Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Underwater caves + Islam

This course was the desert. A tasty treat to end the semester with. I dont have any time- look at these pictures.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pet maak, very spicy

Tomorrow we leave for our last field course- we bus through the night down to Southern Thailand, where the food is spicy and the sea is clear.
There will be a lot of camping on the beach, snorkeling in reefs, tromping through mangrove forests, and sea kayaking (on the Andaman Sea)
We stay in a Muslim village for 9 days, fish with them, and learn how they live with the ocean on a subsistence level.
There may be sea turtles,
there may be dugongs (endangered, and only found in thailand),
I may decide to stay down there forever.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"The ocean is impossibly complicated, intricate, turbulent, and nonlinear, and it touches every part of life. Humans can only understand it by trying to grasp far simpler proxies, such as: every tear you cry ends up back in the ocean system. Every third molecule of carbon dioxide you exhale is absorbed into the ocean. Every second breath you take comes from the oxygen produced by plankton."
"I wonder whether humans have become symbionts who have lost the knowledge that we depend on other creatures for the basics of life support. In terms of pure self-interest, this is a problem. If we depend on corals, algae, plankton and millions of other species, and if we are killing them off, how will we survive?"
Alanna Mitchell, author of Sea Sick
This next course is titled, Coastal Ecology and Culture: Islands, Reefs, and Mangroves. I'm very excited about this one- it probably was the initial attraction to the Thailand semester. We are half-way through a week of reading and lectures to prepare us for our next field course down south. Along with reading Alanna Mitchell's book Sea Sick (which is about the degradation of the global ocean and it's ties to climate change), we are learning about coastal ecosystems (corals, plankton, fish, mangroves, nutrient cycles, food chains, etc...).
some pictures:
this is what we all usually look like, in our uniforms. just like every other student in the country.

this is what we look like out of our uniforms, when we celebrate, for instance, cinco de mayo.

this is the biggest and best market in chiang mai, and i love it. right now mangos are cents a piece.

this is what we look like in our little thai classrooms. we meet here in the mornings (thai class), then as a big group in the afternoons (field course).
this is a pagoda with bamboo construction

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Homestay Fest, Backpacking Fest, Swidden Fest.

this field course was so different. a lot more complicated, more physically demanding, and the issues weren't as easy to sort through and categorize.
we took public buses to mae hong son province (crazy 8 hour ride though the mountains in a cramped, decrepit school bus with holes in the floor and people sitting on top of each other. there were monks with televisions, hilltribes people in purple velvet, and babies hanging out of open windows.)
so look at that map- in the upper left corner, you see Mae Hong Son really close to Myanmar (Burma). all along that border, all the way to the bottom are the mountain ranges that separate thailand from burma. these mountains are home to dozens of different ethnic groups of people, each of whom have their own language, dress, traditions, and culture. Some live on the burmese side (or used to... before the military dictatorship in burma) and some live on the thai side.
there is a specific ethnic group that isdsi has ties to, they are called the Karen (pronounced, kuh-REN. emphasis on the second syllable, dad). Karen. so there is a Karen woman who works in the isdsi office, her name is toto, and she came with us on this field course because we visited 5 karen villages. they don't speak thai in these villages, they speak karen (although many villagers knew some thai, so we were able to communicate some).
so what we did was backpack from village to village.
we started in pakalo village, stayed one night there,
backpacked with all our belongings and clothes and notebooks and socks, up mountains and down valleys and along ridges and through jungle and over rocks and between vines and over rivers and past caves and vipers and leeches and fig trees and termite mounds and we heard gibbons howling and saw a thousand lizards and sweat like pigs (it was some tough hiking) to huey nam village,
we stayed 2 nights there,
then backpacked to nam hoo village, spent 2 nights there,
then to huey hee village, 4 nights there,
then huey tong kow village, 5 nights there.
all these villages were karen villages, and some had no road access- the paths we took though the jungle were the ONLY way in and out of the communities. the villages were maybe 20 houses large, all of them rice farmers (and chicken owners and pig owners and water buffalo and goats and dogs and cats). we would split up into 2's and each have a host family- sometimes they were young families, sometimes they were old grandparents, sometimes the houses had 4 generations living in them and we students were welcomed as one of them. the host families were truly amazing. just in a matter of days, the connections we had with these people and their community were unexplainable. we would eat, sleep, work, and sit with them, yes, but in every village we would all meet together as a community so we students could ask them questions about their livelihoods. sometimes we would sing american songs for them and they would sing karen songs back, and the joy that we all felt was wonderful.

