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In northeastern Thailand, a community struggles to reclaim their lives taken by the Rasi Salai dam

By Laure Siegel

Photography by Luke Duggleby

“Today we are going to discover the secrets of frog reproduction,” announces a professor from Sisaket Rajabhat University in northeastern Thailand. Sitting in a tent in the courtyard of the Rasi Salai community learning centre, around 100 masked villagers watch demonstrations of how to farm crabs, tadpoles, freshwater snails, and how to make compost.

Jai, an employee of a local youth organisation, feverishly takes notes: “I tried to raise some before but they all died, so I’m here to improve myself. The only thing left for us to do to survive is to transform our land and produce our own food.”

The dismantling of Rasi Salai communities began almost three decades ago. In 1994, a 17-meter-high cement wall emerged across the Mun River in the middle of Thailand’s second-largest wetland, fertile natural meadows that lie submerged during the rainy season.

Raiwan Anan-uea, 48, recalls a happy adolescence when villages would share the abundant resources offered by this remote corner of the northeastern region. But the dam and reservoir on the Mun flooded 16,000 hectares, abruptly ending three centuries of river-based heritage.

“It was a natural pantry and a pharmacy where we only had to help ourselves,” she says. “Then life became much harder and people from both sides of the wetlands no longer had anywhere to meet.” Raiwan claims locals only realised the project would be a permanent dam when concrete slabs began arriving by truck. “At that point we knew we had lost the area we were living in and we were going to have to fight.”

Ending communities and ecologies

In the early 1990s, when environmental impact assessments were not mandatory in Thailand, the government initiated fourteen water projects on the Chi and Mun rivers, including the Rasi Salai reservoir. Funded by the World Bank, the dams aimed to generate electricity, improve irrigation, and create jobs through the ‘Green Isan’ program.

“Operators did not know that wetlands were as [ecologically] valuable as forests and mangroves,” says Ubon Yoowah, volunteer advisor at the Rasi Salai centre. “Only large trees had economic value so wetlands were considered degraded forests and destroyed.”

In 1998, Thailand signed the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands classifying fifteen sites across the country, a move that came too late to save Mun-based communities.

Since the dams’ construction, seasonal water shortages and flash floods have intensified, and reliance on rice monoculture is no longer sustainable. Villagers could cultivate rice twice a year prior to the dam but now make due with one harvest a year and only in elevated rice fields, according to local village chief Udon Samrai.

“The construction at Rasi Salai cost 870 million baht, five times the initial budget, not including maintenance. The compensation to be paid to the villagers for the loss of their land is two billion baht, half of which has still not been paid,” says Ubon. “All this and the farmers still do not have enough water.”

The reservoir was not supplemented with pumping stations for farmers to irrigate elevated fields during drought or drain water from rice fields in the lowlands during floods. By blocking the river’s flow, the reservoir has also contributed to increased water salinity, killing rice crops and changing the ecology.

Driving a pickup through the ancient swamp at the confluence of Surin, Roi Et, and Sisaket provinces, Nawarat Siangsanan, a young researcher specialising in fisheries, points to the extent of the damage. “Almost nobody goes there anymore, so it has become a wild and dangerous place where weeds and predators proliferate, endangering the reproduction of fish. From the dams, the wetlands are flooded all year round so the big trees rotted.”

The outlook for the landless is even bleaker. Charlie Wonghongkam’s only major possession is his wooden boat. Venturing with his wife, Supin Duangdee, into bramble bushes infested with snakes and mosquitoes every morning is the only way to support their two teenage daughters and his mother. “We still have to go to the wetlands to fish and collect plants. It used to take twenty minutes, now it’s one to two hours of intense effort because the boat gets stuck in the weeds.”

By selling what they scrape from the river’s bottom, the Wonghongkam family earns 70 to 350 baht a day, plus 5,000 baht a month to run the village’s cooperative store. Charlie says his daughters will soon have to leave the village.

The shock of the loss of ancestral lands, water management problems and the disappearance of income from the river has triggered a massive rural exodus. For four decades, the rural Northeast has been steadily drained of its young workers, pushed into construction work, transport companies, and urban markets.

“It was a natural pantry and a pharmacy where

we only had to help ourselves.”

Old wounds of Pak Mun dam

Downriver in neighbouring Ubon Ratchathani province, where the river flows into the Mekong on the border with Laos, the Pak Mun Dam became a lightning rod for opposition to development projects in the 1990s. Protesters occupied the site for months to prevent the construction of a hydroelectric dam before its completion in 1994 and birthed the Assembly of the Poor, a network of communities affected by dams, mining operations, and land expropriation.

