"One quality of being a leader is that you have to have followers." P’ Suvit (NGO in Isaan)
Sacrificing for the Nation: The Story of Development in Isaan
The dirt roads and clapboard houses that one passes on the way into Na Nong Bong do not give a visitor cause to think that this village in Northeastern Thailand is the home to a massive development project. It is not until a villager points out the open skyline that used to have a mountain in it that the signs of a mine become evident. The only visible sign of the mine seems to be a cloud of dirt that keeps puffing up where a mountain used to stand. Na Nong Bong seems to be experiencing life as normal for an Isaan village.
Yet, villagers are keen to point out the differences that have taken hold in their community over the past ten years. The changes began in 2003 when Tungkum Limited was granted a license to explore their area for potential gold below the ground. By 2006 large swatches of land had been sold to the company and gold was being mined through a mountaintop removal method. The company is extracting this natural resource and the revenues are benefitting additional large-scale development projects across the country; however, the villagers in Na Nong Bong have not seen any of the benefits of this mine and instead they have seen their way of life destroyed.
The National Economic and Social Development Plan of Thailand outlines the Thai government’s overarching plan for the development of Thailand and specifically Isaan. This plan includes the development of economies of scale that will generate revenue for the state. According to the Minerals Act (1967), “For the benefit of the national economy, the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, shall have the power to establish any area…which is known to have a mineral deposit of high economic value, to be a mineral area for the purpose of issuing a mining license.” Mines generate immediate financial pay offs for the country because the revenue from the sale of the land goes straight to the state.
Although these projects are meant to develop the country they leave the local populations worse off. Although the minerals below the land legally belong to the state the crops above the land sustain the way of life of the local population. When extractive methods were employed in Na Nong Bong, specifically mountain top removal mining, it deprived villagers of their food source. Furthermore, the mined area displaces farmers from their land. This left many villagers without a job; many of these villagers have no access to other jobs and many lack the skill set to find employment elsewhere. The traditional way of life in Na Nong Bong has been rendered impossible by the development of this mine.
Residents of Na Nong Bong have exclusively negative stories to tell about the gold mine that has changed their way of life; however, the profitability of large-scale development projects, such as mines has brought Thailand to a point at which it is defined by the United Nations as, “a middle-income country with strong growth.” The country as a whole continues to benefit from mines because the government makes 3% of the royalties from the extracted minerals. This payment scale continuously boosts the gross domestic product of the country over the course of the mine’s existence.
The continual flow of income only lasts as long as the mine can remain open and minerals are a finite resource. The reliance on mines, damage done to local communities, and the environment impact from mines seems to contradict Thailand’s stated development goal of transforming the country into a, "developed, first-world nation, capable of sustaining long-term quality growth and lasting prosperity." A common effect of mining is disruption of local water sources. If mountain top removal mining is employed on a mountain that has a river running down it the flow of the river will be altered and the river will dry up. Another common outcome of mining is chemical pollution of water on the mountain and in surrounding areas. Polluted water frequently gives villagers rashes and leaves the water unpotable. If the same water is used to feed the crops that the villagers rely on it is likely that the crops will be unsafe to eat.
This is the paradox of large-scale development schemes: the nation develops while the local populations that house these development projects suffer.
The financial gain from the mines largely benefits the central government and a small portion of that money makes its way back to Isaan through the trickle down effect. These payments often take the form of reparations for the damages done by the mines. Na Nong Bong requires water to be trucked in because their water source has been polluted. Other villages require job training because they can no longer farm. Ultimately, the Na Nong Bong villagers are adamant that they were better off before the mines came in and “developed” the area.
Beyond the physical effects that the mine has had on the Na Nong Bong community the larger effect is the distrust of the government and of development broadly speaking that it has sown in the hearts and minds of villagers. As Pauh Samai, the head of the People Who Love their Hometown Network in Na Nong Bong, said “The development of Isaan has only meant the destruction of our hometown, we will oppose any further development in our area.” This view was voiced not only in Na Nong Bong but in other villages across the Northeast. The preference given to the development of the country is leaving villagers feeling oppressed, voiceless, and skeptical of the government.
The government enables this process to continue through giving preference to large-scale projects instead of small, localized projects. Instead of focusing on creating jobs for villagers, so that they do not have to leave the villages and move to the overcrowded cities looking for work, the government gives tax breaks to multinational corporations to come in and mine the land. The discontent of villagers is likely a regrettable inconvenience to the government but a small price to pay in comparison to the large checks written by mining companies to the government on a monthly basis.
As it stands, the developmental trajectory of Thailand seems to be set. The government would have to radically alter its view of development to focus on local development over national development and that might mean sacrificing national economic gains. Instead, the government will continue to expect Na Nong Bong and other communities to sacrifice their careers and way of life for the benefit of the developing nation.
Koh Pha Ngan: Full Moon Party, Loi Krathong
There is too much to say about my trip to Koh Pha Ngan to fit it in one blog post. Our trip began with a sprint from our bus, which arrived at 7:00am, to our flight which departed at 7:20am. Luckily, we made our flight, bus, and boat and arrived on Koh Pha Ngan to take in the beauty of the islands.
