Gates Opened, A Struggle Continues: Reporting From the Village of the Poor, Rasi Salai

In Our Network on 11/08/2009 at 12:23 pm


Gathering firewood from the wetlands and making firewood.  Making organic compost, fishing nets, woven baskets, bamboo furniture and hunting traps.  Planting kitchen gardens and eating meals together.  Organizing community meetings and strategizing throughout the day.  Paw Han on the loudspeaker, keeping all informed.  Gathering in the evenings to celebrate, educate and exchange.  Fishing in the Mun river, as it flows through the gates of the Rasi Salai dam.

These are some of the things that the Village of the Poor does everyday.  In many ways, life here is a struggle – living in makeshift tents as a “mob” for human rights and a fair, just society.  Away from their families for months or weeks at a time – the oldest generations representing hundreds of villages in 3 provinces affected by this failed dam.  Yet this summer’s protest is only the most recent in a 16 yearlong fight, and the communities gathered together exude a strength and pride that cannot be defeated.  In the 2,000 people gathered here (of about 17,000  affected), many have yet to be compensated for the flooding of their farms and common wetlands.  Others, in the case of the yet-to-be-opened Hua Na dam, expect the worst with the dam’s possible opening and continue to resist.  Some details on the history of Rasi Salai from CIEE’s “Voices From the Margin” report on International Rivers:

“The project was approved in 1989 as an irrigation weir to solve problems of water scarcity in the arid Isaan.  In 1992, construction commenced on the anticipated 4.5-meter-tall, Bt140 million (baht) dam under management of the Department of Energy Development and Promotion (DEDP). An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was not completed prior to construction, and villagers were not involved in the planning or management of the dam. Furthermore, the region was never surveyed for the irrigation and water management needs of the project’s neighboring communities.

Despite lacking an EIA, the Thai government pushed forward with construction. What resulted in 1993 was a nine-meter tall concrete dam with seven sluice gates capable of opening and closing to accommodate varying levels of water. At Bt870 million baht, construction of the Rasi Salai Dam cost nearly six times as much as projected. The reservoir’s total surface area is nearly double the projected estimate, yet very few villages have actually received irrigation benefits from the dam.

Not only has the dam failed to meet its intended purpose, it has also negatively impacted the ecology of the Mun River.  When the gates of the Rasi Salai Dam are closed, fish resources in the river are depleted, and wetland areas are flooded and destroyed. Villagers in this area rely almost entirely on the wetlands for natural resources and for their livelihood and are thus impacted by the closed gates.”

Please visit International Rivers to see the rest of the CIEE report, which is a valuable resource on human rights violations as a result of the dam’s impacts.  Since the report’s last publication, the dam gates have been re-opened and a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) has been completed.  The SIA is currently under review by the impacted communities.  Compensation, however, continues to be a highly contentious issue.  The current occupation centers around disagreement between affected communities and the government about distribution and use of 5 rai land parcels.  Details of current negotiations are a little bit unclear, but the current occupation is being used to press for fair compensation of affected communities.  The Abhisit government seems to be listening, and the process is slowly moving forward.

Over the past weekend, students and young activists from around Esan gathered with the Assembly of the Poor to support the community and learn more about the villagers’ struggle.  Along with the three interns from Surin Rajabhat University working with the villagers, San, a young activist-leader from the Assembly of the Poor, members of the Daudin group at Khon Kaen University, People’s Farmhouse Organization from Mahasarakam University, high school students from Kalasin and myself from the AAN, gathered for three days to exchange and work together with villagers.


On Saturday, the student-activist group helped unload sand to improve the floor of the main community hall and unloaded hundreds of tree seedlings to be planted on mother’s day.  For the afternoon, we spent time talking to villagers, learning their stories and sharing our own experiences.  I sat in on the day’s “Big Chef” Meeting – a committee of community leaders that discusses current issues and plans next steps.  Saturday’s discussion focused on the SIA report and research carried out by Chulalongkorn University.  The committee is planning to meet with government leaders to discuss the report’s findings in the near future, though setting a meeting up is dependent on politics – the AOP is able to communicate with government higher-ups because of Ajaan Chaiyaporn, who was present at the meeting during his visit.  His commitment as an advocate and a former adviser to the AOP is essential.

