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Clever lies destroyed our lives

Why have the traditionally submissive peasants taken to the streets? Why do they think the Chuan administration's resolutions cannot address their plight? In a series starting today, the Bangkok Post presents the views of grassroots leaders, who explain why they must struggle on.

Sanitsuda Ekachai, Bangkok Post, Aug 6, 2000

When Buppa Kongtham first heard of the Rasi Salai dam project, the mother of three paid little attention.The dam is in Si Sa Ket province and Granny Buppa did not think it would affect her home village in Don Samran, Roi Et."The officials said it was going to be only a small dyke to retain some water for farm use during the dry season," said the farmer-turned-grassroots leader. "That is why we thought nothing of it."They knew they were cheated when the huge dam was completed and water flooded farmland in several villages along the Moon river outside Si Sa Ket.By law, big dams must have environmental and social impact studies. Affected villagers must also receive compensation.By presenting Rasi Salai as a small dyke, the dam builder-the Department of Energy Development and Promotion, Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment-had cleverly sought to avoid its responsibilities.But not for long.The villagers soon started their protest against what they call state lies and Ms Buppa became one of the Rasi Salai leaders.Ms Buppa was leader of her village women's self-help group focusing on natural-dyed silk as a community business."That's where my heart is. But when our lands and our natural habitat, the main sources of our livelihood, are stolen I have to tackle the crisis first."The dam destroyed their way of life."We had natural groves along the Moon river called Pah Bung Pah Taam. They were the villagers' free source of food, firewood, herbal medicines and what not. Now they are all gone."Farmers along the river bank had also developed farming methods adapted to the ebb and flow of the river and the area's topography.Na Saeng, for example, grew rice in swampy areas, using grains that are resistant to short-time flooding. Na Prang was for farmland along the river banks, and Khao Rai was for dry and high areas.With the Rasi Salai dam's extensive flooding, the farmers not only lost their farmland but also their ancestors' knowledge of farming methods in harmony with the river's ecology.Though the Rasi Salai movement calls for both environmental impact studies and compensation, media attention focused only on the latter.Due to the authorities' lack of land use studies of the affected areas, the compensation wrangle was fraught with confusion right from the start."The areas along the bank were both for common and individual use," explained Mrs Buppa."Rice farming, for example, is for individual use. Who owns which plot is respected and sanctioned by the community. But once the rice harvest is over, the same area becomes common grazing ground for cattle."The state, however, agreed to make compensation only to individual rice growers, said Ms Buppa, which led to painful divisiveness among the villagers."I also don't understand why the authorities used different maps with different groups of villagers," she said. "This led to overlapping land indicators and accusations of cheating. It's probably a tactic to discredit us," she added with a sigh.To solve the confusion, the Rasi Salai movement called for the opening of the water gates so that the flooding would disappear and the process to prove land use and ownership could start properly, as well as the environmental and social impact studies.And when farmland near the dam became unusable due to soil salination, the villagers believed all the more that they were in the right. Large reservoirs elsewhere in Isan have caused similar problems.To make their point, they set up a protest village at the dam and refused to leave the area despite the rising water level.Arthit Ourairat, the minister of science, agreed to open the water gates early last month.But the struggle is far from over. Other long-term recommendations by the Banthon committee, a neutral body set up by the government, are still being ignored.That means Ms Buppa cannot return home to her grandchildren yet.

"Saving the environment is the only way to help my grandchildren in the long run," she said. "That's what I'm doing for them now."


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