human creativity and an expansive mind are beautiful things that the Karen have managed to retain.

Granted, I have observed many inconsistencies and contradictions in the Karen way of life, as well. For example, their attitude about trash and nonbiodegradable items does not seem to fit with the image of efficient resource users that I have come to know. While plastic bags might be superior to banana leaves for containing liquids and lasting a very long time, they are often not reused and end up in mini-landfills like that on the hill about Baan Hua Nam, or worse- burned. So, while a (bio)diverse lifestyle has originated from the Karen's close ties to the land and in turn sustains their communities and the environment, not all of their modes of operation are in line with this. There are ways these communities could be more sustainable. I truly hope that future generations of Karen continue to see the value in such a lifestyle and are not unduly influenced by the destructive ways that the western world has propagated around the globe.

What is "community"?

I have been struggling with this question an awful lot since the Forests course began. When the students got together to discuss the gender meeting (women met with women and men met with men) in Huai Tong Gow, the guys described a discussion that emerged concerning the issue of divorce. When the village men heard how high the divorce rate was in America, they were very curious to know why and what that meant for American families. They explained that divorce does not exist in their community and concluded that America must not be as "developed" as everyone says if they can't even keep their marriages together. Family integrity and intactness seems to be one of the top values in this community because kinship and friendship networks are the binding fabric of the village life. Perhaps divorce is so unfathomable to the men because a lot less pressure is put on spouses to fulfill each other's emotional and physical needs since there are so many members of the community who all help to fulfill individual and group needs. It's not that Karen men are necessarily any happier with their marriages than Americans (in fact, bad marriages was another big topic of conversation at the guys' gender meeting), but the integrity of the whole group seems to often trump the individual.

I don't want to defend divorce, but it was interesting to me that not one of the men expressed even an inkling of curiosity about whether divorce might be desirable in some way. They just condemned it outright as a destroyer of families and communities. Luke seemed to think that divorce was another manifestation of our wasteful, disposable, self-centered society in which we can just throw something away and get a new one at any time. I think there is some truth in this, but I wonder if it has more to do with our unwillingness to suffer individually for a greater common good. That idea of a greater common good and the closeness of our communities, seems to have eroded terribly in America. It's almost BAD now to be generous and giving because there are so many "takers" who will take advantage. Only in some situations, usually a small community that agrees to abide by a strict set of values (a family, church community, commune, intentional community, etc), can you still see glimmers of individual sacrifice for a common goal. Many religions teach self-sacrifice as something that is true and right, but while this may have served an important social purpose years ago, it may be a disservice now to Americans living in a society where social accountability is lacking and trust has gone down the drain.

In so many ways, Huai Tong Gow could be a model for healthy communities, but does it translate to America? This village apparently has no crime, no divorce, very little out-migration... by many standards it is calm, stable, and whole. Could Americans stand the utter openness and generosity required for a lifestyle like this, or is a lonely, disconnected existence in which family and community can be chosen based on individual preference most desirable?

One of the biggest problems with the American paradigm of "individualism" is that it does not reflect reality. None of us is an island. We can't extricate ourselves from the societal processes that shaped us or the effects our actions have on others. If we could live in utter awareness of those around us, our dependence on them and their dependence on us, maybe divorce would be as unfathomable in our society as it is in theirs.

Political Struggle in the Forest

The environmental movement in Thailand is, like the country's myriad ethnic groups, ever-changing. Government agencies, NGOs, citizens, corporate entities, and international actors constantly vie to shape environmental decision-making. Forest conservation in northern Thailand is an ideal case study to describe the implications of the environmental movement and seek a more socially-neutral forum for conservation.

Increasing state control over the periphery has been characteristic of Southeast Asian forestry (Hirsch 1998). The Thai state latched onto its rich natural resources base as a form of nation-building, a tool to gain legitimacy in a world dominated by a western view of modernity. Forests, and national parks in particular, are seen as "a landmark of modern civilization, a key element of the modern Thai nation-state, rendering forest destruction equivalent to destroying the nation" (Laungaramsri 2002). Actions to protect natural resources, in addition to building a positive international image, have been used by a succession of relatively weak Thai governments to gain popularity with the urban elite who are the repository of the country's wealth and much political power. There is little incentive to consider the needs of peripheral hill tribes, many of whose members are not even Thai citizens. In fact, it could be political suicide to support hill tribe claims and risk inciting the ire of the nation's most politically-savvy, well-connected folks. The goals of the urban elite have been furthered by such actions as the 1989 ban on logging and goals to put 15% of all Thai land under conservation plans. Watershed and wildlife have been main priorities for decades, but the benefits of conservation to the global climate crisis are beginning to top the list, as well.