but let me explain this further.
we visited all these communities because of what they all had in common- their relationship with the forest. all of them lived subsistence-based lives, growing and gathering all the food they consume, cutting all the wood they use, and fetching all the water they drink. the history of these karen communities with the forest was one of harmony and sustainability. they always have lived with the forest and their lifestyles have not been destructive to the ecosystems they inhabit. but the government begs to differ.
back about 100 years ago, the region's valuable hardwood forests (mostly teak wood) were discovered and started to be logged and exported. eventually it got out of control and thailand's royal forestry department decided to ban all logging and set up a thousand national parks, wildlife areas, and watershed protection areas. this seemed good because it protected the forests, but when these national parks were established, the government told all these hilltribes living in the mountains that they had to leave. the karen, the hmong, the akha, the lisu, the mien, the lahu all had to leave. their homes were now located on protected land and their human interference could not be tolerated.
sudden conflict of interests. it's the environmental groups that were pushing for the establishment of these protected areas. but the results were obvious human rights violations.
the karen villages we visited had attempted to push back on the government, claiming their way of life was in harmony with the forest, but their plea has not been heard. mostly for one reason: their form of agriculture.
lots of the karen practice swidden agriculture.
this entails a lot of slashing and burning, crop rotation, long fallows, and mixed seed. in actuality, the whole process is very sustainable and healthy for the forests they live in. it protects the watershed, diversifies the forest, and doesn't deplete soil nutrients (we studied a lot about this... we even got to help plant some). but whenever the government officials came out to the villages to see 'how they live sustainably with the forest', all they see is the karen lighting sections of woods on fire and they are immediately discounted.
so lots of these villages have had to leave,
some have been allowed to stay, but had to switch their livelihood,
but some have stayed against the rules, continuing to practice swidden agriculture, and every year forest rangers come to check on them, but the rangers feel sorry for them and let them stay, or they are bribed (... corruption is so common and it's really frustrating). but their place as karen farmers in protected areas is not stable- the government could put their fist down at any time and force out these villages. the future is unsure.
SO when we've spent a few days with a strange family, gone out and planted rice with them, played endless hours with their children, and met with the whole community about what we've learned and what else we want to know, the villagers are overjoyed. the government comes for one day and condemns their lifestyles, but we come to learn from them, legitimize them, and find that their lifestyles are beautiful and inspirational. the kind of connection that is then forged between us 17 american students and the community is strong and hard to explain.

so that is what the issue was generally about- there is a lot more too it and i could write pages and pages of all the conflicting interests and philosophical theories, but the experience was much more to me than that. seeing such simplicity in villages so disconnected from a destructive world was something i will never forget. when you killed a chicken, every bit of it was used and not wasted. when a six year old turned on the water spigot, she only turned it on for what she needed, not letting a drop spill. just living a lifestyle of MODERATION blew my mind. i growing up and even now i'm surrounded surrounded by EXCESSIVE everything, and i am glad and filled with hope after living in the same homes as these families. their affection toward each other was also a powerful thing to witness. the villages housed such an open sense of community that bowls were borrowed and friend's kids were disciplined. during one community meeting, my host dad, a new father, came and sat next to me. there was a kid sitting on the floor in front of us and my dad scooped him up onto his lap, gave him a big hug, then looked to see the face of whose child it was. it wasn't even his son, but that didn't matter. everyone showed such affection with each other, especially noticeable was fathers' affection to children. this is something not as common in american or thai cultures, affection being predominately effeminate.

other random experiences:
climbed to the highest point in mae hong son,
lived by myself with a village medicine man for 6 days,
attended a karen church service (many karen are christian... go figure),
husked rice by hand,
didn't sit in a chair once (you always sit on the floor),
slept through rain storms under fan palm roofs,
wove a basket,
got really sore,
got really strong quads,
swam in thailand's last major 'untouched by tourists' waterfall,
took 3 rolls of film,
learned a little of the karen alphabet,
identified tons of trees,
swat at a million sweat bees,
received gifts from strangers,
and received generosity, inclusion, and love from acquaintances who i could barely communicate with.

