news from the my new home

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Unit 5

So between a wedding, a ton of homework and the need to pack in case we have an immediate, emergency evacuation to Laos, I have yet to find time to write about our final unit in the gold mining communities.

This unit was the right one to close with, because it brought all of our questions of development to a head. Whereas most of the natural things that we have destroyed for our development purposes can be somewhat restored, there is no way to put the top back on a mountain. People in Loei province rely on the mountains as the entirety of their sources of food, water, and livelihood. Without that mountain, people are no longer self-sufficient, must work as lottery sellers, and have to buy all their forms of sustenance.  At the same time, the things that are coming from these mountains, copper, gold, and other minerals and metals, are used in all of our every day products that we consider necessary, such as computers, cell phones, and cars. Even my Na Nong Bong family had two motorcycles, a pick-up truck, a computer with internet, three cell phones, and a digital camera. That's the dilemma that needs some complex solving. Besides reducing personal consumption, I don't really have an answer for you at this point in time.


The issue that is not at all complex and really quite obvious. If you are ruining people's entire livelihoods in order to mine some minerals, you should help them out a little bit. For example, try not to put your chemical tailing pond on top of their groundwater source, so all of their water is contaminated with cyanide and everyone gets seriously ill. Even if you're going to do that, provide people with clean drinking and bathing water so they don't have to pay for really expensive water, when they've already lost their income and their source of food. And then when people go to the city to protest for the water, you shouldn't make promises that you're going to give them some if you aren't planning on it, or just provide it for 2 months and then stop. This is all just mean and unjust.

People who Conserve their Hometown (PWCTH), the group that Na Nong Bong villagers formed to fight against the gold mine has amazing organizing and strategical techniques, and a really strong group of youth who are helping the adults in the communities and the NGOs conduct health research and spread awareness to other youth. So in previous semesters all the CIEE students would stay in PWCTH's strongest, most active community, so that we could get a sense for the activism that is already occurring. However, this time around, we were spread out in 6 different villages, one student per house, so that PWCTH could begin building relationships and spreading awareness with these other villagers that were previously not involved. On our last night in Loei province, we went to a baisee string tying festival. Little did we know it was really just an organizing strategy, bringing all the different villagers together to not only bond over having students stay with them, but to also listen to a very conveniently planned talk from the NGO and health representative. We were straight up used, but it was brilliant. 

So there's a community in which a copper mine is supposed to be built. We had an exchange with the villagers and a tour of the mountain. They've already started organizing and protesting, so that the mine isn't built. They did an interesting thing. In Buddhism, you cannot kill living things. That includes all the trees an animals that you would be blowing up for the creation of the mine. The ultimate sin would be to kill a monk, the most respected and holy men in the Buddhist religion. The villagers have begun ordaining all the trees on the mountain, bringing in an odd number of monks to do the ceremony, and wrapping the traditional orange material that monks wear around the trunks of the tree. If the company still wants to create the mine, they'd have to kill monks, and they would be consequently punished through kamma.
I've had an epiphany about development in an academic sense, in that I've finally found a way to combine environmental studies and psychology. After the last unit, I had to answer a question: "What does development mean to your major?" Well of course, this program, entitled Development and Globalization, has been teaching me about how development relates to Environmental Studies and looking at the pros/ cons of economic, political, and environmental global development. However, although I have learned about all these concepts in ES classes at Bowdoin, the only classes that have actually had the word "development" in the course title have been developmental psych. I know the definition of development is completely different in these two cases, but something is to be said for using the same word in both instances. This program really focuses on the downside of development, how political and economic development can really be harmful for communities who are perfectly happy and capable of being self- sufficient. However, this gets turned on its head once you think about human development. Everyone develops, our brains develop and change constantly, and humanity itself develops and evolves, and this must be taken into consideration when we consider development in terms of more political issues, as well. Human development is not stagnant and our constantly changing. There's a reason we are no longer a hunter and gatherer society and why the Ancient Roman empire fell. No one came down from the heavens and dictated a revolution. Humans changed. Like educational and other institutions change as one transitions from childhood to adulthood, as the human species develops, our politics and economics must develop with us. The global political and economic system needs to strike a balance between keeping up with human development and speeding past it. I don't know exactly what to do with this, or whether research comparing development in these terms has been completed before, or if it is even logical or worthwhile. But I've been searching for my psych/ ES connection all semester, and even if it's a dead end and I don't come back to Bowdoin with a clear research project connecting my two disciplines, I finally found it. I've been reading some crazy crack-pot evolutionary psychology articles and books, and as crazy as they are, I'm beginning to pull out connections between evolution, economics, and development. Maybe this will help us solve issues related to mining, electricity generation, and general consumption.



Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sawadee Songkran! Len Nam!!

So maybe purposefully, maybe just ironically, immediately following CIEE's water unit is Songkran, the Thai New Year. A celebration of new life, and as a means to relieve everyone of the scorching and mildly unbearable heat of mid- April in Thailand, Songkran is the holiday we all wish we celebrated when we were little. It's a festival of water-- people are either standing on the sides of the streets soaking anyone who drives by with water (sometimes ice cold) or you're in the back of a pick- up truck throwing water at anyone on the sides of the street. I have not been dry for more than 4 hours at a time (the longest I've slept) but I've also managed to keep cool in over 100 degree weather.

Although the Songkran festivities didn't truly start until the 13th, our vacation started on the 11th, so we got a head start. We've explored downtown Khon Kaen, visited communities we've stayed with, and spent all day in the back of a pick- up truck and in different lakes and reservoirs, playing with our landfill families. And now, granted that it's still the 13th, I'm off again.

2 DAYS LATER

My last night before I have to get back to reality of school life at KKU. I have just returned from Yasothon, visiting my family from the Agricultural unit. The past 5 days have blurred together into a sort of timewarp that feels like both an eternity and a millisecond of my life. As I try to recount the events of each day to myself, I will do so for you as well.

Saturday, April 10:
- finished classes before break
- program sponsored bowling, with steph and i splitting a turn and failing at complementing each others' bowling skills or lack thereof. there was a point where we went three frames without hitting a single pin between the two of us. but when we were on, we were on, i guess.
-headed out to Rad Bar, 1/3 bar, 1/3 dance floor, 1/3 strip club. Cait's 21st birthday, Jenna obsessed with terrible punk rock singer, and Shayne finding out that we thought she and Miles were dating. Mit, Aj. Dave's daughter hangs out with us. Gianna and Barrie fall asleep on the TukTuk back to KKU.
 Panda's a pro- Girlfriend, not so much

Sunday, April 11:
- a group of us head down town Khon Kaen to get our water throwing started
- walked around and sat at this really cool bakery and cafe (tried to songkran Jenna but could not figure out how to collect water in my hands and turn off the sink at the same time- i was in no way about to waste water letting the sink run as i splashed her)
- found some kids on the street corner and joined in their fun
 some kids we found for our first water throwing fun
- ate salads at central soaking wet (much needed)
- wandered around Khon Kaen looking for the slums we stayed in during Unit 2- made it to Nong Waeng where I stayed. visited Sam's family first, and len nam'ed with her host sister and friends. as soon as we showed up, they switched their music from traditional Isaan to American Pop, including Party in the USA, ironic as we were not in the USA. Chilled with my chillens
 back in Nong Waeng
- made it back down town in some random kid's paw's song taew. on the way back some peeps with amazing aim managed to hit our song taew and every person in it as we flew by
- some went to watch the Thai equivalent of Step It Up 2: The Streets, but I went home to change before coming out again
- went back to change and came out again down town
- Sam, Becky, and I meet Gianna, Ben, and Abe at Cha Bar, our new best friends- confusion ensues regarding whether we can drink our own drinks there, but my ben rai fixes everything in the end- were told to return at 2 pm the next day to really start the Songkran water fun
- get a random ride to UBar from people who figured it'd be easier to drive us than tell us how to get there- thank you
- girls hang out and chat at UBar for a bit, then leave to find the boys. Ben, who's on a "real- life exchange" kick finds some norwegian guy to chat with who is unimpressed that i do research on finnish babies, so i hang out with a 19- year- old from holland who got screwed by the dutch university lottery system so he's just traveling before starting school next semester. we talked politics and before we knew it it was 4:30 am and time to go home. the 5 americans still out managed to pile into a tuktuk and called it a long day.

