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It was lunacy to dam the Moon

Commentary by Sanitsuda Ekachai
Bangkok Post May 18, 2000

When villagers started their protest against the Pak Moon dam 12 years ago, few realised the power of little people's tenacity.

Most thought the anti-dam movement would dissipate soon after the completion of the dam, like earlier movements elsewhere around the country. But the Pak Moon people have refused to disappear from the public consciousness.

Their current sit-in at the dam and their demand for the opening of the spillways to allow fish to migrate from the Mekong river to the Moon is just part of the undying fight of Thailand's longest-running and most organised grassroots movement.

What has kept the Pak Moon villagers going this long against the odds? It's the power of truth, says Mrs Sompong Wiangjand, a Pak Moon leader. Her simple answer belies the long and painful Pak Moon struggle. The countless protests over the years have sharpened their negotiations skills. Their ties with other grassroots movements have strengthened their cause.

New facts on the mistakes surrounding the dam have boosted their confidence and moral rights. Enough so to demand that the dam must go.

To appreciate the villagers' endurance, we must go back to the beginning.

Back then, many urban environmentalists thought of Pak Moon as a lost cause. The public, they reasoned, would only oppose big dams that flood pristine forests. Pak Moon had no forests as a rallying point.

The villagers insisted on the importance to the riverine ecosystem of the bushes, or pah bung pah taam, alongside the Moon, but this Isan term was new to urban activists who know little about rural ecology, so no one was interested. Thai society's ingrained contempt for the poor and the state doctrine that science and technology are the way forward also worked against the villagers.

The fisherfolk along the Moon warned that the dam would block fish migrating from the Mekong and the destruction of the river's rapids would forever ruin the river's ecology and fish spawning habitats. They foresaw the rapid depletion in fish stocks and diversity.They insisted that the irrigation claims made of the dam were impossible given the rocky topography around Pak Moon. They knew the dam would result in poverty, not development.

No one listened.

But the villagers stayed put. And the passage of time has allowed new facts from independent parties to emerge.

Backing the villagers' fears point by point, the report by the World Commission on Dams on the Pak Moon dam is a slap in the face of the Electricity Generating Authority.

Research by a Kasetsart University economist helps further dismantle the myth of dams as a vehicle of development.

To gauge the impact of dams on the lives of people living nearby, Dechrat Sukkamnerd compared the Moon fishing villages with those along the Sri Songkram, another river in the Northeast. His findings: The fishing villages along the Moon and Sri Songkram used to be quite close in terms of ecological setting and way of life. But after the dam, quality of life at Pak Moon plummeted, falling far short of that of people living by the undammed Sri Songkram.

It's the children who pay most dearly. About 85% of children at Sri Songkram are enrolled in school, much higher than among children at Pak Moon where families have lost their livelihoods,These facts need deliberation by a neutral authority so state violence to suppress little people-and the truth-can be avoided.

The Pak Moon parents want the river back for the sake of their children. Now that the dam's disastrous impact is so evident, is this too much to ask?

- Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor, Bangkok Post.


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