Natural Resources, Development and Democracy

From the Beginning

Located in the capital city of Thailand, but my house looked pretty much like bamboo-hut in rural area. It was many years that I grew up in the house with no tap water and no electricity. Everyday my mother, my sister and I had to walk for half kilometer to the river bank and bring back home some water for cooking and cleaning. It was joyful time, I remember, seeing all activities altogether along the river made me feel like we were not lonely in the world, we had friends.

When rainy season came, we did not need to go to the river bank. My father had ways to save water from the sky. Unlike water from the river, we did not have to boil rain water before we drank. I remember how much I liked drinking that ‘sky water’, it tasted really sweet, real sweet.

Just before I started going to middle school, tap water and electricity came to my house. As a teenager, I enjoyed having the first television and a new toilet very much; I went to the river bank no more. However, sometimes the tap water and electricity in our house went off. I could feel how frustrated my father was when seeing that just across the street there were bigger houses with never ran out of water and electricity. And I did not understand why.

I Met Them on the Street in Bangkok

My first understand came to me when I was in the first year of undergraduate school. I met them on the street in Bangkok, in front of the government’s house which I had to pass by every day.

The street was blocked by the protesters calling themselves ‘Assembly of the Poor’. I got off the bus, walked through the crowd seeing that there were mostly old people on the protest site. An old lady saw question in my eyes, she came to me saying that all her children had gone to work in the big cities as there was no job anymore in her hometown. And the conversation continued.

It was “Pak Moon Dam” that brought her far away from home in the Northeastern to the capital city. Without agreement from local people, the dam was built in her hometown in order to produce electricity (which it is not now functioning as it was claimed). Ever since the dam came to the Moon River, all fishes had gone, the fishery was dead, her land had been under the flood for months every year. “I am not asking the government to destroy the dam, I just want someone to open the gates of the dame just to let the fishes come back to the river when the fishery season comes” said the old lady “we need food to survive”.

I also learned that Pak Moon Dam was one in many dams that caused people suffering. Moreover, I was so sure that electricity in my house travelled from one of these dams. And I came to understand that to keep the city bright, some people’s lives had to be sacrificed for us.

Water, Farm and Market

There were much more people, much more than I had imagined, suffering from the error development. I had learned more on that reality as I grew up.

One year after I knew Pak Moon Dam, I got to know the biggest dam in my country. Bhumipol Dam was built on the Ping River in Tak province, known as the most successful investment in the century. Unfortunately, it had very little water at the time. From what I heard, since the dam was built, many farmers had been told to grow rice according to the water schedule from the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. At that moment they were told not to grow rice even though it was their usual time to do so.

I was there to meet some farmers living in upper part of the dam. They still survived from the rice in their stock, but it would not be longer. Sooner they would have to start finding loan by exchanging their lands with it. And no, they had no plan for demonstration in Bangkok, because the name of the dam is given after the name of their beloved king.

At the same time, in the lower part of the dam, I acknowledged that my grandparents were still able to work in their farm with water from the Bhumipol Dam. However, they did not grow rice like they did year before, they said because of the price of rice in the market was too law. Instead they grew some plants that needed and sold better in the market.

Equally sad, my grandparents did not have more money than those farmers in the upstream. Once they sold the product in the market they had to spend that income to buy rice to eat, furthermore, they had to pay back very expensive loan they got for buying chemical fertilizer. After all, they had nothing left and started talking about selling the land as well. It became an ugly circle.

I came to think that if my grandparents grew the rice, at least they could have kept it for the household all year. Why did they let the market tell them what to grow? Should people think about making food before making money?

And I was so sure that the Thai society and the government agencies, namely the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, made a big mistake by throwing the farm into the market. Since that moment, I strongly believe that, water and agriculture should be completely out of the market.

From Mountain to Ocean

I have met them more and more, the poor people who suffer from all kinds of development projects in the name of national development.

My profession took me round the country where I could see from mountain to ocean that people were fighting for the right to access natural resources in order to bring back their livelihoods.

