Voices from the Margin: Rasi Salai Dam

Allison Dulin, Cloe Franko, Christi Heun, and Spencer Masterson, ESCR Mobilization Project
Monday, December 8, 2008

The culture of rural communities in northeastern Thailand, also known as Isaan, emerges from the ecosystems upon which they depend. For generations, villagers living along the Mekong River and its tributaries were part of a relationship with the river and its surrounding ecosystems. Though the culture of these communities has evolved over the years, the relationship the villagers have had with the river and the wetlands has remained constant. When villagers are hungry, they can catch fish from the river, and when they are sick, they can find herbal medicines in the wetlands. The natural flooding of the river provides community farmers with water for crops, and the areas along the river serve as grazing land for villagers’ livestock. Villagers respect natural resources, and as part of their rich social relationship with the environment, take what they need without straining the resources that support their way of life. The relationship communities have with the river is born of a deep understanding, a cultural knowledge of how to live with the land.

This understanding has been lost with the current push towards using natural resources as a tool for economic development in Isaan. Villagers in the Rasi Salai area were devastated when the Thai government began construction of the Rasi Salai Dam in a misconceived effort to provide irrigation to the surrounding arid region in 1992. Poor recognition of the villagers’ relationship to the natural resources led to construction of the dam without assessing environmental or social impacts. The government hastily disregarded the affluent biodiversity that played an essential role in the life of the people on the Mun River. When the gates close, wetlands flood and the river becomes stagnant, ultimately devastating families dependant on these resources. The reported purpose of the dam was to provide irrigation; however, most of the water from the reservoir was too salty to use in agriculture.

The government’s disregard for the relationship between the villagers and the land is shown through their initiative to commodify water from the river for irrigation purposes, placing an economic value upon the river without considering the social and cultural consequences. The government in no way facilitates the rebuilding of villagers’ relationship with resources, for the dam gates remain closed. Instead of opening dam gates to restore the lost resources and take responsibility for their wrongs, the government only acts to compensate losses monetarily. Monetary compensation does not enable them to catch fish from the river when they are hungry, seek herbal medicines from the wetlands when they are sick, benefit from natural flooding patterns, or take their animals to graze in the wetlands: this broken relationship cannot be mended through any amount of money. This signifies the government’s detachment and its inability to recognize or acknowledge the close relationship between cultures and specific ecosystems, and between the people and the land.

Due to the severe damages to many regional natural resources caused by the construction of the dam, and the impeding effects of such destruction on peoples’ lives, the state is in violation of the rights to work, food, culture, and proper development of agrarian systems.

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