Huey Tong Kaw Village

My host mom is the one on the right, standing up. with that necklace on.

This is what planting rice on the side of a mountain looks like.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Departing for MaeHongSon

Sorry for my infrequent writing.

Tomorrow we leave for another field course in Mae Hong Son- northwest Thailand (bordering Burma). The purpose of this trip is to learn from the Hilltribes (specifically the Karen tribes) about the Forest.

How do the Karen live as farmers and maintain the forest? How can humans be in relationship with nature? Why is major deforestation happening? Why are the establishment of national parks destructive to the Karen way of life? How do the Karen view nature, and how is that different from how Americans view nature?

Again we will be looking at how human rights and environmental rights are the same thing, again we will be living with many generous host families, again we will be close with nature by hiking though the woods from village to village.
I'll write again in a few weeks

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Human Rights and the Environment: Rivers, Dams, and Ecosystems

These last few weeks have been a rush.
So many new sights, sounds, tastes, and languages. I can now claim an ability to speak a little Lao, I've eaten loads of red ants (and their white eggs), drank lots of home-distilled rice whiskey, can identify several types of freshwater fish as well as macroinvertebrates (bugs), pulled in fishing nets, saw the interworkings of a hydroelectric dam, swam in 3 major South East Asian Rivers, canoed down one of those rivers, got sun burnt, played the dulcimer, talked with an anti-dam activist 80 years old, talked with anti-dam activists 15 years old, experienced crazy lightning storms, lived with the poorest of the poor, listened to the marginalized, sat at the feet of those fighting for justice, and stood beside communities in their struggle to maintain their basic rights as human beings.

So, this field course (the first of 3) focused on rivers, dams, and human rights. We read lots of articles, received lots of lectures, and prepared for one week before leaving on the course. We then jumped into a few vans, us 17 students, 1 professor, and 4 instructors in their 20's (2 thai instructors, 2 american instructors). We traveled to a village outside of Ubon in Eastern Thailand. This is very near to the Thai-Laos border. We spent one week doing homestays with families in a village called Nong Po. Now, this village (and the whole eastern Isarn region of Thailand) is actually Lao in ethnicity, language, and culture. back when Laos was a French colony, random borders were drawn to establish some kind of separation between the Siamese and Lao kingdoms. Like most borders in the developing world (determined by Europe), they separated ethnicities of people. This being said, the village we lived with spoke Lao and Thai as a second language, so we were able to communicate with our Thai, but learned a lot of Lao as well.

Now, this community we lived with (just a village of a few hundred people) isn't just an arbitrary poor group of people. They are a typical example of a community impoverished by the building of a dam. 20 years ago the Pak Mun dam was built on the Mun River, 30 kilometers downstream from the village. The community was told by the government that a 'project' was going to take place that would better their livelihoods. They were told the dam was just a temporary weir-like wall for irrigation that wouldn't affect them much, but would provide jobs and better manage the water. On the contrary, the village of Nong Po was devastated. For years the majority of the community had relied on fishing as a major source of income and subsistence. Once the dam was put in, all of that was destroyed.

Now from here, I must branch into a few directions to explain what is going on. There are so many factors in play here- I hope this doesn't get confusing.

Let me explain why it is that rivers are destroyed by dams. Ecologically, rivers are their own systems. There are forest ecosystems, lake ecosystems, ocean ecosystems, river ecosystems, etc. These systems are based on the PRODUCTION and MOVEMENT of energy. Nutrients. The circle of life- trees, squirrels, ants, bacteria, mushrooms, humans, vines- every living thing has some energy and we are all passing it around. "Our bodies become the grass and the antelope eat the grass." We are all apart of this system and the whole system can't exist without plants. Plants that use photosynthesis are the BASIS of the system. We all would not exist if it weren't for those plants that use the sun's energy to produce nutrients to sustain our lives.

