In December, I joined students from the EarthRights School Mekong (ERSM) on their field trip to Don Chai, a village in Northern Thailand’s Sa Iab Valley.
The residents of Don Chai love their hometown, and it’s not hard to see why. Surrounded by green hills, magnificent teak forests and the meandering Yom River, the Sa Iab Valley is the epitome of idyllic Northern Thai countryside. Don Chai’s inhabitants would like to keep it that way, but it isn’t easy: thanks to a proposed dam they’ve spent the past two decades chasing World Bank officials out of town, placing curses on high-profile politicians and organizing protests all over the country.
In 1991 the Thai government proposed the construction of a dam at Kaeng Seua Ten (“Jumping Tiger Rapids”), an area on the Yom River a few kilometers upstream from Sa Iab. If built, the dam would flood four villages, displace about a thousand households and destroy countless acres of teak forest. Since the proposal, residents of the Sa Iab Valley have transformed themselves into a model of community activism and become famous throughout Thailand for their hard-hitting and relentless approach.
The Kaeng Seua Ten protest movement offers invaluable lessons for ERSM students, presenting an opportunity to see a thriving grassroots movement in action. The students stayed with local families, learning about the people and plight of Sa Iab through presentations, a walk through the community forest, visits to spiritual sites and a rafting trip down the Yom River.
After arriving, students met their homestay families and local leaders in the town’s temple. Sa Iab’s community is well versed in presenting their case to the public, and through a series of slideshows showed students the livelihoods being threatened and strategies for halting the dam project. Their methods have been so effective that leaders from Sa Iab travel all over the world to meet with their counterparts in similarly affected areas.
On the second day, the townspeople lead students through the towering teak trees of their community forest, stopping along the way to point out medicinal herbs and edible plants. The forest was formerly owned by a British logging company, but their concession was revoked in the late 1980s and the teak has largely grown back. It is now a protected area, offering a nominal defense against exploitation and destructive development, but threats still remain. Sa Iab’s residents actively police their forests and forcibly remove government officials and company representatives, with good reason – they’ve found illegal loggers, clandestine surveyors and even a corporate saboteur poisoning the teak trees so as to push the dam forward.
Next, the Mekong students paid a visit to the shrines of Sa Iab’s guardian spirits. A strongly religious community, one of their most striking tactics is placing a curse on public figures who support the dam. While readers may be skeptical of this strategy, several politicians at the receiving end of these curses have fallen ill and died, causing others to actually reverse their position and apologize.
The final day was devoted to rafting down the Yom River and a stop for a picnic with local food and a swim. In the evening, the townspeople held a ceremony with local musicians and dancers, followed by ERSM students singing songs from their home countries.
While there are many communities throughout the Mekong region that are being threatened by indiscriminate development, the resilience of Sa Iab’s activists is remarkable. The dam project has not yet been shelved permanently, but there is little doubt the residents of Sa Iab will not tire in their fight for their home.