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dam-l LS: Village of the dammed (Rasi Salai)

Bangkok Post, January 11, 2000 

 Village of the dammed

 River watchdogs Chainarong Sretthachau and Shyama Shepard explain the
struggle of
 the people of Rasi Salai who have become scapegoats of development.

 Visiting the protest village at Rasi Salai dam is truly a moving

 Dubbed by the residents as Mae Mun Man Yuen Village Number 2, the
 community is located directly on the Rasi Salai reservoir. Many of the
 bamboo houses the villagers have built there stand on stilts to stay above
 the water. 

 A metre stick is the village's centre point, erected to keep track of the
 water level. It's a crucial indicator in the villagers' survival. 

 Whenever the Department of Energy Development and Promotion
 (DEDP) closes the dam's flood gates to store water in the reservoir, the
 villagers must use their boats to go places. Even the toilet, which is on an
 island at the edge of the village, can only be reached by boat. When the
 water level rises high enough to inundate some of the houses, the villagers
 are forced to crowd into the few that stand higher than the rest. 

 Despite the many hardships they face on a daily basis, the people at Rasi
 Salai are determined not to move until justice is served. 

 Pijit Silalak, a 25-year-old village leader said: "We will stay here even if
 we risk drowning. We have been fighting for our rights for more than six
 years, and this is our last choice." 

 In 1989, the Chatichai Choonhavan government approved the
 construction plan for the Rasi Salai dam as part of the Khong-Chee-Mun
 Water Diversion Project. The controversial Pak Mun dam project was
 approved at about the same time.

 According to the diversion scheme, the DEDP planned to build 13 dams
 on the Chee and Mun Rivers over 42 years, claiming the diversion of
 water from the Mekong into the two rivers will solve the water shortages
 in northeastern Thailand. 

 It was estimated the mega-project could cost 228 billion baht. Most
 politicians in the northeast have embraced the Khong-Chee-Mun project
 as part of their platforms. 

 The construction of the Rasi Salai dam started in 1992, at the end of the
 Anand Panyarachun government. Originally budgeted at 140 million baht,
 the total cost of the Rasi Salai dam skyrocketed to a huge 871 million

 Phaa Kongdhamma, 53, a villager from Phon Sai District in Roi Et
 province, claimed the construction process of the Rasi Salai dam was

 She alleges the DEDP did not release any information to the public during
 the construction and claimed they were only installing a 4.5-metre rubber
 weir, and the water level would not rise above the riverbank. 

 In fact, she says, the state agency were building a nine-metre concrete

 Once the people at Rasi Salai learned of the DEDP's real motives, they
 promptly staged demonstrations against the project. However, the
 villagers claim the government turned a blind eye to the protests, and the
 construction was completed a year later. 

 Sanan Choosakul, director of the Save Tam Mun Project, claims the
 DEDP has broken the Environmental Act of 1992, which states any dam
 project with a reservoir of more than 15 square kms must have an
 environmental impact assessment study (EIA).

 Mr Sanan said: "The DEDP is under the Ministry of Science, Technology
 and Environment, who are responsible for the Environmental Act. So in a
 sense, the state agency has broken its own law."

 Since the DEDP proposed only a small-scale project, no Environmental
 Impact Assessment was ever conducted for Rasi Salai. The disastrous
 consequences which have transpired are thus due to the government's
 lack of information about the dam's impact, he said. 

 According to Mrs Phaa, the dam has wiped out more than 100 sq kms
 of the best farmland and freshwater swamp forest in the entire Mun

 Mr Sanan claims more than 3,000 families in the three provinces of Surin,
 Si Sa Ket, and Roi Et have lost their farmland due to the reservoir. 

 The DEDP did not pay compensation to the villagers because they
 lacked baseline data about the affected people, but Mr Sanan said, this
 was the DEDP's own fault. Had they conducted an EIA report and field
 studies prior to construction, they would have established all the
 information needed to determine the number of families entitled to

 After continuous demonstrations by the affected villagers, the DEDP paid
 compensation for private property only. This meant those toiling on
 so-called common land missed out. As a result of 18 demonstrations
 against the Rasi Salai dam, the Chavalit government finally paid
 compensation to 1,154 out of more than 3,000 affected families.

 However, the subsequent government under the leadership of Chuan
 Leekpai has used a variety of tactics to avoid compensating the rest of
 the affected villagers.

 Press releases have been issued that discredit both the villagers and any
 politicians who take their side, charging those who were paid made
 fraudulent claims to obtain compensation. Five village leaders are now
 facing charges of embezzling the state's money.

