Monday, January 08, 2007

You call that development?

In addition to being an excellent cook and a skillful earthen builder, Pun Pun resident Pi Ben also happens to be one of the foremost environmental justice activists in Thailand. Recently we have had occasion for discussion with Pi Ben about his work with a Thai grassroots organization called the Assembly of the Poor. What follows is my synopsis of our discussions with Pi Ben.

The Assembly of the Poor was formed about a dozen years ago to give a voice to people all over Thailand who were adversely effected by government policies pertaining to forestry, dam projects, industrialization and urban housing issues, etc. The Assemblies gathered several times in Bangkok for protests around the Parliament, the largest comprised of around 12,000 people and lasting 100 days.

These thousands of people peacefully self-organized to petition the government to address the problems that stem from the wave of economic globalization that has swept Asia for the past several decades. The Assemblies have made important gains, but have been frustrated as well by promises un-kept by the government. (In eleven years, Thailand’s government has changed five times; thus agreements made by one regime have seldom been respected by its replacement.)

Pi Ben talked to us about how one particular dam project (out of many hundreds) illustrates the wrong-headedness of so-called development policies imposed by agencies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

The Pak-Mun Dam is located in northeastern Thailand near where the Mun River empties into the Mekong River, along the border between Thailand and Laos. To build this dam, the government borrowed 6,000 million Baht (about $200 million) from the World Bank.

The motivation to build the dam was to generate increased capacity for electricity to entice international financiers to invest in large-scale industrial projects in Thailand, and also to supply additional power to the rapidly growing population centers such as Bangkok. The dam is enormous – about 1 mile across and nearly 200 feet high. However, despite its size, it produces less electricity than is required to power one Bangkok skyscraper or shopping mall. But poor engineering design is the least of the problems associated with this dam project.

To understand a more complete picture of the devastation wrought in this attempt at “development,” it is instructive to examine the ecological and cultural conditions of northeastern Thailand prior to the undertaking of the project.

For centuries, northeastern Thailand (as in much of southeast Asia) had been sparsely populated by self-reliant, agrarian communities. These communities were, of course, poor by Western standards in that they had very little money. But this did not matter since there was very little use for money anyway. The people were rich in a more authentic sense – they had easy, enjoyable lives: a variety of food, adequate shelter, strong community and family bonds, and plenty of free time. Children and young adults were educated at home and in the village and also had the opportunity to attend school in the cities. Most returned to their villages after completing formal education.

One of the mainstays of the Thai villagers’ diet and culture was fish from the rivers of the northeast. Hundreds of varieties of fish traveled the expansive waterways each year between the mountains of interior Thailand and outlet of the Mekong River in the Gulf of China on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam. The fisherfolk of the northeast used baskets and nets made of bamboo to scoop fish out of the rivers along which their villages were situated. Pi Ben told us of the celebrations in and along the rivers during the rainy season when the fish were running upstream to spawn – so many boats, people laughing and playing. It was a social and cultural event – not simply a task undertaken in the procurement of nutritional sustenance.

The fishing villages traded their surplus of fish with the forest villages for wild boar meat and other forest products, and in local markets for vegetables, crafts, supplies, etc. For the most part, everyone was happy and everyone had enough; however, all this changed when the Pak-Mun Dam was put in.

Hundreds of tributaries flow from all over northeastern Thailand into the Mun River. The Mun, in turn, empties into the Mekong, which connects to the sea and provides a corridor for fish and other aquatic life to travel over hundreds of miles. The Pak-Mun Dam, on the Mun River near its junction with the Mekong, blocks this corridor and has exterminated the fish runs and extirpated the human settlements dependent upon them.

Through the period of planning and construction of the dam, Thailand was ruled by a secretive military government. As a result, no information about the project was revealed in advance; as the watershed began to fill villages and fields were flooded and the inhabitants simply had to move. Little or no compensation has been awarded to villagers for their losses.

The villagers had little need for money before the dam went in. After the dam, they had to sell whatever they could of their possessions, including livestock, and seek paid work. The government’s solution for a small fraction of the fisherfolk was to hire them to work in fish farms. So now the people had to work for money to get fish whereas before they caught them for free. Worse, the farmed fish are less nutritious than the wild fish, their farming results in water pollution, and many types of farmed fish are genetically modified and patented by biotech corporations.

