Guest contribution by Lindsay Mack

Pradit Koson can still see the wetlands of Rasi Salai with his mind’s eye. Now submerged beneath the placid waters of the Rasi Salai dam reservoir, the wetlands, once teeming with wildlife, used to provide food and cultural sustenance for his community.

The flooding of the Rasi Salai wetlands in Sisaket Province has forever changed Pradit’s way of life. Constructed in 1992 as part of a massive regional irrigation and hydro-power scheme hatched by the Thai government with support from the World Bank, this hulking structure is a living monument to developmental hubris. While it powers and irrigates other parts of the Northeast, the dam has brought major ecological and social disruption for the local people since the dam began operations in 1994.

“The dam has created separation between people. This is a direct consequence of the dam’s construction,” said Pradit, a community activist and leader in the Wetland Association.

Prior to the dam, what brought Rasi Salai communities together was their connection to the  wetlands through traditional ceremonies and activities. Current efforts focus on uniting the quarreling groups of Rasi Salai to present a strong and unified front to pressure the government in restoring local communities’ right to their culture.

A Rasi Salai native who grew up fishing the wetlands’ shallow waters, Prapan Phachu is now deputy chairman on the Isaan Freshwater Fisheries Association and has witnessed the impact of the dam on local ecology first hand. Photo by Mike Eckel.

The dam’s impact on people’s rights

The dam stands around 17 meters high and features seven flood gates. With the gates closed, water levels rise, causing immense environmental, social, and cultural impacts.

In the past, people could walk easily across the river and through the wetlands to their neighbors and friends. This ecospace served as a gathering place for farmers, fishermen, and local villagers. It was a the bridge between communities.

Before the dam, approximately 150 communities with unique culture and dialects in the Rasi Salai area all shared twelve monthly traditional activities collectively called heet sip song.

The cornerstone of connection for these diverse communities, many of the monthly activities, such as hom laan in the beginning of the year and boon khao sa later in the year, involve the use of wetland-grown sticky rice varieties to bring people together to honor each other and those who have passed on.

Ceremonies such as boon liang ban and dang phu din focus on honoring the spirits of the villages, forests, and wetlands. People used to come together to mark the passing months with celebration.

The flooding of over 100,000 rai of land physically interfered with people’s right to culture by separating them from cultural resources and each other. This once connective and communal culture of all the villages in the Rasi Salai area has been disrupted.

Obligation to respect cultural rights

According to Article 15.1 (a) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), States recognize the right of everyone to take part in cultural life. When the dam gates closed, it caused a ripple of complex issues that infringed on the communities’ right to culture.

States have obligations “to respect, protect, and fulfil the right for their people to participate in cultural life.” The government has tragically failed to uphold their specific legal obligations outlined under Article 15.1 (a) General Comment 21 by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The obligation to respect cultural rights requires that the government not interfere, directly or indirectly, with the people’s right to take part in cultural life. The government has both directly and indirectly affected this right as a result of the physical and social impacts of the dam project.

Thailand became signatory to the ICESCR in 1999.

Though the structure was originally approved in 1989 as a dike to simply control the flow of the Mun river with a budget of 141 million baht, by the time construction was completed in 1993 it had morphed into a fully fledged dam costing 872 million baht.

Causing social divide

Social divisions erupted between local communities, first on the dam itself, and later on the conditions of compensation. These divisions have severed the deep connection the communities once shared through their cultural ceremonies and activities.

When the dam was built, community members were quickly divided; some villagers supported the project while other strongly opposed it. Those who were initially against the dam began fighting for compensation from the government. Then pro-dam individuals, recognizing the dire effects on their livelihoods, also felt they deserved compensation for lost land.

Conflicts between locals on who should receive compensation was further exacerbated when the land ownership by title versus by birthright came into play. Some people felt those with land titles were the only ones entitled to compensation. Additionally, villagers have made claims for compensation due to loss of the continuous resources and occupations the land would have provided.

All these factors have created strife between local people on what compensation to the villagers should look like.  This social division caused by the dam’s installation is an indirect interference on the part of the government to respect cultural rights.

Close-knit communities and families were split; entire ways of life separated. Pradit told the tragic story of how a son and father fought physically and verbally because one supported the construction of the dam while the other stood in opposition. He spoke of once friendly neighbors who had shared so many warm conversations suddenly grew quiet and cold.

The binding ceremonies of heet sip song grew smaller and smaller as fewer people attended. People no longer possessed the enjoyment of the right to take part in cultural life.

Holding it together

Pradit is concerned the cultural practices of Rasi Salai are at risk of disappearing forever.  Everyone should have the ability to contribute to cultural life, meaning the right to create “spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional expressions in the community, ” he argued. This ability for people to contribute to cultural life is fading. Community leaders like Pradit are fighting for the right to their culture.

Organizations such as the Wetland Association act as a mediator bringing people together to realize that they all have a common challenge and goal. “We created this association because we are concerned,” say Pradit, “concerned about our culture, our livelihood, and our environment.”

The Wetland Association, founded in 2010 by local villagers in the Rasi Salai chapter of the Assembly of the Poor, attempts to rebuild the cultural bridge despite the physical and social divisions over the dam and flooded wetlands.

The association’s Learning Center in Rasi Salai showcases local traditions, wisdom, and culture, while educating people on wetland ecosystems. The Wetland Association has been hosting traditional ceremonies such as hom laan in an attempt to gather people from the communities, the government, and others from around the country who face similar issues.

The tranquility of the Rasi Salai dam belies the sheer scale of the ecological destruction wrought upon this area. What was once the largest wetland forest in the entire Mekong basin now lies still at the bottom of the reservoir, its natural habitats and abundant wildlife removed in one fell swoop.

A call to action

However, these community efforts cannot stand alone. Action must be taken by the Thai government at central and local levels to restore the communities’ right to their culture.

Addressing the physical impacts involves better management of the dam gates to control the reservoir height as well as restoration of the wetlands. The social impacts,though, will be more difficult to address.

However, the government can start by providing villagers with proper and fair compensation of all direct, non-direct, and non-use values of the wetland that have been destroyed.

So far, the government has not acknowledged the infringement on cultural rights in Rasi Salai despite agreeing to be legally bound by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

General Comment 21 clearly states, “The full promotion of and respect for cultural rights is essential for the maintenance of human dignity and positive social interaction between individuals and communities in a diverse and multicultural world.”

Passions run high in the community as they fight for their right to culture. Despite being a signatory on the International Covenant, the Thai government seems to lack any true commitment to ensure their people’s cultural rights.

Lindsay Mack majors environment science at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. She studies about development and human rights issues in Khon Kaen this past fall semester.