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.

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