Samun Praiee - Herb
Pac - Vegetable
Ba - Forest
No Mai - Bamboo
Hen Jai - Empathy
I don't really know how to start this blog post - I've been reflecting about the amazing past few days for a few hours, and it hasn't even helped that much. We just spent two nights in Ban Huay Tap Nai Noi, a potentially dam- affected community that CIEE had never visited previously. Therefore, there were two aspects of this community that were different than typical homestays, in addition to the fact that I was there as one of four interns and not as one of thirty students. That, in and of itself, was incredible - I almost wish the four of us could just do the semester over again by ourselves - we had so much fun together, and managed to pull off three exchanges, reflections, check-ins, planning sessions, and community chill time, by ourselves - well of course, with the help of our wonderful translator and friend, Poi. Our intern coordinator, Josh, was sick so he couldn't come, so it gave us confidence that we really have the ability to facilitate ourselves and have a successful community stays, which is only going to get more challenging once students get there.
The fact that it was CIEE's first time in the community presented additional challenges, but another level of excitement as well. We didn't have previous knowledge, pass-ons, reports, or final projects to fall back on when we needed information about the community - it was on us to be able to tell the rest of CIEE, students and staff, about what's going on this community. At first, we were getting bogged down in details and really intense stories about the village's history, which was extremely interesting, and we were so interested in and loved hearing about, but we needed to go back to our goal of being able to provide a concrete, big picture snapshot of the community to our own people back in Khon Kaen. There would be potential for student’s to go back and fill in the details later. It was the first time, where I really felt the presence of the bigger structure of the program, and how I fit in. We weren’t making any promises, but both the community and CIEE were relying on us to be successful liaisons, and we only had two-ish days to build brand new relationships and figure out the complicated chronology and current organizing strategies in an unfamiliar place.
I think we did a good job – In a check-in sandwiched between a really overwhelming, information- heavy exchange and an extremely efficient, passionate one, we took a step back and asked ourselves two questions that Aj. Dave would want to know when we get back. “What is the learning potential for students?” and “What are the organizing needs and current status of the community?” I think I’ll answer these in this blog, which will come full circle with the ways that this homestay was different from previous ones, which I mentioned briefly earlier.
What is the learning potential for students?
Endless obviously, but two things stuck out in my mind as especially profound. Firstly, this is a community that has not yet been affected by a dam. They have been fighting for twenty years so as not to have the dam constructed. Unfortunately, this is not a fight that students see often. CIEE often takes students into communities that are already struggling from the negative effects of a development project, like a dam or mine. The fights are often retroactive – How do we close the mine that’s already torn off the top of our mountain? How do we preserve our culture despite losing our wetlands? Organizing is still so strong, but it’s of a different nature. The long term goal of Huay Tap Nai Noi? To cancel the construction of the dam. End of story. All are valuable organizing lessons for students, but this is of a unique nature. Secondly, when we talk to villagers from Rasi Salai or Pak Mun (dam-affected) or Na Nong Bong (mine-affected), we hear stories of how incredible the wetlands or mountains were, how much they provided for the villagers, how independent and self- sufficient they were before the project, but for American students, who did not come from a culture of living off the land, it is difficult to imagine a true supermarket in the wetlands or forest. However, after this trip, I will never forget. We went on a five- hour hike through the jungle, on the mountain, where you can’t take five steps without a paw or meh stopping to explain the value of a certain herb, root, vegetable or animal. You literally can find something to cure every ailment from back pain to allergies to tape worms in your dog to constipation to lice. We picked practically our entire dinner that day, bamboo shoots, pumpkins, and gra teo, a flower that they mix with a spicy sauce or soups. We were taken to bat caves, and followed the dogs when they dug up a lizard that lives underground. We were shown all the land that would be flooded, which brings me to my third student learning opportunity. At CIEE, we learn about a lot of connected issues, but often in disconnected spaces. We learn about agriculture, land issues, dams, and mines, in separate contexts, in separate communities. Often, students make the connections between issues, but it is so blatant in Huay Tap Nai Noi. The land that would be flooded would not only be the jungle with all the resources that the community needs, or the protest village they set up in flatter land so as to prove to the Royal Irrigation Department they were serious about stopping the dam, but also the huge fields of cassava plants, a cash crop that brings them income, but also has them spraying large amounts of land with canisters of chemicals. This community has all the same problems as our agriculture communities, but that’s not on their radar necessarily, because of the dam problem. Similarly, these villagers have been getting manipulated into paying tax or rent to various government entities and private investors due to their tribal ethnicity and lack of land titles. Same issues that are happening in Baw Kaew, but again, the dam is the bigger deal here. The houses set up in order to prevent the dam are amidst cassava fields on rented land – see, you can’t miss it – oh, and the water from the dam might be going to a potash mine… really, you can’t miss the connections.