The wilderness ethic perpetuated by the central government has had dire implications for rural communities, especially the poor and marginalized minority groups living in upland forests. A growing "civil society" in Thailand has reacted against this conception of nature and many grassroots activists have combined social and environmental concerns-- greens who bleed red. Some argue that removing agrarian communities from lands deemed Protected Areas (PAs) is fundamentally wrongheaded because it causes more environmental degradation outside of park boundaries and give displaced communities no incentive to protect the land. Instead, many activists argue that park officials should empower and harness the energy of communities to remain sustainably on and protect the land. Because of this counter-current, community forestry has gained recent legitimacy despite its "decentralized, grassroots, vernacular approach" (Hirsch 1998). The King has played another significant role in supporting the plight of subsistence communities living in proposed PAs.

Despite a popular movement towards rights-based sustainable development and human-inclusive conservation regimes, hill tribes face prejudice because they are often portrayed as forest destroyers. For ethnic Karen, the creation of PAs around their traditional lands has resulted in political and social pressure, forcing them to mobilize in order to protect rights to land use and livelihood. Traditionally, the Karen practiced upland rotational agriculture, also known as "swidden" agriculture or rai mun wian. Rai cultivation had cultural significance as the main form of subsistence and an integral part of courtship rituals, and ecological significance as a richly biodiverse planting system with long fallow periods for the regeneration of soil. Current pressures forced this ethnic minority to set out the "Karen consensus," a narrative of an economy based on self-sufficiency, sustainable land use, and communal land management. Walker, however, argues that this consensus, while going a long way toward establishing legitimacy for resource use of upland communities, ultimately boxes the culture in with certain "primordial attributes" and may prove problematic for Karen communities or individuals "seeking modest (re)engagement with... commercial networks" (Walker 2001). For example, the increasing importance of paddy fields (na) has been downplayed in order to emphasize the traditional rai cultivation, even though paddy fields have proved just an environmentally benign and their acknowledgment in the consensus might entitle communities to needed irrigation water.

However limiting the consensus might be, there is no denying that the image of the Karen has changed in their favor. They are now viewed by many in Thailand and around the world as forest guardians, in contrast to other hill tribes like the Hmong. But image only goes so far. In cases where an unstable government seeks land for political and national economic gain, legal protection is also necessary. To this end, a Community Forestry Bill was proposed in 1990 to codify the rights and responsibilities of communities dwelling in PAs. A people's version of the bill was submitted along with 50,000 petition signatures, but the final version signed into law in 2007 had none of the provisions of the people's version. NGO workers and upland communities viewed the final version as a failure (Walker 2007).

Government is not the only source of authority in Thai society, however. The Karen have developed creative ways of protecting their rights, most notably through Community Based Tourism (CBT) and working with NGOs. The Karen in Huai Poo Long subdistrict aim to develop people-to-people interactions and build awareness worldwide about their way of life through CBT. Communities host groups of students and international tourists throughout the year. Outsiders form relationships with villagers and are transformed into powerful stakeholders. Measures of success might be an ongoing relationship with an organization like ISDSI, or Mackenzie returning multiple times to bring other people or donate money to the temple construction. Working with NGOs has benefited communities through the development of maps and land use zoning, making of documentaries, gaining media attention, etc (Huai Tong Gow Community Meeting). Communities and NGOs often work together to "counter-map" a village's traditional lands and set aside plots for use of forest resources, agriculture, conservation, and other classifications. The skills for this type of data organization are taught to villagers, who them possess tools and knowledge to negotiate with government officials (Forsyth and Walker 2008). Like the "Karen consensus," however, mapping can also box in "claims whose very strength had previously lain in their flexibility, dynamism, and lack of restriction by territorialization" (Hirsch 1998). Villages in Huai Poo Ling not only have maps, but also have 10 years plans which can be supplied to authorities quickly and describe exactly which land will be used by which family for which purpose (Huai Tong Gow COmmunity Meeting).

Huai Poo Ling subdistrict is not perhaps the best example of a struggling upland community. To be sure, they have had their share of hardship and uncertainty, but the villages in the sub-district have been established for several centuries on the same (or nearly the same) sites. The big question of "how does one define a 'community'" is less of an issue because it is clear that the villages are both "an identifiable group of settlers with a common interest" and "a defined territory to be managed by those who happen to live there" (Hirsch 1998). Real conflicts arise in areas where little to no commonalities exist between resource users, or a community has been on a piece of land for a relatively short amount of time. The residents of Huai Poo Long enjoy a solid, established community with power and rapport at the sub-district level. Notably, they even seem to have veto power as the communities have been successful in preventing both a development scheme on Doi Pui summit and a superhighway tunnel through the mountains nearby.

