Guest contribution by Alana Brandt

RASI SALAI DISTRICT, SI SA KET – Over 1,000 people attended the annual rice ceremony in Rasi Salai District in Si Sa Ket Province last weekend. The event, rooted in a long history of Isaan agricultural traditions, serves as an important gathering for movements against development projects in the region.

“Normally after the harvesting, people would bring in all the new rice to donate and pay respect to mother earth,” says Panya Kumlarp, who helped organize the event.

Since the construction of the Rasi Salai Dam in 1994, agricultural ceremonies have taken on a new role in the difficult struggle for local resource management.

Community organizers discuss the management of the dam at the rice ceremony. Photo credit: Stella Wang

In 1994, the government constructed a dam in the region. Presented as an aid to irrigation, the project resulted in the mass migration and the flooding of over 100 rai (about 39.5 acres) of farmland. It has altered not only the lives of it1s former inhabitants, but also damaged the delicate ecology of the wetland area.

Since then, villagers have mobilized to protest the dam and its management. The ceremony has become a way to raise funds for the movement, says Mr. Panya.

Panya is part of a team of villagers attempting to negotiate with the government for local management of irrigation and compensation payments.

“This ceremony is like a network for the movement. It involves around 100 villages who are being affected by this dam,” says Mr. Panya. “In a way, it creates a marriage to bring the hearts of the people together.”

The construction of the Rasi Salai Dam in 1994 displaced thousands of people and flooded farmland in Si Sa Ket, Surin, and Roi Et Provinces. Photo credit: Stella Wang

Even with the collective opposition of so many people, getting government recognition has been a frustrating and arduous battle. This stems in part from a profound lack of understanding for the local way of life, says Ubon Yoowah, longtime activist and co-founder of the Alternative Agriculture Network.

“The main problem with water management in Thailand is that, on the policy level, they never think about how water management connects to other kinds of knowledge or the occupation of people in the area,” says Mr. Ubon. “If they say that this water could be used for other kind of crops to be grown, where are the markets for these crops?”

In order to raise awareness, Ubon and a team of NGO’s have worked to elevate recognition of wetlands and their unique agricultural and environmental qualities. Researching health benefits from indigenous types of rice and working with nearby universities to identify species native to the region are both part of the push to gain legitimacy and representation.

“This is biggest wetland in Isaan so we chose to start here [in 1993] in order to create an effect on other kinds of projects that were being initiated in Isaan,” says Mr. Ubon. “At that time Thailand didn’t even know what wetlands are. People called these areas degraded forests. Over these 20 years we were able to get the wetland to be recognized by academics.”

Having faced devastation as a result of an potash mine in his home community in Udon Thani Province, Panya Kumlarp understands the need for unified organizing to get the government’s attention. Photo credit: Kayla Hui

Despite these efforts, the battle for recognition has been excruciatingly slow. It is difficult to remain positive in the face of widespread disempowerment, says Mr. Ubon.

“People are more stressed. They’re confused and don’t know what to do in life,” notes Mr. Ubon.

Nevertheless, events such as the rice festival foster a sense of hope, not only through connection with the rituals of the past, but also as a means for looking to the future. Villagers came together to prove that their hijacked way of life is still very much a part of them, and that this battle will not be forgotten.

“In many places they only have the religious ceremony, but here we use ceremonies to create power to negotiate with the government. The number of people we have today show that we still have the power to fight,” says Mr. Panya.

Although the representative of the Ministry of Agriculture did not make their scheduled appearance at the festival, they did call in and agreed to a meeting for negotiation in the Bangkok early next month. And with the money raised from the festival, Panya says they can afford to take everyone along.

Local women sit next to a display of fish native to the region, many of which have become endangered due to the dam. Photo credit: Stella Wang

Alana Brandt studies Sustainability at the University of Texas at Austin. Stella Wang studies International Students at Macalester College. They are studying about development and globalization issues in Khon Kaen this semester.

Kayla Hui studies Women’s Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is studying about community public health in Khon Kaen this semester.