What are the organizing needs and current status of the community?
Huay Top Nai Noi is the most prominent force between Chiang Ta Preservation Group, which consists of villagers from three other potentially- flooded communities. One of these communities is Huay Top Nai Yai, the original community of the villagers we stayed with, the village they left to set up the protest village. Although the Preservation Group consists of four different villages, there are still two other communities that will be affected that have not joined the group, and the group’s numbers are dwindling. The RID has become increasingly successful at convincing villagers that their houses will not be flooded, not mentioning their livelihoods, or the true destination of the diverted water. The Preservation Group, who has been fighting the dam since 1989, when it was approved by the cabinet, has had (clearly) a successful campaign, but that has been marked by a plethora of struggle and violence. Once, police shot a villager in his farm, and barricaded the road out, so other villagers could not drive to the hospital to save him. On another occasion, some government officials burnt down the sala, kitchen, chicken coup, and other communal properties of Huay Top Nai Noi. However, despite fear of the dam and fear of the RID and government, they have continued their fight. They had been working with the Assembly of the Poor, a strong national organization, which started fighting with Pak Mun dam, and has now reached out to communities all over Thailand who are suffering from development projects. AOP has a lot of pull in the government, and has had many successes. However, with the recent deaths of their founder and another AOP leader, as well as the political instability, AOP has had a lot of internal turmoil and has had difficulty supporting smaller communities such as Huay Top Nai Noi recently. Whereas Paw Wilai, the head of the Preservation Group, used to go to meeting monthly with AOP leaders and groups all over the country fighting potential dams, those meetings are currently paused. Instead, the group has begun working with the Friends of Activist Network (FAN), which is based in Bangkok, but their organizing strategy hasn’t been well defined yet either. It seems like the group is in a transition period between organizers and networks, which has been affecting their organizing potential. Right now, they’re working on fighting the Environmental Impact Assessment, which was recently published, but not completed, because the villagers have not accepted it yet. The RID wasn’t even going to complete one, but the villagers were successful in demanding that the study be completed. However, it completely underestimates the value of the land on which the villagers subside. They offer compensation for flooded land, but only 50 baht for naturally growing trees, such as the lan, which provides the villagers with food, shelter, and income – one leaf is worth more than 50 baht, never mind the entire tree. However, imported tress that investors would be able to bring in, would be compensated to a much greater extent. Have you ever heard of investing in land that you know is going to be flooded, because you know you could make money off of the compensation? It’s sick – these investors would buy one tree, and just take pictures of it in different places, so it would look like they had more trees so they’d get compensated more. Meanwhile, the villagers can’t get one leaf worth of compensation, nevermind that the villagers have never been told where they might move if their houses and livelihoods are flooded. It seems like they’re taking things step-by-step, working on the EIA, and then fighting for the completion of Social and Health Impact Assessments, as well, keeping the long term goal of project cancellation in the front of their minds always.
I was nervous at first to go into a community that had never had farang students before. I often think that the reason I feel so at home in villages is because they’re so used to CIEE students coming and going, it’s totally comfortable, so this would be more uncomfortable and distant. It was the complete opposite. Meh Et, Paw Wilai, Nong Bed, and others, took us into the forest and into their homes like we had known them forever. They shared their fears, their histories, their hearts, and their laughter. The “Land of Smiles” was truly alive in this community, and they were excited to teach us everything they knew about the forest, cooking, and fighting for their rights. Paw Briac (who had awesome pants, btw) said that they’re fighting for the future generations – there were these two girls under the age of two who were loved by the each and every villager – they had an entire community fighting for their rights, so they can live in an undisturbed environment, so they know they’re village will be safe. I apologize for the length of this post, if you’ve even made it this far, but when we asked how CIEE students could be most helpful in their organizing strategy, they asked us to share their stories, so here it is, intertwined with my own. I just talked to my parents, and shared how much I missed Maine and how much that walk in the forest reminded me of the back woods of Embden, but how happy I am that I decided to come back – it’s for communities like this, for finding new jungles to enjoy and new students to inspire and new perspectives to relish in.