Both the Doi Pui scheme and the the tunnel are examples of the government's penchant for projects in favor of upper classes, with burdens falling on the shoulders of the lower classes. Of course, the government is not all bad. Looking beyond the rampant corruption, the government has taken increasing interest in caring for peripheral communities like the hill tribes by providing education, health care, and many other services. Villagers seem to be happy with the budget allocation for the subdistrict. Whether this new wave of care is due to the perceived security threat posed by peripheral communities or because of the genuine feeling that civil rights should be extended to all within Thai borders, one cannot be sure. It is clear that the central Thai state has a bigger role than ever before in Huai Poo Ling. The latest development deals with the tenure of village headmen. Headmen were originally elected to 4-year terms, but the law was recently changed to state that once a headman is elected, he/she will remain in that position until retirement at the age of 60. Villagers view this law as a way for the government to have more control at the village level by setting the stage for community leaders who serve more as officials carrying out orders from above than politicians responding directly to the needs of the local community (Huai Tong Gow Community Meeting). But just as increasing access to town has had minimal effect on the main lifestyle of the Karen villages, this new law has been got around by at least two resilient communities. The headman in Huai Hee resigned after a 5 year term because he did not make a good headman. The headman at Huai Tong Gow expressed plans to hold a formal reflection and evaluation of his performance after 5 years to be sure that his community is happy with his leadership. If not, he indicated that he would be happy to step down. Systems designed for societies that lack internal trust just don't make sense in societies that operate on such a high level of social accountability. If the resilient villages in Huai Poo Ling can retain their agency despite the designs of the central state, there is certainly hope.

A better policy than top-down development might be what Hirsch calls the "co-management approach." Local control is supported by an NGO or government agency with access to a wider scope of information and tools. Community ownership and agency in development is retained. Huai Tong Gow has been successful in using a co-management approach, of sorts. Community members and the Thai-German Project teamed up several years ago to develop a map system for the village lands that is in active use today.

If these Karen communities are as resilient as they seem to be, perhaps drawing them closer into the national fold will ultimately be positive for maintaining or even legalizing their use of the land. National recognition might mean a seat the table and more legitimacy. Yet, danger lurks in this idea, too, because the intrusion of the state is changing Karen culture in visible ways that may eventually undermine the traditional way of life the Karen have worked so hard to protect.

Cultures should be preserved and respected, but the reality of our changing planet means that compromises will have to be made on international and local scales. Some might say that it is part of the American Dream for every citizen to drive a 4WD, gas-guzzling SUV, but in light of the global climate crisis it may be necessary to curb this particular attribute of our culture. On an increasingly crowded planet with growing problems, the burdens and benefits of life on Earth should be shared equally among all inhabitants.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bus Ride for the Books

Our journey began with a long ride into the mountains... instead of the usual vans we traveled via public transportation, which meant a bright orange bus I expected to rattle to pieces as soon as we left the bus station. Imagine embarking on a 7-hour journey into the mountains in what resembled a trolley car from the 50s.

The doors and windows were permanently ajar, and the three monks (appropriately, also dressed in bright orange) sitting on a giant tire in the cargo area in front of me were in grave danger of being flung out into the depths of some steep ravine every time we swerved around a hairpin curve at 5,000 feet above sea level. The cargo area, in addition to the monks and the tire, held a mound of mail bound for a post office along the route. Brown-paper packages and huge bags of rice slid around at our feet, also in danger of an off-road plunge.

The bus had seats for 28, but at one point there were 39 passengers aboard, sitting in doorways and standing in the aisle. Three times during the trip, soldiers or police boarded the bus and asked for identification. They skipped over the farang with hardly a glance and beelined instead to harangue ethnic-looking passengers. IDs and papers were scrutinized, but no one was arrested. We were informed that racial profiling of this sort would occur. Especially in provinces along the Burmese border, the military makes a big show of carting off illegal immigrants and drug mules. The problem with this is that many hill tribe people do not have papers, even though their families may have lived within Thai borders for centuries. And if it's really about the drugs, the farang could be carrying them just as well as the Thais.

After the third or fourth major town, most of the passengers disembarked and we had the cargo area to ourselves. Some of the students were lying there, attempting to nap. The ticket guy, who for several hours had been standing dangerously in the stairwell to the open door, took a seat near us and struck up a conversation. Jeremy and I soon discovered that we could watch the road go by under our feet through holes in the sheet metal floor. I also found that the windowsills weren't exactly attached to the bus after attempting to use them as a brace around a particularly sharp curve.

Just as we were settling in comfortably, the driver brought the bus to a screeching halt in the middle of the road. Packages and rice bags careened forward, wedging under seats and sliding down the aisle. We pressed our noses to the back window, wondering aloud whether we had hit an animal. Cars were coming around the curve, swerving at the last minute to maneuver around our motionless bus. We could not have guessed what would happen next. The driver was talking excitedly to the ticket guy as he put the bus in reverse and screeched backward. We saw a snake, guts spilling out on the pavement, slowly grow clearer through the dusty window. The driver bounded out, bagged up the snake, and deposited it near his seat. We queried the ticket guy--"cow geen dai mai?" Yes, dinner!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Back on a Burma Binge

Today about half of the ISDSI students took advantage of an opportunity to spend the day with some Burmese youth activists. We spent the morning sharing information about our studies and travels, and then in the afternoon each of the farang was assigned to two or three Burmese students to discuss issues in their country and learn about their lives. The students ranged in age from 15 to 25. They are in Thailand without papers, living for one year in a compound that they can leave just once a month on a scheduled group outing... all this to be trained as activists and sent back across the border.