Monday, April 12:
- CIEE Sustainability meets to further investigate the spreadsheet we will use to create our Climate Action Plan. After getting through all 40+ tabs, we figure out what information we have, what we still need to figure out, and what is irrelevant to our project. We split up some Next Steps, including budget info, gas efficiency, staff commutes and travel, and particular student air travel to and from the program.
- head downtown again. meet up with our new found friends at Cha Bar and splash water over anyone who passes by
 getting ready to soak an innocent couple on a motorcy with a bartender from Cha Bar
- April, Ilse, and I decide to go on a tour of Khon Kaen via back of pick - up truck with some people
 Ilse on the back of a pick- up with a new friend
- after hanging out getting soaked on Cow Neow Road, we realized we were starving and headed to a nice restaurant in our tour guide. i had an amazing curry, but poor April ordered her food four times and never got what she wanted
- although most were exhausted and headed back to KKU after dinner, I stayed out with April, Ben, and Gianna and met a group of Thais who we dubbed "orange shirts." they were super drunk but super fun and actually spoke a lot of english. we talked with them for 2 hours-  some were super nice, but a few were super creepy, especially of course the two guys who decided to talk to me
their shirts say Stop War on the front in English, Love Peace on the back in Thai
- an elephant came by and everyone started running in between his legs
- april and i spied on gianna when she walked to the bathroom with some guy that she was flirting with. completely infantile
- april and i got tired eventually and got a ride home. gianna and ben went to some party at a mansion
- didn't realize european time had switched so i missed my skype date with molly :(

Tuesday, April 13:
- met becky, barrie, april, and gianna at 6:45 am in the lobby of our apartments. i did not let jenna or maggie get away with not going, and gave them a guilty look until they came. appreciated 100%.
- kind of knew how to get to the landfill but not really, so we asked a songtaew driver who agreed to take us all the way there for 30 baht each- head ache saved!
- shuffled to a wat to give tamboon as soon as we got to the landfill. flip flops - fail. tank tops- fail. loose low cut shirts- fail. shorts- fail. eat breakfast- success.
- maggie is openly talking about how hot she thinks one of the monks is, not knowing that he is actually from bangladesh, speaks perfect english, and no thai.
- Meh gives us all new clothes since we were not dressed properly for the amount of wet we were getting
- back of caged pick up truck with 3 or 4 different families heading to the dam behind the wat with  Buddha on top of a mountain that CIEE brought us to months ago
- witnessed one of EGAT's community projects, releasing fish into the water behind a dam via slides
- rented inner tubes. of course dam water is absolutely disgusting, but it was fun to relax and dump people's tubes over so they fall in
 Shompoo and friends play in reservoir
- headed to our next destination, god knows where we were. it was a type of festival, where we ate lunch- there were hundreds, maybe thousands of people eating and playing with water. there was some man made weir and man made lake lined with stones. it's so hard for me to describe, it felt like a water park. hmmm... there was a slanted plane, with these stone structures standing there. water was rushing so intensely, you'd get pushed between stone slabs down to the bottom of the plane. stone lining was so unfortunate for me, i ripped the entire butt out of my pants. crisis. meh had to switch shorts with me, so now i was in a completely new outfit than when i began. meh also told the entire festival that i had a hole in my pants and everyone was laughing at me
- some really drunk guy fell down a slope into the river
- grab some canomes and leave the festival. we head to another wat to give tamboon again, leave incense, and splash some water on the temple. fed some huge, huge catfish
- our landfill families bring us back to KKU
us, our families, and our mode of transportation
- i have become a lobster, and realize that from smiling (and also squinting) I have tan lines from my eye creases
- although exhausted, we manage to muster up the energy to go out downtown for Amy's 21st birthday

