Almost 27 years ago, communities in Rasi Salai lost the wetlands, central to their lives, to a dam that flooded the surrounding lands. Thousands of families are still waiting to be compensated to this day. An economic valuation could measure the loss and its monetary value and help determine appropriate compensation.

Asia’s third longest river, the Mekong, flows through six different countries in the region, and its tributaries provide water, food, and opportunities to the communities along their banks. Think of it like a major artery in the human body, each community an organ that needs enough blood supply to continue functioning. When the blood stops flowing and organs stop working, the body begins to fail.

One area in northeast Thailand is struggling with this dying body. Rasi Salai, in Sisaket Province, lost access to its biggest and most valuable resource in 1992: the Mun River.

Guest contribution by Courtney Robinson and Holly Lakin

Sunset over the flooded lands, while beautiful, is a tragic reminder of the resources and history that drowned when the Rasi Salai Dam gates closed.

One of the largest tributary of the Mekong, the Mun River, served the villages’ most sustainable supply of food and water with its wetland system until the government came up with an irrigation plan that resulted in the construction of a 17-meter-high dam, cutting off the flow of the river and flooding the surrounding lands. People of Rasi Salai lost access to the resources they required on a daily basis.

Nonetheless, communities in Rasi Salai have not stopped efforts to convince the government that the project was more costly than it was beneficial. Almost 27 years after the project began, locals continue to protest and demand compensation for all that they’ve lost.

One way to measure the loss and its monetary value is through an economic valuation–a process in which locals themselves establish all of the benefits and types of uses that they received from the wetlands before the construction of the dam. For example, rice for agriculture, food and vegetables to eat on a daily basis, cattle to graze the land and create natural fertilizer, water to drink, and herbs to treat sickness.

Since the government never completed an economic valuation before the dam was built, they were never truly aware of the essential benefits that the wetlands provided the communities of Rasi Salai. Completing an economic valuation now would allow them to assess what the villagers lost and review the distribution of compensation.

Life with the river

The villagers of Rasi Salai thought of the Mun River wetlands as nature’s “supermarket.” They could gather vegetables and find fish to eat for dinner. When they fell sick, they could find remedies in the wild herbs, much like a personal, natural pharmacy. Best of all, it came without a price tag. The community shared the land and the land took care of them.

Wetlands around the world are unique ecological systems teeming with life. They are perfect habitats for fish, frogs, birds, and other animals, some of which are only found in wetland environments. The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency, like the villagers, describes wetlands as “biological supermarkets,” full of nutrients that support an incredible amount of biological diversity. Yet wetlands are consistently undervalued and thought of as wastelands.

According to a study from the Biodiversity Finance Initiative in Thailand (BIOFIN), “the total wetland area of Thailand is 22,555,100 rai, equivalent to 7.5% of the total area of the country.” These areas work as flood control, groundwater recharge, and salinity control. In addition, communities have cultivated an unparalleled relationship with the land around them, relying on it and, in return, caring for it. Older generations taught the younger how to live with the land. Local customs are centered around worshipping nature’s spirits that live in and protect the land.

The fight for fair compensation

In the case of Rasi Salai, only a few villagers have been compensated. Since 1996, the government completed four different rounds of compensation. However, the first round was retracted in 1997, one year later, after 20,000 people protested the dam in Bangkok. The other compensation rounds, listed below, distributed a total of 505-million baht to 5,299 families. Yet some of the compensated villagers feel as if they did not receive sufficient funds to start their life without the wetlands. The government focused on the fact that many of the villagers did not have proper land titles to the land they had been depending on for years, and only payed them for the land they had the correct paperwork for, leaving out areas that people used as a shared resource.

After the initial construction of the Rasi Salai Dam, 5,299 families have been compensated with a total amount of 505 million baht, and 4,701 remain uncompensated.

Locals were not informed how compensation was determined. Usually environmental valuation is done before large projects, but it was never done for the Rasi Salai Dam. Such a valuation would have discovered that the wetlands are an invaluable resource to the communities, providing them with critical direct and indirect uses. These uses include anything that the villagers could use directly and for profit, like the rice, firewood, food, and water; as well as anything they received indirectly, like groundwater recharge, a place for grazing livestock, and biodiversity of the wetlands.

The government also overlooked the non-uses of the wetland, often not acknowledged by people because the value is not something that can be monetarily determined or sold on the market for profit. Non-use values do not derive from direct or indirect use, but rather they contribute to the aesthetic of the environment and the socio-cultural norms surrounding it.

In Rasi Salai, these includes recreation in the wetlands and heritage celebrations like boat races and festivals that require natural varieties of rice, many of which disappeared after the dam was built. The villagers have created the Wetland Association, with a learning center near the dam, to preserve the local knowledge of living with the land and using the wetlands as their supermarket. Now that younger generations cannot interact with the wetlands anymore, the learning center is the only resource preventing Rasi Salai’s unique heritage from drowning, too.

Economically valuing the benefits of the wetland that were present prior to the dam would allow villagers to justly calculate the monetary value of what was lost and further allow the government to readjust their process of providing compensation to them. After 27 years of waiting for the government to complete the valuation process, the Rasi Salai villagers could take it upon themselves.

The valuation process begins by establishing what kind of method the locals prefer to use when assessing the benefits of the wetland. In this case, we suggest a partial valuation, which is typically used to include all benefits of a resource that are lost in development projects. Then, the villagers must determine what the direct, indirect, and non-uses of the wetland are. Once that step is completed, villagers must conduct surveys to list any details that have not been measured. They can use the results to show that the dam was more costly than beneficial, and can use the monetary value of their losses to calculate fair compensation.

An opportunity for Thailand

In October and November, we had the opportunity to visit Nam Phueng village in Rasi Salai and talk to several villagers about the impact of the dam on their lives. These impacts caused loss of agriculture, fish species, cattle, access to water, and more. One of the families we stayed with had just recently moved back after spending 20 years working in Bangkok to try and make up for the life and opportunities the Rasi Salai wetlands has once provided them with. Our 53-year-old host told us about the ovarian and colon cancer that formed in her body after the dam was built. She believes the nutrients stopped flowing, both in her body and in the environment where she lived when the dam closed. While possibly unrelated, villagers recall leading healthier lifestyles before the floodwaters destroyed a majority of their food sources and forced their diets to change.

It has been almost three decades since the dam was built, but the Thai government can still redeem itself and set an example for the world in developing a better system of valuation and compensation. There are methods for evaluating the wetlands, and methods for allocating compensation. But the Thai government never completed any Environmental and Social Impact Assessments, steps that should have been taken before the project was even approved. So not such valuation ever occurred. Villagers, who lack sufficient information regarding the process of how to go about valuation are paying for the government’s failures.

Different third parties, like the World Bank, the Center for International Education and Exchange, and the RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, have conducted research about the best ways to go about valuing lost resources and distributing compensation. Implementation of these ideas is all that needs to be done for Thailand to pave the way for just compensation in a world where mis-development is the unfortunate norm.

Courtney Robinson studies Global and International Studies with a focus on human rights at Pennsylvania State University. Holly Lakin studies Biochemistry and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tulsa. This semester, they are studying about development and globalization issues in Khon Kaen.