It was strange to meet with people my own age who are learning many of the same things I am learning (they just finished a section on dams and river ecology) and have the same dreams of changing the world, but as Pi Carrie said, where "we have a window, they have a wall." These students are going back to a country where protests, petitions, and other forms of political engagement do not work because they live in a military dictatorship, not a democracy. This sad truth became clear as soon as we began talking about the political struggle of the Karen and the tactics they have used to protect their way of life... it was apparent that everything we said was irrelevant to them. I tried to explain the concept of a petition to a couple of students and they seemed incredulous that such a thing as a list of signatures could bring about change.

Our trip to visit with these students was well-timed as we were able to ask them about the recent situation with Aung San Suu Kyi. The students think that the situation is awfully strange and probably a conspiracy to keep her out of power by locking her away in time for the upcoming "elections." A demoralizing blow for these pro-democracy youth, for sure.

Here are a few of the things the students described as problems in Burma, or issues they have faced directly in their lives:
  • Two of the students I talked with spent large chunks of their childhood living with grandparents because their parents were forced into slave labor on railroads and other construction projects. Forced labor is apparently a common practice by the military in Burma.
  • There are military checkpoints between nearly every village in the Shan state where soldiers demand money in order to pass through, so traveling is difficult for those without money.
  • One girl described how she left public health work in Burma because she was required to give AIDS patients lethal injections if they came into the clinic.
  • As i described in another post, the Burma Army routinely burns down villages in the mountains of Shan state in order to cripple the armed insurgency there. Farmers in the mountains are known for harboring and supporting the rebels. Often, bombs are planted in upland rice fields so villagers cannot harvest their crops. Many villagers become internally displaced people, or cross into Thailand to populate the UN-run refugee camps or work illegally.
  • When students leave Burma for their year in Thailand, they often must sever communication with their families completely for that time. Their families do not have internet or phones, and mail is not a possibility.
How are these students still so seemingly happy and well-adjusted? They are full of life and warmth... it is so inspiring.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Learning from elders

Gender was a theme for me at first, but age has become equally important. From sitting and talking with the inspiring youth of Dakon Yom and paddling with the village elders, I gained a deeper perspective on the intense need for the involvement of every age group in their communities.

This is not the first time I have paddled a river with elders. Two years ago, after spending time with Native American community leaders in New Mexico and hearing about their struggles against toxic and nuclear waste dumping and water pollution, the group of young environmental activists I was with rafted the Rio Grande with the elders. What was different was that one of the men had a heart attack and died while on the trip. People in our group tried to look on the bright side and said that at least he died happy because being on this beloved river with youth from his town was a joyous experience. But all I could see was that an important pillar of the community had fallen. In hindsight, though, I almost want to say it was a good thing because those four or five youth from his town are now living that legacy with vigor.

It is an incredibly powerful thing to bring youth and elders and everyone in between together to explore nature and learn from one another. Learning from elders in my community was certainly something that meant a lot to me growing up and it still means a lot to me now. On the Yom, I learned from the Don Chai elders about resourcefulness, patience, peace, generosity, lending a hand, and knowing one's place on a deep level. Most of all, though, I learned a great deal about the power of listening and observing.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Yom River situation

When I saw the rice fields in Thailand for the first time I was amazed how split into tiny sections they were in order to follow the natural contours of the land. It's not that I had never seen rice fields before-- after all, rice is one of Arkansas' main exports-- but I expected to see swaths of flat land made uniform by huge earth-moving machinery. Rural Thailand has maintained much of its landscape because of lack of access to such equipment. Life is more ecological simply because there is no other option. But this is changing. Developers have discovered dam building, for one.

As Ben said, it almost doesn't matter whether a stream is polluted because flow is everything and a dam changes flow dramatically and permanently. Once that key determinant of stream health is lost, the system collapses and along with it the livelihoods of many. As Bunn and Arthington describe, altered flow regimes lead to a loss of biodiversity, evolutionary life history strategies, lateral stream connectivity, and native species.

Like local communities on the Mun River, communities on the Yom River have seen the effects of an altered flow regime because of a narrow-minded government project. They are actively fighting against a second project, the Kaeng Sua Ten Dam, that would change the region in which they live even more.

Fifty years ago, an irrigation weir was built downstream of Sua Ten (dancing tiger) rapids that, while benefiting some farmers, caused widespread changes that affected many negatively. Fish were no longer able to migrate upstream because they could not get past the concrete obstruction. Fisheries declined. Paw Songwan told us that of the 80+ species that could once be found upstream of the weir, today only 54 can be found. He described the first year after the weir was built when the area just below was packed with migratory fish hoping to spawn upstream. The villagers' nets broke as they hauled out this one-time bonanza catch. Many of those fish types were never to be seen again in the upper Yom River.