Among those are people from the communities around Songkhla Lake, the largest natural lake in the country, located on the Malay Peninsula in the Southern Thailand. The lake has known to be home of millions people as it has produced human basic needs, maintained livelihoods and supported southern regional economy for long time

I was there years ago when the issue of decadence was brought up to the Thai public as it was affecting not only people’s lives but also so-called tourism. I was impressed to see the diverse communities around Songkhla Lake; the forest community, the farming community, the fishery community. Before development projects came to the lake, these different communities used to co-exist peacefully. Without money, they all survived with the traditional trade by exchanging forest products, rice, fishes to each other. It became the culture of ‘forest-field-fishery’ for hundreds years. Sadly, after the dam, the modern agriculture, the fishery industry, and the market came, things had changed and then came the dispute over the control of resources while those resources were dramatically decreasing both in quality and quantity.

I was neither an anti-development, nor anti-capitalism. On one hand I thought that development in capitalism way became very cruel to human being, especially to those who had less or no power. On the other hand, I thought that the idea of bringing all back to community was too romanticized. But I had no knowledge to think of anything. The only thing I could think of, as media, was writing, telling the Thai public that what kind of the society we were living in. I was hoping that once we acknowledge and aware of causes and consequences, we would be able to do something together.

But I did not know what we could do. Thus when some of my readers asked me what we should do, I had no answer for them.

I Do Not Have An Answer, But They May…

It was years after that I thought I may saw a possible answer. Three years ago in a community in the Southern Thailand, my office went there to run a citizen media workshop for local people. The aim was to give them some tools hoping that they would be able to raise their voices to the public, as they were fighting with a development project that was about to be implemented in the area.

The conflict was more complicated than I had thought. The community did not fight with the investors and the state only, but also among themselves. Some resident wanted the project to come as they hoped it would create more jobs for local people. Some resident did not want the project as they believed that the project would destroy the ocean which would then result in the loss of fishery and their livelihood. The community was divided and became falling apart. Small arms were used and conflict turned violent.

In the workshop there were two sides of people learning how to shoot the video and make a story. But nobody could manage them to produce any story as they could not come to agreement. However, after long process of dialogue, they came together with one story at the end. It was not a story targeting the audience outside saying that how good or how bad the development project was, but a story for talking among themselves. It was a simply beautiful story about a man who woke up every morning in the community, walked a few steps to the beach and caught mackerel fishes by naked hands as the sun was rising.

To me it was just a lovely story, but for them the message was very powerful. It brought back what the community shared as common value. Since then, they started to come back to talk again. Even though right now the conflict is still ongoing, but there is no report on using violence in the area anymore.

Looking around, these days, I can see many disputes over natural resources that turned to violent conflict. I still do not have an answer how we can get out of it, but maybe they do. I mean, they, who were born, have lived and now are fighting for their lives…

Where Do We Go from Here?

Today I am learning that environmental conflicts or natural resource conflicts are extremely complicated and involve so many parties. As globalization has brought about great changes everywhere, community is no longer standing alone. People, community, national, global are all inter-connected. I have realized that we can no longer just say no to development; we must find the way to live with it. Meanwhile, global problem like nature disaster, environmental change are coming to knock on our door and there is no way we can escape without our heads and hearts together. What are we going to do when all sources seem to be subjected to great conflict?

We have talked about sustainability. What does sustainable development or sustainable management look like? I have heard about it but never really seen the face. However, one thing I can see is that sustainable development has to be in all sectors’ hands, not only in one hand. It is too easy just to blame on government, capitalist, or market. People are no longer that passive to leave their lives in those hands. I believe that democracy could be used as road, as process. I mean, the kind of participatory democracy that never leaves the poor (of power) behind.

Where do we go from here? How do I see possible collaboration, management and sustainability? As my little heart can think of is that before we move forward, we have to come together as a whole. Since we never asked ourselves and never come to agree on how we would like our society to be, agricultural – industrial – utopia commune or whatever. Should we start dialogue on it? And of course, I am talking about dialogue as a whole society, in all level, not only among the super power. We do need democracy now.