Friday, April 10, 2009

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...

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