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.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"state of emergency"

Easter Day and the Thai New Year (Songkran) dawned with uncertainty today. My host mom emailed with a sorrowful note that the Songkran Festival may not be enjoyable this year because of the current political unrest. Everyone in Chiang Mai is glued to the main news channel-- even the guy who practically lives at the internet cafe playing video games for hours on end without a care in the world is now sitting quietly, watching the latest reports roll in. I'm trying to keep in mind that the media is controlled by the government, but the footage of protesters smashing cars and chucking stuff over fences is strangely gripping. Oh, propaganda!

Those I have spoken to (Thais and farang) seem convinced that although the protesters are a formidable threat because of their sheer numbers, they are not too terrifying because they are unarmed. The real threat is the military. Thus far, the military has stayed on the defense and there have been no casualties. But if the protests continue to escalate as Thaksin goads on his supporters, who knows what kind of tactics the government will resort to? This morning, PM Abhisit announced:
“In the current situation, what I have to do is bring peace to the country, bring back governance and have a process of political reform. The government will try every way to prevent further damage. I ask the people to support the government in order to restore order in the country.”

These words were part of his declaration of a "state of emergency" for Bangkok and surrounding provinces. In contradiction to his promises a few days ago, Abhisit also announced that police and military have been authorized to use force to bring the country "back to normalcy." An editorial in the Bangkok Post scorned the government for allowing "anarchy" by failing to keep the protests under control, but the writer did not share his ideas on the best way to go about this task. It is true that the constitution requires the government to look out for the safety and security of citizens, but the use of violence and force to crush the "red shirts" seems to be wrong-headed. Martyrs and fanned flames seem the only outcomes of such a tactic. What, then, is the government to do? Thais speak of unresolvable rifts within the citizenry. But the struggle will continue unless leaders truly address the issues raised by protesters rather than resorting to dictatorial, short-term solutions like military force.

I have to wonder how much Abhisit's comments and decrees are culturally motivated. At the heart of Thai society are the values of nonconfrontation and smooth interaction. The escalating demonstrations cause Abhisit to lose face, which translates into diminished power. But citizens of all walks of life are calling for the return of peace to the kingdom. The question is: what does peace look like? Is an honest airing of dirty laundry acceptable in a Thai cultural context? Or would it be more desirable for an outer semblance of peace though under the surface trouble continues to brew?

Friday, April 10, 2009

back in the swing of things

Apologies for the month-long hiatus. I just returned from a 3-week, mostly internetless trek to the Mun, Mekong, and Yom Rivers. In the next few posts I plan to recount my adventures in detail. Enjoy!

How far, Alice? [Missive 4]

Loved ones,

The most difficult thing about the past few weeks was keeping my experiences in perspective. Indeed, I often wondered whether it was even fair to have the privilege to keep things "in perspective." It is difficult to join a family, live their life for a week, love their children, share their food, hear about their struggle, and not feel eternally obligated to join them in fighting the processes that have led to the destruction of their communities and livelihoods. During our stay in Nong Po village above the Pak Mun Dam, a villager addressed the students at a community meeting and asked, "are you coming here just to take information away for your studies or can you help us?" We were entirely unprepared to answer this question. It has been banging around with a deafening roar in our heads ever since.

The air is heavy in Nong Po. Resignation has set in. The older generation is tired of fighting, and the youth do not see their place in the struggle against the dam. An entire demographic is missing, as most of the able-bodied adults work in the city to earn money for the folks at home. Children are raised by their grandparents. Traditions are lost as fathers no longer teach their sons to play the phin or weave fishing baskets because they are pumping gas in Bangkok. At first I thought it was great that both the very old and very young had important roles and responsibilities in the community, but my view shifted when I realized that it out of necessity. They are truly the only people left to sustain the village.

Going from the downtrodden, discouraged communities on the Mun River to the empowered, hopeful communities on the Yom River was heartening. The Yom River is the site of the last proposed large dam in Thailand, but local communities have effectively blocked its construction for the past 20 years. Even the World Bank pulled its funding from this project after deciding that the environmental and social costs were unjustifiable. The struggle has brought people together. The village of Don Chai is strong and intact and vibrant. What gave me the most hope was our meeting with a group of 14-year-old girls who are the heart of Dakon Yom, a youth activist group. Their dreams are big-- they want to be doctors and pilots and policemen-- but they are fiercely committed to their community as well.

The 5-day paddle was absolutely blissful! We became expert stream assessors and presented our data about the chemistry, flow, flora & fauna, physical structure, and general health of the Yom River at the end of the week to those we had paddled alongside-- villagers from Don Chai, activists, and a few National Park officials who wandered over to see what was up. Based on our assessment, the river is currently a healthy and diverse riparian ecosystem, but all of that would change if the dam is constructed. The elders and villagers on the trip were an indispensable resource for our studies. They knew the river like a family member-- the best ways through rapids, each type of fish, sacred sites, edible plants in the forest along the bank, how to make ANYTHING out of bamboo, etc. Pi Ahn taught me to fillet fish like a pro using any available metal implement, from a big ole machete to a chipped and warped paring knife. I learned how to use every part of the fish; even the intestines and swim bladders can be turned into a delicious meal.

The most powerful thing about the Yom River, though, was that we were able to exchange information among people of all ages and backgrounds. This trip only strengthened my belief that inter-generational, cross-cultural learning is of utmost importance. The village elders had much to teach us about the ways of the river from their traditional ecological knowledge, and we were able to share information with them gathered via the scientific method. Interestingly, after our presentation, two of the activists asked whether they could get the equipment from our stream assessment to use with their youth groups. I think there is incredible value in exploring a river from all of these different viewpoints. Each way lends something vital and equally valid to a student's conception of the world. And we are all students.

Now for Alice. One day as I was processing through the complex web of the Kaeng Sua Ten Dam situation with one of the instructors, the program director overheard our conversation and came over. He smiled when I had a huge revelation involving the problem of corruption in development projects and leaned closer to say, "how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go, Alice?" This makes me think I'm asking the right questions, but certainly things are becoming curioser and curioser. I really can't get enough of it, though.

If you got this far, congratulations! Truly, I appreciate your dedication.

So other than North Korea getting bigger on the U.S. hit list, what's new over there? I feel like I just skipped out on the Big Picture for a few weeks.


p.s. check Picasa! I took like 400 pictures...