Wednesday, April 14:
- 9 am: meet at the office to head back to Yasothon to visit our family there (with April and Bijal - Megan and Becky came too but went to see their family in a different village)
- we all PASSED OUT for the three hour bus ride there
-  upon arriving, Paw, Meh, Im, and Oom were excited to see us. we ate and played with the girls for a little bit, and chatted with Paw. He was impressed with how much our Thai had improved since our last visit, but made fun of me for having lost my voice.
- abla all fit on the back of paw's motorcy and we went on a bai teeow (trip) all over our village. we  spent time with some of paw's friends and family. some were nice, but i wasnt the biggest fan of one of paw's friends who thought that b was a prostitute because she said she was going to work in a hotel in India this summer
- a and b were geening j (eating vegetarian) so all the food with meat in it got put on me. there was this chicken dish that was black and it really looked like just bones with no meat on it. there were a few pieces that had hair on them and i almost vomited into the bowl but managed to keep my cool and just not eat them
- after meeting all of paw's siblings, we returned home. we checked in with the cows and the pigs. we watched paw pick out and kill a chicken for that evening's dinner. he held its beak closed as he cut open its throat and let the blood drip into a bowl. the wings kept flapping because the nerves were still active. he put the chicken in boiling water and picked off all its feathers, chopped it up, and cooked it. fresh chicken. arroi mai? arroi! sep!
- i told meh the story of the piece of chicken with the hair on it and how i really didn't want to eat the chicken's head. she laughed and laughed and told everyone the story of the chicken's hair.
- we were talking about playing with water the next day and paw told us that meh couldn't play with water for some reason we couldn't understand in thai. he asked his daughter for the translation and she said "menstruation." so paw just told us that meh was on her period. tmi much?
- the daughter gave us each a stuffed animal. end story.
- the daughter showed us pictures of her younger sister who is getting married on the 23rd and 24th of this month. the daughter doesn't like her sister's fiance because he's bisexual, we think. he used to date boys and now he dates girls. paw really really wants us to come to the wedding and has the world out to convince ajaan john to let us do so.
- the daughter gave april two dresses that don't fit her.
- we PASSED OUT

Thursday, April 15:
- woke up at 7:30 from a really good night's sleep
- met the daughter who is going to get married and her fiance, who looks like worm tail from harry potter, no joke.
- filled up the huge tub for water- killed a baby duck in the process
- managed to get huge tub out to the streets and spent all morning throwing water on anyone who passed
- came back, ate lunch, SEAFOOD (clams and squid!!)
- said bye to meh and paw and headed out on a 6 hour long journey home
- paw didn't want us to get soaked on the motorcy so his friend took us in his pick- up truck to the main city in their subdistrict, then we took a bus to yasothon city, then a bus to khon kaen, ate dinner in khon kaen, and took a taxi home
- people are watching quantum of solace as i type here

I really didn't get one moment's rest over my five day vacation, nor did I travel to any of the places I hoped to. However, I see the sleep in sight tonight and I wouldn't trade any of the time I spent downtown with my CIEE friends or at my families' homes for time away or spent resting. I wish I could take more pictures without fearing for my camera's life, because Songkran is something everyone should experience. I'm sure these stories sound bizarre but the actual experience is indescribable. I could not imagine how much fun it'd be as a small child to just throw water on everyone, but I'm pretty excited to be dry for more than the time I'm sleeping. I say that now, but once 120 degrees starts feeling like 120 degrees because I'm not wet, I'm sure I'll be signing a different song.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Picture yourself in a boat on a reservoir

The Rasi Salai dam is sitting on top of, ruining and flooding 400,000 rai of wetlands. The Rasi Salai dam semi- successfully irrigates water to 10,000 rai of farmland. You can do the math. 

The wetlands were commonly dubbed a "supermarket" by the villagers living in the Rasi district in Sisaket province. They provided food, medicine, income, and livelihood for many communities living near the Mun River. However, the Thai government has this perception on Isaan as being dry, parched, and in need of water. Therefore, they initiated a ton of irrigation projects to help the poor, helpless farmers, who needed the government to help them sustain themselves. Unfortunately, the government did not realize that villagers in Isaan were self-sustainable, and needed nothing less than political intervention. The natural flooding cycles allowed farmers to take advantage of both the wet and dry seasons, and now the wetlands are always wet, stagnant, dirty, and inaccessible. 

Over and over this happens. The Pak Mun dam provides less than half of the electricity it was supposed to. However, villagers and NGOs have been able to community organize and protest against the government to some extent after very long fights. The Pak Mun dam is currently open 8 months of the year instead of 12 and Rasi villagers have received some compensation for lost land. Hua Na villagers have been able to keep the gates of their dam open completely (the dam has never actually been used) until a Social Impacts Analysis and Environmental Impacts Analysis is completed and the dam plans are modified accordingly. The Hua Na and Rasi communities work together to support one another. Rasi is a sort of mentor to Hua Na, so that Hua Na can prevent the harm that occurred in Rasi. In exchange, Hua Na villagers protest with Rasi villagers to show support and solidarity. People from each village set up a protest village together at the Royal Irrigation Department for 189- days in 2009. 