The Thai lantern holiday of Loi Krathong fell over our trip to Koh Pha Ngan and we used our Thai to convince the staff at our resort to teach us how to make flower offerings. We had a great time floating our offerings out to sea and then at night we lit lanterns and sent them up into the sky. The holiday is beautiful.
The Full Moon Party was an experience of an entirely different sort. There were so many people that it was impossible to guess how many were there but a newspaper post the next day estimated that about 20,000 people were on Haad Rin Beach the night of the full moon. There was lots of music, dancing, and far too much fire limbo to be considered safe. We had an awesome time and luckily we all came out of the night unscathed. There were travelers from around the world and the most well represented countries seemed to be the UK, Holland, and Australia. We only saw two other Americans the entire night and we are hoping that this is because there aren’t any holidays that coincided with that particular party. However, I fear that this just showed a general lack of interest in traveling to SE Asia even if it is for one of the best parties in the world.
In addition to being beautiful and being home to the largest beach party in the world, Koh Pha Ngan has incredible food. We talked to multiple restaurant owners who came to the island years ago for a short stay and fell in love with the area and decided to stay.
Despite the large number of foreigners who were on the island for the party there was still a distinct local culture. We had to walk through a mooban (village) to get to the main street on our side of the island. Just a five minute walk up the road from our resort we passed a Kuai (buffalo) grazing on some grass on the side of the road and one night there was a market monopolizing the road.
Our trip to Koh Pha Ngan could not have been better and I am so glad that I got to see the beautiful south of Thailand.
Organic Agriculture and International Trade
Thailand is popularly known as the land of smiles, beautiful beaches, communal eating, and Theravada Buddhism. Postcards and movies propagate this image of a uniquely Thai culture. However, what postcards do not feature are the global incursions into this culture that become an important part of the daily experiences a person living in an urban area in Thailand will become accustomed to, such as lack of sidewalks, motorcycle transportation, plastic bag usage, and 7-11 shopping. After two months in Thailand I know that when I look back at Thailand these are the things that will stand out to me as integral components of Thai culture. In many ways, Thai culture seems to have been coopted by the global push for rapid development, which has left the country dependent on outside forces to determine internal order. Farmers in Thailand have quickly noticed the deleterious effects of this new culture of dependency. Farmers are beginning to push back and their actions might help to secure Thailand against more than just market volatility, they will protect their culture from being lost amidst an influx of international forces.
It is challenging to define what it means to be Thai because of the incredible internal diversity of the country. Historically, Siam reached into areas that included peoples of diverse backgrounds; ever since Thailand was given borders the people of Thailand have considered themselves Thai, despite ethnically being Lao, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Burmese, Chinese, and Malaysian. The forces that have kept these people together and culturally connected include devotion to the Monarchy, belief in Theravada Buddhism, and an agrarian way of life that gave rise to self-sufficient communities.
Pressure to develop the country has led to sweeping changes in the composition of Thailand’s workforce and economy and these changes are affecting those binding forces that define Thai culture. Most notably there has been widespread movement of adults to Bangkok and other urban centers to find work while their children are left in villages to be raised by their grandparents. As Thais leave the farm for the city the population is becoming increasingly dependent on foreign markets for their food supply. This has radically changed Thai culture.
Thais in both urban and rural areas are no longer self-sufficient. Nearly every individual must go to stores and markets to shop for their food on a daily basis. These stores can be far away from a village or apartment building, rendering walking too slow. Most Thai cities that I have seen have no sidewalks and instead every individual owns a motorcycle in order to drive to buy their food. It is not an exaggeration to say that it would be hard to drive five minutes without coming across a 7-11, where many Thais shop multiple times per day.
This change in culture and dependency on foreign goods is most apparent in rural areas. Historically, Thai communities planted multiple varieties of rice, vegetables, and fruit. However, the Thai government embraced the promises of the Green Revolution and aided farmers in the switch from traditional farming practices to widespread monocropping and chemical dependence.
Farmers in Thailand have seen unprecedented yields of rice; however, increased yield has come at the price of loosing over 99% of rice variety in the country. Financially, farmers are producing more rice but they are experiencing more debt than ever in Thai history because of the high cost of purchasing the chemicals that their crops are now dependent on. In addition to the high cost of farming, individual farmers have lost the ability to provide for themselves because monocropping leaves the farmers with only one product and they most go elsewhere to buy additional food to sustain themselves.
This negative cycle, in addition to the major health problems caused by chemical farming, has forced many families apart because farming is no longer seen as an economically viable career. Thai farmers have seen their way of life and culture threatened by the advances of international markets into daily life in Thailand. In response to this farmers are choosing to turn in their chemicals and are returning to traditional, organic farming practices. Many of the farmers with whom I have spoken are very happy with some of the small changes that development has brought to their communities but at the same time they have seen what a complete switch to international dependence can do to their country and they are not willing to accept this.
The organic movement in Thailand is an effort to reclaim the culture of a country that is undergoing major changes politically, economically, and socially. As a newly industrialized country Thailand has opened itself to the caprices of the global markets; however, the country’s agrarian base has sustained the country for centuries and more recently has saved it from economic demise, during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, perhaps the agrarian base will be the force needed to reclaim part of Thailand’s traditional culture and integrate it into the modern psyche.