The dark side of development

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2  พฤษภาคม  2543

The case of villagers displaced by the Pak Moon Dam demonstrates that poverty is often imposed by unequal development strategies that rob rural people of the resources they once depended on for their livelihood

Atiya Achakulwisut, Bangkok Post Outlook, May 2, 2000

A mass of dark clouds hung low over the spot where the Moon River flows into the Mekong. At this confluence of the two rivers, the decade-old suffering of people whose livelihood has been ruined by the nearby towering Pak Moon Dam condensed and poured out like a torrential rain.

"We became poor because of oppression by the rich. They squeezed the best from our resources, leaving waste in their wake for us to tend to," said Prasit Bua-ngam, a villager from Tarn Sum district, Ubon Ratchathani province.

The man's bitterness echoed that of the few thousand villagers displaced by dams in the Northeast who were gathered at the Mae Moon Man Yuen (Long-lasting Moon River) protest camp/village near the dam in Khong Chiam district, Ubon Ratchathani.

They've been there for more than one year.

Conceived in the 1980s, the Pak Moon hydroelectric dam has faced strong resistance from the very start. Villagers complained that having the dam sprawled across the mouth of the Moon River would block the migration route of fish, preventing them from swimming from the Mekong to the Moon to breed.

The dam's construction also required dynamiting around rapids to expedite the outflow of water released from the dam. The rocks were once shelters and breeding grounds for fish. Without them, the villagers cautioned, the fish stock would decline.

All the villagers' predictions came frighteningly true.

The completion of the dam in 1994 brought an end to the once-flourishing life of fishermen along the banks of the river. With their farmlands flooded and no fish to catch, dam-displaced villagers simply lost their livelihood, becoming not only poor but helpless. 

Fed up by years of protests and negotiations, the villagers made it clear they did not want any compensation in terms of money. What they want-need-is for authorities to return their livelihood-the ability to tap into their natural resources and to lead the life they did before the river was damme

Consequently, the villagers are demanding that the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) open the dam's gates and let the river run free once more.

Sulak Sivaraksa, outspoken social critic, pointed out that the case of the Pak Moon Dam was an example of how the state's development strategies that favour affluence over self-sufficiency impose poverty on rural people.

"People used to be happy here. The Moon River was the source of their life, providing them with water and fish. Pak Moon Dam was built to generate electricity so that city people could lead a more luxurious life. No one cared that it destroyed the river and the livelihood of people who lived there," he said, adding that some villagers who were uprooted to make way for the Sirindhorn Dam, also in Ubon Ratchathani, ended up becoming street sweepers in Bangkok.

Mr Sulak was speaking as a panellist at a discussion, which was part of a two-day seminar to deliberate possible solutions for the poor in Thai society, held recently at the Mae Moon Mun Yuen village.

Respected scholar Prof Saneh Chamarik added that there were poor people in every period of time. The difference was, in the past, people became poor due to individual traits. At present, poverty was brought on by unjust structures in society.

What are these "structures"?

The respected scholar Prof Prawase Wasi explained that fundamentally Thai society despises the poor.

"The social perception (of poverty) is one elementary structure. Thai people have been ingrained with the false belief that poverty is a result of bad karma in previous lives, which they can redeem by doing good things and sacrificing for other people. The social fibre has been used by the elite to justify their taking advantage of the poor," Prof Prawase said.

The academics agreed that in order to liberate themselves from the iron grip of the urban-biased structures, the poor have to organise and build an alliance not only with those who share similar problems but also with people from other social strata such as members of the middle class.

Acharn Naruemol Thapjumphol, from Chulalongkorn University, noted that since poverty was a politically constructed problem, brought on by public policies, it must be solved by political means.

"We can't tackle just state-level mechanisms, but also transnational institutions which exert a lot of influence over national policies," he said.

A vertical alliance between villagers, academics and members of the media must be forged. Together, they can create a new set of knowledge based on people's real lives, which can be used to counter the often distorted information that the state resorts to in order to uphold its policies.

"The fight to better the plight of the poor is not just one against the state, but a struggle to win over the sympathy of a majority of people," Prof Prawase said.

He also urged the government to stage a dialogue with the villagers.

"The government must send people who have the power to make decisions. Also, the dialogue must be held with both sides on an equal footing. Academics must assist villagers in terms of information, too."Prof Nithi Eawsiwong, a founding member of Midnight University, an attempt by a group of intelligentsia to initiate alternative education, added that the poor may have to resort to alternative media to focus awareness on their plight.

"It is increasingly difficult for the poor to access mainstream media outlets, which have to survive under the rules of capitalism. Villagers may have to maximise the use of alternative media, both folk ones such as Mor Lam (folk music) and international ones such as the Internet.

"Since our leaders tend to pay more attention to international voices, the Net would be a great means to influence local policy," Prof Nithi said.

Prof Saneh called for land reform as a more concrete method of solving problems for the poor.

To work, the reform must constitute not only a comprehensive and fair redistribution of land, but also a return of vernacular space for the poor to lead a community-based, self-sufficient life. "We can't wait for a Sor Por Kor 401-type land reform to be imposed on us by the Ministry of Agriculture," Prof Saneh said, referring to the scandal-rife attempt at land redistribution in the past.

"What the poor need to do is push for redistribution of land so that it can be a basis to rebuild local economies and cultures. We have to participate in the process of redistribution and have a clear plan of what we want to do with the land." Prof Saneh added that the reform would be meaningless if villagers only used it to continue chemical-intensive monoculture, or to merely sell the land for money. Mr Sulak noted that the villagers affected by the dam now gathered at Mae Moon Man Yuen was a symbol of a strong civil society taking shape

A shift towards strengthening the people's power is already evident on the grassroots level, he said.

 "It is not only here at Pak Moon that people are calling for their rights and a return of their livelihood, but also in Kud Chum, where people agreed to use their own local currency. Even members of the middle class in Kanchanaburi came out to protest the Yadana Gas Pipeline Project, which they believe would have an adverse impact on the environment." It is the ruling elite that fails to realise the failure of mainstream development direction, he said.

Acharn Kasian Techapira from Thammasat University shares Mr Sulak's view. Fishermen at Pak Moon, he noted, knew more than 100 types of fish by heart. That knowledge-their intellectual and social capital- was destroyed together with their natural resource base when the Pak Moon Dam blocked the flow of their river.

"Their knowledge about fish is useless now because there are no fish left to catch," Acharn Kasian said. "The dam robbed them of resources, not only those of the villagers but also those of the country. It brought poverty on villagers who were once independent in a self-sufficient lifestyle."Ironically, he added, rural Thai people became poor because of the government's misguided attempt to develop them.