Efforts have been made to support the growth of the non-migratory fish species that can now be found in the upper Yom. Parts of the river have been declared conservation areas and fishing is prohibited or limited. In one section of the river, local people gather once a year to repair a low masonry weir that backs up water and allows larger fish to spawn. Unlike the permanent concrete weir built by the government, this weir uses no adhesives and allows water to flow freely. The larger fish are, for the most part, kept upstream of the obstruction, but nature continues to have the upper hand. The people don't seem to mind the system. As Paw Songwan said, it takes a large group of villagers about half a day once each year to do the necessary repairs.

Weirs like the one described above are a common traditional way of providing several needs. The movable, flexible dams are made of stone or woven from bamboo not only to trap larger fish, but to raise water levels for irrigation as well. Because these obstructions are not permanent, they do little to change or harm the overall health of the riparian ecosystem. Local people realize the importance of a diversity of substrates and water velocities-- each situation provides habitat for different organisms. In the case of any ecosystem, diversity is stability. If disease or another disaster strikes a certain segment of the population, other species ensure that the entire ecosystem does not go haywire.

Unfortunately, quite a bit of money and power is involved in dam-building projects. The technocrats who propose them often ignore the fact that their actions "for the common good" are actually impinging on the rights of thousands of society's most powerless communities. However, activists like those in the village of Don Chai have been changing the game for over 20 years. The whole community is involved-- children, elders, adults of all backgrounds. Unlike Nong Po, Don Chai is still a flourishing town and young people are interested in staying in the community. This does not mean they do not dream big. The members of Dakon Yom, a youth activist group, have dreams of becoming doctors and pilots and policemen, but they have a sense of connection and responsibility to their village, as well. The community has networked with dam activists across the world in incredibly sophisticated ways, managed to inform and inspire their youth to join the fight, and feel hopeful and empowered. The pride each of the people seemed to take in the success of their community was palpable.

Though the villagers of Don Chai rely on the Yom River only secondarily, their homes are in danger of ending up below an oxygen-poor, sediment-heavy reservoir that will pad the pockets of a select few and leave those less powerful with a way of life in shambles. I hope that their fight is successful in ridding the country of the last planned large dam. Perhaps their ways of thinking will encourage those in power to consider longer-term options for sustainable development like planning cities far away from flood zones and resisting water-intensive monoculture farming from taking root.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


I have been thinking a lot about how my experiences so far on Thailand's rivers relate to stuff back home. Here are a few of the comparisons/connections I've made:

In many ways, the dam-affected communities we have seen here are no different than dam-affected American towns in the 1900s. There are people in the Catskills STILL fighting in the courts for compensation, some 100 years after their property was lost. I wonder what came of all the people displaced in the creation of Arkansas' man-made lakes? Were they just as shunned and demoralized as these Thai communities? The communities in Arkansas were displaced before HIAs, EIAs, and other types of legal protections. These formal protections don't necessarily mean anything or protect anybody, but at least there is some recourse through the law.

On another note, the dam projects we've learned about are not so different from, say, Columbia's expansion into West Harlem. The same arguments are being made about development and "common good." The same rhetoric about displacement and compensation, the same tactics of eminent domain, lack of transparency, poor planning, and condescension are employed. Perhaps the same amount of money in bribes and embezzlement is changing hands. Is the Unites States really so different from Thailand in this regard? Is corruption less or just better hid? Or is it just as blatant and I have been living with rose-colored glasses?

Friday, April 24, 2009

STOP Kaeng Sua Ten Dam

At the community meeting in Don Chai village I asked the villagers what they considered a better alternative than the dam to problems like flooding in the rainy season and irrigation needs in the dry season. I was hoping they would elaborate on the alternative we read about in an article of a series of community-controlled small weirs. The villagers did not describe any alternatives and instead described the detrimental effects on fish species of a weir built by the government about 50 years ago. I got the feeling that the villagers saw no need for other alternatives for a dam because the issues raised by the government were false issues. Flooding is a natural thing, they said. People who have lived by rivers know not to plant their gardens by the river in the rainy season. They also know not to build houses in floodplains. But developers in Thailand's central plain apparently do want to develop the riverbank and so upstream communities must suffer.

Still, I am suspicious. It is a complete misnomer to argue that dams can solve flooding problems. One of the villagers described it as "trying to put more water in a cup that is already full." The excess water in the impoundment runs off and causes just as much (or worse) flooding downstream. What is becoming clearer and clearer in my mind is that there is NO alternative because the problems cited by the government in need of solutions are false problems. They are made up in order to justify other, more sinister reasons like logging of the world's last remaining stands of golden teak and embezzling money from the project coffers. This is a project that even the World Bank backed out on because they saw too many social and environmental issues to justify funding. Point blank, there is no good reason to dam the Yom River.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

transboundary resource management

It is strange to look out across the Mekong River and realize that the people fishing on the far bank are in a different country. What struck me the hardest when Pi Suwit, a local activist, spoke with us was his description of the unity among the people who share this particular water resource. Though Laos and Thailand are both on hard-hitting campaigns to to breed national loyalty, these people still speak the same language, come from the same families, and often worship together in the same temples. Beyond the familial and ethnic link, these people are also linked by a shared livelihood based on a river about which decisions are constantly being made that they have no to power to influence.

