Voices from the Margin: Pak Mun Dam

Katie Jenkins, Lyndia McGauhey, Wesley Mills, ESCR Mobilization Project
Monday, December 8, 2008

The protests against the Pak Mun Dam are amongst the longest running in the world. The dam is also one of the most studied, in part because it had all the features of a failed development policy: no participation of local people in the decision making process, a flawed Environmental Impact Assessment, government misinformation, construction carried out in the shadow of martial law, careless World Bank oversight, ill-conceived mitigation plans, and the destruction of an entire river ecosystem upon which river communities depended. The dam was one of the main subjects of the report from the World Commission on Dams, a body set up to study the benefits and impacts of dams. This remarkable effort represents one of the first times that human society stopped and seriously reconsidered a core part of modern development policy. Its conclusion: the Pak Mun dam should not have been built.

As of November 2008 there are a total of 39 hydropower dams planned or under construction as a part of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Project, an international partnership for water management. In addition to the 17 dams currently in operation on the Mekong and its tributaries, including the Mun River, there will be a total of 55 dams similar to Pak Mun. Considering the dramatic ecological, economic, and social repercussions of large damming projects, leading to the decommissioning of dams around the world, the GMS Project seems inconsistent with lessons from the past. How are the costs and benefits of such a far-reaching, large-scale development project calculated? Who does development serve and whose voices matter?

In the case of Pak Mun there was no space within the process for the villagers’ voices to be heard. As a result the villagers banded together in protest, not only with others affected by the dam, but with marginalized people throughout Thailand, touching off a massive people’s movement. The movement was no longer only about protesting a dam, but about challenging an approach to development. They fought for a space in which the voices of marginalized people could be heard. Even after 19 years of anger, strife, and grief, the Pak Mun Dam remains. It stands as a monument to reckless development. The people also remain. They stand as a movement to share understanding, and through that understanding find a common voice.

The Thai government’s policy of closing the dam gates for eight months out of the year prevents fish from migrating, decimating fisheries upon which most villagers rely. Their way of life depends on natural resources provided by the Mun River. Due to the destruction of these resources by the Pak Mun Dam, villagers have been forced to locate new sources of food and income, many migrating to cities for work, breaking up traditionally close family structures. The severe ecological damage caused by the Pak Mun Dam has thus destroyed villagers’ way of life and violated their rights to food, work, and culture.

This report reveals the project's impacts on the economic, social and cultural rights of communities affected by the project.