 The media has also been exploited to cast the affected villagers in a bad

 For example the Saaichol and Khon Thai (Rivers and Thai Citizens)
 television programme, has used academics to accuse the villagers of
 unjustly obtaining compensation for public lands.

 Currently two groups of people occupy the protest village at Rasi Salai. 

 The first is those that were initially compensated, then accused of making
 fraudulent claims.

 They demand the government examine the land rights and see they were
 truly affected by the flooding. They want their names cleared. 

 The second group never received compensation, and that's what they are
 demanding. The government has claimed the area where they farmed was
 public property, so they are not entitled to compensation.

 Somkiat Juajarn is one of those who have not received any
 compensation. The 32-year-old farmer said: "My land has been used by
 several generations. I inherited it from my ancestors and planned to pass
 it on to my children. This land is very fertile so there is no need to use
 fertilisers. Before the dam, we grew many indigenous species of rice
 here. But now it's all gone, because we have no more farmland."

 In the language of political ecology, when certain land is passed from
 generation to generation, it is known as customary land rights. 

 But the Thai state does not recognise this type of land rights. It considers
 the area public or state property and thus believes no compensation is

 Mrs Phaa said: "The Mun River is the life-blood of the people at Rasi
 Salai. Before the dam the people here were happy with their lives, we
 had everything we needed. Now we have lost everything. 

 "We do not want compensation, we demand the removal of the dam. We
 want to return to the way of life we once had, and the environment
 restored to the way it was before the dam.

 "Too much has been lost because of the dam, and the negative impacts
 reach much further than the lost fisheries, farmland, and the horrible

 The freshwater swamp forest that was destroyed by the reservoir was
 the largest of its kind in the Mun Basin. It was an excellent habitat for
 fish, had a high biodiversity, and was useful for flood control. The area
 flooded by the reservoir also provided food, herbal medicines, and salt to
 the local people. 

 The Rasi Salai reservoir sits directly on a large salt dome, which is the
 cause of the salination problems it now suffers.

 Mr Han Purmphol, 54, from Ratana Buri district in Surin province added,
 "before the dam, the villagers would collect salt from the area every year
 during the dry season.

 "This salt was well known by people throughout the region because it
 contained naturally occurring iodine."

 Back then, villagers from other areas would buy salt from Rasi Salai
 because of its high quality. They used salt for seasoning as well as
 preserving fish. But now this important source of salt has been lost. This
 is one example of how far-reaching the effects of the dam have been. 

 Rasi Salai was supposedly built to provide irrigation for the surrounding
 land, but even though it was completed in 1994, no irrigation system is
 yet operational. The proposed area for irrigation by the dam was 55.072
 sq kms, only half the size of the area submerged by the reservoir. 

 The DEDP did not concern itself with the negative impact the dam would
 have on local people and the environment.

 Despite the trying circumstances, the people protesting at Rasi Salai are
 determined to remain there until the government meets their demands.
 You can't help admiring their courage when you see them sitting in their
 shelters, talking or eating just inches above the water.

 They are setting a strong example to all people affected by development
 projects, whether they know it or not. Their village is very small and
 isolated, but this does not discourage the villagers from being resolute in
 their struggle. For more than six years, these people have staged rallies at
 the dam site, in local villages and in Bangkok, and still the government
 refuses to hear their demands.

 Establishing the village in the reservoir was the final step in a long,
 struggle. There are no other options for these people, that's why they
 have chosen not to move, even in the face of the threat of drowning. 

 On October 27 last year, an open letter was sent by 28 international
 organisations in support of the protesting villagers, urging the Prime
 Minister to direct the DEDP to stop filling the reservoir and give due
 consideration to the demands of the Rasi Salai people.

 Even with developments such as this, the Rasi Salai issue is still widely
 overlooked. The public needs to be aware of what's happening. We
 should pressure the government to solve this problem by draining the
 reservoir, conducting ground surveys to realise the entirety of the
 villagers' loss, and by paying compensation in a fair and humane manner.
 And not by distributing the money through complex, bureaucratic
 processes, and making the villagers their scapegoats for accusations of
 fraudulent claims.

 - Chainarong Sretthachau and Shyama Shepard work for the Southeast
 Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN), a Thai-based non-governmental
 organisation monitoring ecological problems in the waterways of

Aviva Imhof
South-East Asia Campaigner
International Rivers Network
1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley CA 94703 USA
Tel: + 1 510 848 1155 (ext. 312), Fax: + 1 510 848 1008
Email: aviva@irn.org, Web: http://www.irn.org