Humans are not outside of this system, obviously. We are secondary consumers, on the same ecological level as dogs, and rely on the balance of our ecosystem as much as a moth does.

Now, when looking at all the life involved with rivers (bugs, fish, bacteria, animals, plants, and algae), it is important to see the most important factor in a river ecosystem.


The idea of a flow of nutrients, migrations of fish, distribution of sediments, etc, is vital to the health of a river ecosystem. Actually, flow is the very thing that makes a river ecosystem a river ecosystem. So when a dam is built, or the flow of a river is severed, the ecosystem is strangled.

this is what happens upstream:
huge water retention basin.
sediment builds up, keeping it from flowing downstream.
decomposing organic matter creates a significant amount of methane (global warming).
stagnant water breeds insects not usually at home in the area.
algae builds up.
fish aren't able to travel downstream (necessary for some species' reproductive cycles).
basically, a lake is created where there should not be a lake. The surrounding ecosystem is not prepared for a lake, and things are thrown off balance.

this is what happens downstream:
difference in water temperature, disrupting fish migrating patterns.
no silt is let through, so fewer nutrients
fish are not allowed upstream to spawn (necessary for most species)
floodplains are dried and the general flow of the river is reduced dramatically. what usually happens, and this is also the case for the Pak Mun dam, is the amount of water let through the turbines changes depending on the demand of electricity. so not only is there an inconsistency in flow of water, but the natural yearly flooding patterns of downstream are ended. without these yearly floods, underground aquifers aren't restored and nutrients are not distributed to the floodplains surrounding the riverbed.

An ecological disaster.

Since people are connected to this delicate balance of moving energy, it had impacts. This is how we discovered how severe those impacts are:
It was the last night with our host families in Nong Po. We had spent the week fishing with them, eating sticky rice with them, and talking with them. Jeremy and I lived with a family of 6 out in the middle of rice fields- stunningly beautiful. We were far from any road- you needed to walk between rice paddies for 15 minutes to reach their house from the road. They had chickens, roosters, cats, and a talking parrot (hilarious. it would actually repeat whole sentences back to you. or mock your laugh when you walk by). Jeremy and I spent lots of the time playing with the kids of the family. They were super shy and it took a few days for them to warm up to us, but we eventually broke through to them. Thank you soccer balls. We spent hours playing soccer in our bare feet in the dry rice fields, making goals and slapping high-fives. Often the kids from neighboring ricefields would show up and we all would play giant rounds of Thai duck-duck-goose until the sun set. It was wonderful. We loved our family and from what stories were shared by other students, they loved their families as well. Lots of our families were relatives or friends of each other and would often meet up, bringing 3 families and their respective host students together. We were connected. The whole community welcomed us. They arranged a religious blessing ceremony for us one night and every host parent came around to every student and blessed us by tying strings of good spirit around our wrists. We did this sitting on the floor in a circle and the parents approached us on their knees. No one was allowed to stand. We were all on the same level. It was overwhelming and wonderful and overwhelming.
But anyway, on the last night, we had a community meeting. All of us students sat in a huge circle with all of our fathers and mothers and we talked about why we had come. We had come to learn from them, we said. We had come to understand how they have been affected by this Pak Mun dam, we said. We then asked them questions.
Are there fewer fish now than before the dam was built?
Yes. There used to be more fish. And bigger fish. There used to be over 200 species of fish. Now there are 50 species. In one rainy season, they used to catch over 1000 kg of fish. Now they only catch 40 kg.
How can you survive with so few fish?
We can't.
Since many of your livelihoods centered around the fish in the river, what do you do for food or money now?
We send our children to work in factories in Bangkok. They send money home.
How many of you have children in Bangkok?
All the hands go up.
How many of you have several children in Bangkok?
All the hands stay up.