I spent three nights in Ban Puung, with a family, whose Paw was the village leader for the Rasi Salai dam group. He is in charge of bringing back information regarding the dam from meetings either locally or in other districts or Bangkok. I attended a whole village meeting, where some leaders and NGOs spread awareness regarding a group of people who are telling villagers that if they pay 1000 baht, this group will help them in their fight against the use of the dam. Instead, the scammers just take the 1000 baht, give the villagers a white t-shirt, and sayonara. After the whole village meeting, all the leaders get together to evaluate that meeting. The lack of village participation was a concern, and it was suggested that leaders should work to get more people involved and aware. Sounds like group process to me. 

We have already started working on our final project with Rasi, the project I have committed myself to for the last two weeks of our semester. The Rasi and Hua Na communities have received money and land to build a learning center, where they hope to promote awareness about their culture and struggles, and educate visitors and future generations. They hope we can help them come up with a long- term plan  for the Learning Center that incorporates environmental education (love it!), cultural preservation, historical background, environmental restoration, and agriculture. We researched some environmental and cultural LC around the world, and presented the ideas that we thought would best be applied to Rasi.  Now we need to concretely decide where things are going to go, when, and how this project will be completed. I am so excited about this project; I always knew I was going to be interested in water issues, so when we first visited Rasi and became aware of how they could best use our help, it was amazing that  Environmental Education was first on their list. After taking a class on EE at Bowdoin sophomore spring, I have realized the importance of hands- on, take control of your own education, that connects you to your own land and surroundings. I will be applying everything I learned with Kara for this project in the up-coming weeks, so more to come. 

Oh. P.S. got to go on a boat. and I caught an eel. so cool. 

After leaving Rasi, we left for beautiful Tamui village situated on the Mekhong. It was the most beautiful village we have been to yet. The river was clean and clear, and the rocks and sand that lined the shores were undisturbed. Tamui has not yet been affected by a dam, but six dams are planned to be built along the shores of the Mekhong between Thailand and Laos. (Yes, I was across the river from Laos, swam halfway across the Mekhong to Laos, and CIEE took us on a boat trip to Laos, no documentation required...) If these dams are built, this entire beautiful community will be flooded and the villagers would have to move off their land. Since they are all fisherman, continuing their livelihoods would be an impossibility. 

Even though the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand has no plans to build any more hydropower dams such as the one that would affect Tamui, the Thai- Italy Comany (a huge transnational corporation) got the Laos and Thai government to sign a secret contract allowing the construction of the dam. Who signed this contract? The Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs; seems a bit out of his area, no? The Thai- Italy Company was offering villagers 5M baht to sign a petition to allow the dam to be constructed; of course to be paid afterwards (so probably not at all). They bought the headman of the village over with 20M baht. 

Dams are being developed in China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, and Thailand as a part of the KhongChiMun project (the Mekhong, Chi, and Mun rivers are the three major rivers that run through that area.) These dams will attempt to divert water from the Mekhong in China to the Chi and the Mun and their tributaries. However, water scarcity is going to be a major problem. If all the water is blocked near the top of the river, no one is going to be able to get water downstream. Since China is the most powerful, developed country and at the head of the Mekhong, it will benefit much more than any of the other poorer, down stream countries.

I really connected to this unit above any other. Water has always been so important to me, just in terms of recreational uses between swimming, kayaking, canoeing. In addition, Maine runs on 40% hydropower, which I always believed was a better alternative than coal- powered plants. I always knew the environmental effects of dams, but never the community effects, maybe because in Maine people have been living with dams for 100-200 years that those impacts have been mitigated by now. I called Eileen, the director of Bowdoin's ES program for a completely different purpose, but she informed be of a project that Bowdoin and two other Maine universities are getting starting. It works with communities who are going to be affected by dam decommissioning and river restoration. I can not wait to get started. Now that I've worked with communities who have been negatively impacted by river work in their homes, its going to be interesting to see what issues may arise surrounding such positive work. 

The difference in the water in Rasi Salai and Tamui was stark and undeniable. The Mun river was filthy, and there was a layer of boiling hot water and really cold water underneath, because the water was so stagnant and unmoving. The Mekhong was clear, cool, healthy, and you could find multiple varieties of fish swimming around. Although dams upstream have already impacted the river, the current state is far better than the Mun reservoir. 

Water and the things that live in it are our most sacred resources. People need water, the earth needs water, and making clean water inaccessible or expensive is a human rights violation and murder.