by Saowanee T. Alexander, Surasom Krisnachuta, Thitarat Panchana and Pinwadee Srisuphan
She pointed to the Mun, a Mekong’s tributary river, and told us that her son, the village head went out to catch fish. He would be back in the evening. She invited us to sit down and wait for him.
It was a very hot afternoon. She handed us some water, and the long story between us and her, who has been through many things in her life for more than 60 years, began. During our conversation, we noticed anxiety in her eyes. Whether or not she tried to hide her exhaustion, it was still visible and suggestive of a hint of hopelessness.
Over 20 years ago, Baan Nong Ong village was expected to be affected by the construction of Hua Na Dam, which is one of the irrigation dams to be built in the Kong-Chi-Mun mega project. This project expected to build 22 dams in order to provide water irrigation in the Northeast–one of the driest and poorest regions of Thailand. Despite this state ambition, local villagers foresaw troubles from the dam, thinking that if Hua Na dam was built, their village would be flooded, and they would need to move elsewhere.
The elderly woman told us that women in Baan Nong Ong have been struggling alongside their husbands to prevent the village from drowning. She and other people who were affected by the dam project united and joined “The Assembly of the Poor”, a grassroots movement against government projects affecting lives and rights of the less privileged. The dam was built nonetheless, but the villagers managed to negotiate with the government to keep the water level from the dam low enough in order to prevent Baan Nong Ong from being flooded. The government also promised that the dam would not adversely affect the villagers in any other way.
However, just recently, community wetlands, which house natural resources for food and non-timber products for villagers, became flooded. Fish, which were once in abundance, decreased dramatically in number. It was suspected that the fish were deprived of areas where they once lay eggs. Some species were not able to travel upstream from the Mekong like they were in the past. Although the government’s promise had relieved villagers’ anxiety, its promise that dam would bring villagers’ wellbeing did not materialize.
Although the government had launched a program to mitigate and reduce dam effects in response to the report on environmental and social impacts study by allowing villagers to participate in water management, it could not compensate the lack of community access to natural resources. The government also tried to launch the restoration project with an aim to heal the destroyed natural resources and to give a token of justice to villagers.
As time goes by, this elderly women, who used to fight and succeed in preventing her village from being flooded, has become more anxious because in her view nothing has changed for the better even after 3 years after the government started implementing the restoration project.
Last year, one government agency went into the village to start enforcing community forest zoning. Their goal was to conserve natural resources for other generations. However, their map was a cause of concern as their map marked some villagers’ properties as part of the conserved forested area. The villagers also fear that in the future, when the zoning procedure is complete, they will not be able to come in the forest to find mushrooms, bamboo shoots, edible insects, and plants used for mat weaving. This is because at this point no decision has been made about whether the government would allow them to utilize their community forest that has been conserved since their grandparents’ generation.
Moreover, one day, she heard the rumbling sound of a big dump truck coming into her village to dig soil in Mun river. She learned from her son that they dig soil to prevent flood, but pour it in the community wetland. Natural resource was drown due to that case. As a head of village, he told the district governor to stop the company who was assigned from the local government to develop local community to do so and also sue for the emerging damage.
Instead of proudly sharing with us that she used to be one of the protestors to prevent flooding in the village, today, she told us with her trembling voice that community natural resources on which villagers used to depend have been taken over by the government development project. Although the development project came in good faith, it has negative, long-lasting effects to women and their families.
It seems that in the beginning of the 21st century, Thailand stopped building large-scale dams, but dam effects on lives, communities, and natural resources from existing dams are still problems waiting to be addressed until today. This woman is just one example of someone who has been struggling with the adverse impacts for a large part of her life with little hope that life would be better.
Like other women in her village, her water-dependent livelihoods have been affected, the woman did not stop. She found ways to earn a living. In this village, during our field observation, we saw struggles for better livelihoods by working harder in dairy products, growing bamboo, rice, and doing various income-generating activities. They have taken on work to help their families survive. They still face difficulties and suffer. Even though they have lost hope and faith in the government development project, they do not stop telling their stories to make sure that their voices are heard.
We came to an end of our conversation but he son had not returned from catching fish. She continued telling her story. We did not think it was because she wanted anybody to help her, but because she wanted to be a voice that challenges the sound of a rumbling machine outside. She just wanted to voice her frustrations. Whether anybody hears it or whether she might be gone soon and could not say anything anymore is another story. But as of today, the woman was here to share what otherwise might not be heard.