The meeting progressed like this. We kept getting deeper and deeper into the impacts this dam has had on the community. One fisherman said he used to have a good life before the dam was built. He was a wealthy man with fish to feed his family and even more fish to sell. But now he is poor. He has been made poor. He has no rice fields or gardens to grow vegetables- he relied on the longevity of that river. And most of the villagers have been protesting the dam. They protested before it was built, they protested at the dam site and were beaten, they protested in Bangkok after the dam was built and got the gates to be opened a few months out of the year. But talk of decomissioning the dam is ignored. They have been fighting this for 20 years and are weary. There is no more money left to spent on protest- the next generation of young people is all working in other cities, and the youngest know nothing of their parents' struggles.
It was at this point in the meeting that one of the villagers stood up and asked us a question.
What are we going to do about it?
Did we just come to study them and leave? They shared their struggle with us. What are we going to do with that?

We were stunned silent, at a loss for an answer, and that was basically how the meeting ended. We had come to love these villagers and they were gracious to us. They shared what they had with us and we listened to them tell their story. Even though they aren't sure if we can help them (i'm sure all of us will try), by us being there and sitting at their feet, we validated them. They were thankful and so were we. It was an intense and touching experience to become apart of the community of Nong Po.

So after that,
we all loaded up into vans and drove along the MeKong River (border of Thailand and Laos) for a few days, and ended up in the second village.

This village was called Don Chai. A larger community of about 800 people.
What is similar about this village and the one we had just come from is that they are both connected to their rivers for subsistence.
What is different about Don Chai from Nong Po is that Don Chai has no dam on their river (the Yom River). There have been plans to dam the Yom River for 15 years now, but the people have resisted. They have organized. They have demonstrated. Upon driving into the village, we saw huge banners hanging from people's homes and graffiti painted on the roads saying, "NO DAMS" and "OUR RIVER, OUR LIFE" and "NO DAM, NO WAR". We had entered a village of intense activists. They are known around the world for their successful struggle, and for good reason- if the projected dam were to be built, their village would be flooded. Not just a few inches of water- since they would be upstream of the dam, their whole village would be tens of meters under water.

So we spent a few days with these villagers, each of us living with a host family, talking with them about their struggle, and having community meetings. The energy of the place was amazing- the people had such a passion for their place- they had organized as a collective and fought against the might of the government and actually won. Although the government is still pushing for the dam to be built and the villagers are still pushing back, the fight looks promising.

We were able to meet with a youth activist group while we were there in Don Chai. It was a group of teenagers who, having grown up with activists for parents, took the struggle onto themselves as well. They met every weekend and made banners or took trips to neighboring villages to educate other youth. They are 15 and 16 years old- passionate about justice and willing to do what it takes to ensure their livelihoods arent taken from them. It was very inspiring. Our conversations with them were good.

After our time in Don chai was over, we all embarked on a 6 day canoeing trip. The point of the trip was to study the Yom River more closely. Over the 6 days, we boated the whole section of river that would be flooded if the dam were built. It was very eerie to be canoeing down the river valley and look up and around at everything that would be flooded.
But anyway, while we were on the river, we boated about 13 km per day, sleeping at a different camping site every night, taking river health measurements along the way. This involved lots of bug catching and recording, chemical testing, and river area surveying. The whole process was much more detailed than that, and there were little gadgets that tested this and that, as well as chemicals for nitrate and phosphate levels. We recorded lots of data, lots of reference books were consulted, and by the end of the 6 day paddle, we had determined that the quality of the river was excelent.

It is the last major river in Thailand that has no dam on it. May it stay that way.

all in all, the Rivers, Dams, and Human Rights field course was brilliant. I now know how to scientifically test a river's health, I know what dams do to the ecosystems they sever, I know how these environmental injustices are inextricably linked to human rights abuses, and I have learned all of this directly from the sources themselves.

What an amazing opportunity I've been given here...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

This week in school we learned, mainly, about three things:

1. Human rights abuse and environmental abuse are inextricably connected.
2. River ecosystems are extensive, delicate, and beautiful.
3. Dams are absurdly destructive.

Now for the next three weeks, we will:

1. Live, work, and sleep with communities suffering from environmental/human rights injustice.
2. Touch, see, and study river ecosystems that have been dying, out of balance, severed in half by dams.
3. Visit a whole lot of dams.

I'll update again when I get back!