Saturday evening began with a seminar presented by P’ Pope from the Law Center at Khon Kaen University.  He related the Rasi Salai situation to the irrigation channels dug in Lampaniang – both issues are connected via industry and it’s associated exploitation of resources.  Central to the seminar was questioning the notion of public benefit – dams and irrigation channels may be designed for the greater public benefit, but they often create serious problems for villagers in surrounding areas.  This failure on the part of the government allowed communities in Lampaniang to sure for losses.  P’ Pope concluded by suggesting the possibility of pursuing a suit similar to Lampaniang if the current negotiation’s fail.  An engaging discussion followed, looking into the details of such a process and where opportunities may lie for Rasi Salai.


Saturday night also involved a number of student performances and an NGO-villager jam that turned into Mor Lam dancing and singing.  It was a great time for all involved.  I think some villagers were impressed with this farang’s Mor Lam dancing skills as well!  After the fun was over, we sat down for an in-depth discussion with Mae Paa – a long-time leader in the Rasi Salai people’s struggle.  She provided much insight into the current struggle and vowed that the necessary occupation would continue until a fair settlement was reached.

Sunday involved more tree seedlings and some more time for our youth network to sit down and catch up.  As many of us had last gathered together in Ubon last December, we got each other caught up on activities in various areas and planned out ways to continue working together over the next year.  Student clubs and youth activists have reach the point of serious interest to work together, but still lack details on the qualifiers for working together or potential issues in connecting people and groups.  P’ Jip Joy from the People’s Farmhouse Organization in Mahasarakam is currently developing the concept for a “Political Ecology” Group that will effectively be a new space for activists and students in the Mahasarakam University environment to come together and work for social and environmental change.  With some budget, this group could be a useful way to facilitate future collaboration between student-activists.

I stepped out of the youth discussion to join with the Tam Mun Agriculture Project’s meeting.  The Project is a member of the AAN, with farmers in Rasi Salai, Pon Sai district in Roi Et province and Rattanburi in Surin province.  The program has been built around developing ways for farmers affected by the Rasi Salai dam to develop alternative agriculture strategies.  I paid a visit to P’ Put and Paw Ngiem’s fields with a representative from Slow Food Italy in January.  P’ Put, a member of the Tam Mun Project and leader in the AOP’s protest, attended Slow Food’s Terra Madre last October with members of our network throughout Thailand.

As Paw Ngiem stressed at lunch during our meeting – “it’s about natural agriculture” – the group is focusing on reforestation of the wetlands with native species and in turn, making indigenous species and important part of their agricultural practice.  The project current has 68 members, with most farmers practicing natural techniques and preserving indigenous plants – 2,197 seedlings have successfully survived the most recent planting.  The Tam Mun project is also part of the Food Security Network we are developing with ThaiHealth – wetland resource restoration is an important way of building community food security in the Rasi Salai region.

The trees to be planted around the dam site were germinated by the Tam Mun Agriculture Project.  And despite a relatively successful germination rate, some reforms will have to be made for the next season’s planting, in order to improve the process and improve group coordination.  The Tam Mun Project is also in the process of developing a “Pilot Project”-type program for group members using funds from the Rasi Salai compensation package.  The last part of the meeting focused on starting a Rasi Salai Green Market, and 20 group members will be visiting the Surin Green Market on next Saturday, the 15th of August.  The group will begin field inspections next month and hope to open by the New Year.  The market will have to start small, but if members are committed, it could prove to be a success like the markets in Surin, Mahasarakam, Ubon and Yasothon provinces.

Sunday evening featured a bi-weekly news segment prepared by the AOP News Team and a viewing of the Pandin Thai program, which focused on the struggle of a woman in Ubon province against the 27 year flooding of her land.  Both programs were certainly encouraging for the villagers, as they continue their occupation into its third month.  By the time I left on Monday morning, I felt exhausted from the communities’ intensity and perseverance.  Their kind of protest requires tremendous commitment and strength.  Yet at the same time, I felt inspired and motivated to continue working for social change with other student-activists.  We will continue to connect our activities and learn together with villagers.  The AAN, as a member of the Assembly of the Poor, supports their struggle and will continue to provide another voice for their movement.


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