“Even though the dams were built, the villagers learned not to be afraid of the officials who have power over them and managed to get compensation,” says Wattana Narkpradit, former secretary of the Assembly of the Poor. “Pak Mun has been important in making workers, farmers, and ethnic minorities understand that they can fight for their rights in court and question land policy.”

Although home to one-third of Thailand’s population, the northeastern region, commonly known as Isan, receives less than five percent of the national budget. Liberal parties sensitive to Isan’s grievances have been banned or paralysed by the parliamentary coalition under General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power in a military coup and retained his prime minister status in a highly disputed 2019 vote.

“We were accused of being against the development of the region and the officials were making life difficult for us, threatening to arrest us if we went to protest,” says Lao Dong village chief Apirat Suthawan, who took part in every sit-in in Bangkok for Rasi Salai in the 1990s. “Then they tried to make the dams untouchable by inviting members of the royal family to the inaugurations, so people were afraid to fight. It was a time of military repression. We were intimidated, our village chiefs were bought, friendships were broken and families were shattered.”

Apirat saw his village torn between the pro- and anti-dam groups over the bitter struggle for little compensation, with community groups refusing to meet, bands of teenagers fighting in the streets, and protest leaders away from their families for long periods.

When asked if he had forgiven those who allowed the dam to be built, Apirat sighs: “Incidentally, many of them are already dead. According to karma, they paid for the betrayal of their community and reaped what they sowed…From a Buddhist and animist point of view, building a dam is a sin because it does not respect the cycle of nature and kills life. We just want it to be destroyed and get our life back.”

“Operators did not know that wetlands were as [ecologically] valuable as forests and mangroves.”

Compensation

After years of public pressure, the government began to compensate Rasi Salai land title holders in 1997 with 32,000 baht per rai of land lost to 1,154 villagers. According to the NGO International Rivers, 17,000 farmers’ households were directly impacted by the dam.

“My house was not affected because it is in the hills, but I lost 15 rai (6 acres) of rice fields,” says 60-year-old Nuping Suaytaku. Like many, she had no title deed. “I only received a little money for the evacuation.”

To slow down the disbanding of local communities, Panya Khamlarp, a representative of the Association of Freshwater Fishing Communities of Isan, joined a group of researchers coordinated by Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. They work on ASEAN’s first case concerning the loss of income due to the destruction of wetlands.

“When they closed the floodgates in the first year and everything was underwater, people were very afraid and since then they have been living in uncertainty,” Panya says. “Getting [additional] compensation for the loss of their way of life would allow this psychological shock to be recognised.”

TIMELINE of Rasi Salai

River life at risk

The Department of Royal Irrigation (DIR) agreed to additional compensation and fund an integrated agriculture project in 2011. They allocated 57 million baht to the newly established Wetland People Association for a 10-year action plan focusing on solutions to the wide-ranging impacts of Rasi Salai Dam.

“From a legal point of view, all wetlands belong to the state, so those who enter and make a living there are breaking the law, but from a social point of view, we understand that this is their way of life and we will continue to pay compensation,” says DIR director in Rasi Salai, Panari Panuphintu. He says he is sensitive to the desperation of the farmers and that the authorities are helping locals to shift to higher value and better-adapted crops. “If everyone follows this model, we won’t have any more problems and people will stop protesting, that’s my dream.”

Despite warnings from environmentalists, the government has continued with plans for the Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun Diversion Project, the latest incarnation of the decades-old dream to irrigate Isan.

For Panari, this time, it’s the right plan. “Even though this 20-year project requires a lot of money, the benefits will be enormous, because people will be able to practice agriculture all year round.”

Faced with more promises and 140 kilometres of tunnels on the horizon, Rasi Salai local Apirat Suthawan calls on the new generation to be vigilant. “Our young people don’t know everything that has happened to us because in school textbooks they learn that dams are good things. They shouldn’t believe everything the government says. If we don’t fight for our community, who will fight for us?”

 

Edited by Tyler Roney

 

This story was funded by a special grant from ‘Asia-Pacific Earth Journalist Network/Internews’.

Laure Siegel is a French correspondent covering politics in South and Southeast Asia for Mediapart in France. She is also a regular contributor to Nikkei Asia and French-German public TV channel ARTE.

Luke Duggleby is a Bangkok based photographer who documented the daily life of the community of Rasi Salai during three trips to the area over the course of one year.

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