The whole issue of transboundary resource management is super interesting and convoluted, especially in the case of the Mekong. It is the world's second-most biodiverse river and because of its geographic location/political situation is a potential major trade route for countries like China (who, interestingly, has opted out of participation in the Mekong Basin Committee). Pi Suwit mentioned some of the sneaky ways China has been power-mongering along the Mekong in recent years. For one, there are now 300,000 Chinese people living in Laos, a country with a population of only a couple million. The second major way China is able to gain power in the region is by pumping money into poorer countries in the form of development investments. Thailand is also using this tactic. In fact, apparently the first cargo railroad between Laos and Thailand was completed last month and one can see trains loaded with concrete and other construction materials heading into Laos every day.

I think the biggest problem with the transnational water management on the Mekong has to do with marginalized groups and their lack of political voice. As was described in "Governing Water as a Common Good in the Mekong River Basin" the real question is "whose common future?" Treating water as a commons will inevitably bring conflict as there will be competing uses and needs. But the way things are currently being managed makes one think that the countries governing the Mekong have no idea what the definition of "commons" is. Claims of local communities to use of the Mekong are systematically ignored. At best, their needs and concerns are considered, but are most often viewed as expendable. This is the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people we're talking about here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mun River situation

Thirty years ago, the vast majority of the Thai population lived in rural communities reliant on subsistence farming and fishing. The recent economic boom has fundamentally changed this societal structure as large government projects make massive changes in the landscape. Construction of urban areas, dams, roads, and other large-scale infrastructural projects have had dramatic effects on rural lifestyles, some beneficial and some detrimental. Common resources are claimed or enclosed, soil and water quality decline, and along with those changes communities and cultures tied to the land begin to disintegrate. Often, the communities most effected are those least involved with the projects. As the environment declines, so too do rural communities.

It continues to amaze me how committed to rural lifestyles and kin Thai communities are, even in the year 2009 (or...2552). Despite the spread of Western ideals and megacities, subsistence livelihoods are something people are willing to fight for. In the case of the Pak Mun Dam, villagers have been fighting for nearly 20 years for the rehabilitation of the Mun River fisheries and a return to their way of life before the dam.

Traditionally, the Mun River was used by communities for fishing, transportation, irrigation, domestic chores, planting riverbank gardens in the dry season, and collection of other riparian resources such as algae and mushrooms. The river was also intertwined with the culture by providing sacred ceremonial sites and functioning as a place of social interaction and exchange. In the village of Nong Bo, the way the river is intertwined with the culture is most evident in food customs. Fish are the main ingredient of meals in the village. They are prepared in a multitude of ways depending on their size and type and on the season. Fish might be dried, fermented, grilled, fried, ground into a paste, and even eaten raw.

More recently, people have realized their ability to use rivers for power generation, large-scale irrigation, international trade, tourism, and other nonlocalized, market-based uses. Government officials, especially, have latched onto these uses as ways to build prowess in the global economy. Large investors like the World Bank that seek a substantial return on their money jump to fund projects that use rivers in these ways.

There is a fundamental difference in the ends for which rivers were traditionally use by local communities and the uses for which they are currently being co-opted throughout developing countries. Humans may all be seeking the same sense of fulfillment, just through a multitude of different means. Many of us seek personal security and happiness, a better life for our children, and an understanding of the larger context within which our experiences fit. This may not be reality for all, but the way resources were traditionally used seems to reflect a life of moderation and understanding of the environment in order to attain a sabai life for everyone, and maintain social ties and social norms. These values seem to have shifted, however, to a view in which power and control over nature are the main means to attain happiness.

Because power in the global economy is dominated by Western nations, other nations seeking to gain power are obliged to follow the rules set out by them. Western countries have built a legacy around exploitation of people and resources for the gain of a few. Though many of these countries have realized the err of their ways and have spent decades backpedaling, they laid the foundation for the policies and behaviors that characterize "development."

In the United States, the movement to decommission dams has gained momentum as more detrimental effects are uncovered. Dams are an unfortunate legacy that SE Asia has latched onto as a way to satisfy rising demand for power. Hydroelectric dams are one of the biggest water resource issues in Thailand. Sure, they provide power, but the costs associated with the projects often cancel out the benefits of electricity generation. As discussed earlier, local communities often bear the brunt of these costs and have the least amount of power to do anything about the projects. Officials at the Pak Mun Dam defend the project by stating that the dam was scaled back from original plans to reduce detrimental social and environmental effects. But the failure of the planners to do adequate baseline studies for the Environmental Impact Assessment caused many social and environmental problems that might have been avoided.

The greatest blows have been dealt to the social structure and local customs of dam-affected communities. Because of the collapse of fisheries upstream, people can no longer make a living from the river and families are split up. Grandparents often raise their grand kids while the parents split off to find work in the city and send money home. The village of Nong Po is missing an entire demographic. Families are fragmented, cultural traditions are not passed down in the old way, and social networks based on kinship and friendship break down. The loss of certain fish species has affected food customs, sacred ceremonial sites have been flooded, and involvement in the dam protests/conflict has torn communities apart.