Most of the villagers were forced to move to the cities to look for work there. Many of the men traveled far from home and family to work as a laborer or taxi driver in Bangkok. Many of the women went to the brothels. Now the villages are lonely places since only the old people and the very young stay there – the adults have all had to move to the cities to find paid work.

So, in summation, here are the results of “development” as conceived by powerful Western institutions such as the World Bank:

An entire way of life for millions of people has been completely shut down by this (and similar) dam projects. And not just any way of life, but one proven to be successful and sustainable by centuries of co-evolution between people and the ecosystems they depend on.

A thriving traditional culture has been extirpated in favor of a short-sighted and narrow conception of “modernity.” Today, a museum near the foot of the dam houses the bamboo nets and baskets once used so widely for fishing in the rivers.

What’s more, this was all done completely anti-democratically – the villagers were never so much as asked if they’d prefer to go on with their “quaint” and “backwards” lifestyle rather than “get with the times” and get a job in the city like everyone else.

In their traditional lives, the villagers used little if any electricity. Cities such as Bangkok, however, use massive amounts of electricity; and it was for cities’ benefit that the dam project was undertaken. The irony is that the dam project itself, and hundreds of others like it, have driven thousands or even millions of people into the cities, thereby further increasing cities’ demands for energy.

Before the dam, the villagers had no money but lived very well in strong communities and enjoyed healthy environments. After the dam, the transplanted villagers became vitally dependent on money yet could never make enough, and were forced to live in urban slums that are polluted and dangerous.

Before the dam, villagers “worked” little – “work” was more like play, and in any case didn’t take up a great portion of the day, week and year. After the dam, the transplanted villagers “worked” many hours per day, most days per week, and most weeks per year, although now the “work” was more like slavery (as especially in the case of the women in the brothels).

“Working” prior to the dam provided not only for the villagers’ needs but a surplus as well. “Working” after the dam always left the people coming up short, since they must pay for food, shelter and transport, and wages were depressed by all the competition for city jobs.

Since the dam project was financed by the World Bank, Thailand as a nation is now (further) indebted to the Bank and this is used as additional leverage to expose Thailand and its resources to increased exploitation by international capital.

The non-human river ecosystems of northeastern Thailand (as well as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) have been inestimably molested such that they may never recover to their status before the dam was erected.

And all of this for less power than is required to run one Bangkok skyscraper.

(See also the International River Network's page on the Pak Mun Dam.)


Judith said...

Very eloquent and arresting article Josh! Reading it brought to mind a very sad documentary I saw a number of years ago made by an Australian guy whose marriage had collapsed precipitating his travel to Thailand to work out his idea of love and sex etc etc. He engages the services of a young peasant woman forced into prostitution with the intention of documenting her life. You can read a review about it
It is worth seeing if you get the chance.

Anonymous said...

I am US Leah's Aunt Carol and am thoroughly enjoying your accounts of the Pun Pun experience. Our close family friends here are a Thai/US family. Paiboon was raised on a family farm in Thailand and talks often of the dramatic changes taking place there. Thanks for this in-depth view of a specific instance. Love to our Leah. Aunt Carol from WI

Anonymous said...

The question is what to do. Algore and a handful of artists are preparing Live Earth Concerts on 7/7/07 to raise awareness... awareness means nothing...switching off all the neon lights, greening all the macadam and the concrete, getting rid of all the skyscrapers, getting rid of all the cars would mean something... once the earth was green all over, and people were able to survive until they arrived, the people from the west with their house made of bricks, their roads made of macadam, and then their cars ran with petrol and their metals, their plastics, their chemicals sucked from the bosom of the planet and poored all over the lives of those who once lived in harmony. What is there to be done that will stop the scandalous and catastrophic outpour of modern western civilisation ...hard to say.. after all I am happily tapping on the clavier of my state-of-the-art computer.... hard to say... of one bad we have made so much worse Continue the good earthbuilding earth loving work!