This situation should strike at the hearts of those who seek equity and human rights for all. For those of us studying sustainable development, the case of the Pak Mun Dam should be studied closely because it is a fractal. Dams are often seen as a clean and sustainable form of energy because the generation of power using turbines does not release greenhouse gases (though the reservoirs backed up behind dams may). But for over 6,000 families on the Mun River, a once sustainable way of life is gone forever and they must move to urban areas to contribute to production of our consumer-driven world. Fathers no longer teach their sons to play the phin because they are pumping gas in Bangkok-- gas that contributes to the climate changes that will wreak even more havoc on their hometowns.

It is important for us as students to build relationships with the kinds of communities because we will become the next wave of decision-makers and community organizers. Knowing how to investigate a situation thoroughly and uncover all of the facets of a development project will be key to our future work. We must be committed to ensuring an equal voice for all stakeholders and supporting a rise in decision-making power for those currently without it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

space and identity

It is difficult to compare regions of Thailand to regions of the U.S., but I would still say that Isarn is like the upland American South. Stereotypes about people from both regions paint them as backwards, uneducated, and poor. On TV, characters from Isarn are darker skinned, wear overalls, and are the buffoons of the show. Sound a lot like hillbillies, don't they? There are many other things reminiscent of the South. The open-air bottom stories of houses serve the same purpose as our front porches. Waking up in Khon Kaen feels a lot like waking up in Jackson, Mississippi on a Sunday morning. Relaxed pace, clean light, tantalizing smells of fried stuff emanating from cafes... you get the picture.

What does not seem to translate is western architecture and use of space. The house of friends of my CM host family was clearly built in a western style, but the large living room area was strangely devoid of furniture. There was a table in the middle of the room with a computer, and one couch/daybed facing the TV in a far corner. When my family walked over to the TV area, they passed up the couch and sat on the hardwood floor instead. I noticed that a lot-- in my experience Thai people really prefer to sit on the ground and will often pass up a chair to do so. It's almost as if they want the outward appearance of something westernized, but in reality they prefer to use the space like they would a more traditional Thai space. In Nong Po village, the situation was similar. The tiled living room was home to a couch (pushed into a far corner), a TV, space for parking motorcycles, and a large open area where bamboo mats were spread for meals and watching TV. There was a dining table in the house (squished in the hallway), but it was never used while we were living with the family. I can't quite figure this out... do you have any insights?

Rebecca's Thai teacher, Ajaan Wilasinee, apparently told her class that the Thai literacy rate is so low compared to other Southeast Asian countries because while the educational system exists, it is not utilized by most people as intended. Apparently, the average Thai person reads 8 lines of text a year. I'm not sure where that number came from, but if it is true perhaps it sheds light on this inscape-outscape inconsistency.

Thailand was saved from direct colonization by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), who 'modernized' Thailand's infrastructure and centralized government bureaucracy in Thailand according to the western systems and values he had seen on his trips to Europe. The systems he put in place did unite the country under a shared theme, but was it just a fresh coat of paint on a mix of resilient (yet ever-changing) cultures spread throughout the area arbitrarily assigned 'Siam'? Some argue that although the country was never directly colonized, it was exploited all the same and so was indeed colonized. My observations lead me to believe that there is something going on under the surface of all of this development and modernization, at least with the families I have lived with.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Women and Water

One afternoon while living in Nong Po village, we sat in a sala overlooking the Pak Mun Dam and spoke with Mae Jarun, an elderly woman and the longest-standing anti-dam activist along the Mun River. Her son died downstream of the dam only nine days before our meeting. He and a brother anchored their fishing boats near the confluence of the Mun and the Mekong and were sleeping there in order to do some night fishing when an unexpected release from the dam created a wall of water that overturned their boats. Mae Jarun's son was killed instantly. The dam officials we met with earlier told us that the communities were warned before water was released from the dam, but these men apparently were not informed before their ill-fated trip. It seems so unfair that the first woman to stand up in opposition to the dam in order to protect her community was the one to see a son die in this way. During our conversation she had a hard time holding back her tears.

Anthropologists have debated and theorized about the connection between women and nature for many years. In Thai language, rivers are called mae nam, meaning "water mother." The river provides water for domestic use, transportation routes, food for fish-dependent communities, silt deposition for rich and fruitful gardens, and multiple other fundamental needs. Likewise, women are vital life-givers to Thai communities, both physically and culturally.

The essentialist view of feminist political ecology states that women have a stronger relationship with nature than their male counterparts as a result of their role in reproducing and sustaining life. Others theorize that the closeness results not from an inherent or biological factor, but because of the direct material reliance on environmental resources among women of certain positions in society. These critics point out that some women in positions of power and privilege choose to exploit and degrade nature.

If women have a deeper connection to the environment as is argued by feminist political ecologists, then it follows that environmental degradation would have a greater affect on them than on men. The groundbreaking report released by the World Commission on Dams in 2000 noted that although little research has been done about the effects of dams on different genders, "large dam projects typically build on the imbalance in existing gender relations." The report notes that women are more likely to suffer from social disruption, trauma, and health impacts.

First, the loss or enclosure of the commons has drastic effects on women's work in many impoverished parts of the world. As described in Silenced Rivers, women are often charged with gathering materials from communal woodlands, streams, and garden plots. Because of this work, women may develop a different traditional ecological knowledge than men. When the commons are drowned beneath a dam impoundment and the former inhabitants relocated to new communities, women attempting to build claims to common resources in a new area face resistance.

Second, because Thai communities are traditionally matrilineal, the disintegration of a community due to relocation may take more of a toll on a woman than a man who is accustomed to living away from his own extended family. Thai women are not typically as mobile as men and therefore are able to sustain the rich local cultures of their communities. Losing this cohesion and sense of purpose often further marginalizes women who may have had little power to begin with.

Women often turn out to be the strongest proponents of sustainable resource management in communities around the world, perhaps due to their necessary intimacy with the land. Despite the profound effects of dams and environmental degradation on women, many are stepping up to take leadership roles in fighting back. In the case of the Mun River Villagers' Committee, women like Mae Jarun led the charge in opposing the siting of the Pak Mun Dam by building support and resistance through kinship and friendship networks along the Mun River. Hopefully women will continue to unify and sustain Thai communities while the mae nam they seek to protect are able to do the same.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

elephants eliminating enemies

Khan Kluay 2 is out in movie theaters all over Thailand. The media is quite committed to portraying Burma as the enemy. Why doesn't the following description surprise me?
Khan Kluay 2 is set after the victory of Ayudhya against the invasion of the powerful Burmese Empire when Khan Kluay is appointed as King Naresuan's royal elephant and services the king in many battles. But it isn't the end of the war yet when the Burmese Empire determinedly declares more battle. Before Ayudhya's troop could set the journey to the battlefield, some Burmese soldiers creeping up to Ayudhya to capture people as their captives, they even kidnap Khan Kluay's wife and children, ChabaKaew, Ton-or and Korkaew. To save his family from danger, Khan Kluay escapes from Ayudhya to encounter his new adventure and single battle in the land of enemy. This is the biggest mission for Khan Kluay to challenge.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

counting my blessings

I can count my blessings on one hand. To be exact, there are 26 of them currently encircling my wrist. Twenty-six thin white strings, a knot tied at the center of each. As these blessings were bestowed more than three weeks ago, they are frayed and rather brown, a situation that prompted my host mom to hint it might be time to cut them off. I can't bring myself to do this just yet.

On the last night of our stay in the village of Nong Po, the community and the students gathered for a feast and sending-off ceremony. None of us knew what to expect other than loads of delicious food and 15 kilos of coconut ice cream (rumors of this treat had been going around all week).

When everyone was rounded up and the food nearly ready, we all crammed into the one-room schoolhouse and sat on the floor in a circle, students on the inside and the rest of the community around the outside like a protective shell. One of the village elders sat with the students. In front of him was an elaborate tower of flowers and folded banana leaves with a single, very tall candle sticking out of the top. Small dishes, offerings of food and drink, circled the display. We all put our hands in a "wai" as a sign of respect for the master of ceremonies. Between each of our clasped hands was a single white string that circled the room to connect us all. The blessing our of souls commenced with rounds of chanting in the Isarn language. This was exciting, especially when the people positioned around the outside of the circle piped up now and again to join in asking for our protection as we set out on a long journey. At times the outbursts were reminiscent of a gospel service.

What happened next was full of emotion and love in a way that I haven't experienced very often. Each villager rotated around the room, a bundle of short white strings draped over one ear, and tied a string around the wrist of each student with a blessing and a smile. The oldest of my host sisters hurried over with a huge, heartbreaking smile and deftly blessed me with her slender little brown fingers. Before she left, she turned over my hand to the roll the ends of the thread softly along the tender skin of my inner wrist until they curled and twisted with the ends of other strings. Something about that simple touch, the whispered prayers, the sincere smile made me never want to forget the moment. I tried to look at each person who came to me and burn their face into my memory forever. The experience was so human. To feel that the entire village was behind my well-being made me feel infinitely more whole.
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Lately I seem to have been in the right place at the right time an awful lot. Like this morning. I woke up at dawn to find the clearest morning since my arrival in Thailand. Every contour and detail of Doi Suthep was visible, its shrouded mysteries revealed (no pun intended in this lovely Easter season). On my way downstairs I caught a glimpse out of the stairwell window and was astounded to behold a whole row of hitherto unseen mountains to the east of Chiang Mai. What struck me most, though, was the dramatic lighting as the waxing sunlight poured around scattered clumps of clouds and sprayed great milky beams earthward in surreal crepuscular rays... one of the most beautiful skies I have ever seen.

Counting my blessings...