Monday, November 23, 2009

What's in an Education?

As our fourth and final unit came to an end, I reflected on the reoccurring themes that stuck out to me over the course of the semester. Education; Self-determination; Sustainability; Globalization as a form of imperialism; and how we as students fit into the bigger picture. After thinking about each of these themes, and discussing them with other students, I found that education was not only an individual, reoccurring theme throughout the units, but related to each of the other themes I identified in one way or another.

For example, I realized that my understanding of sustainable development and globalization, prior to coming to Thailand, was shaped by my western-style education which was based on textbooks, facts and scientific proof. While I recognize that scientific-based knowledge has its strengths, I am disappointed in the public K-12 education system in the U.S., which I feel fails to develop students into adults that are capable of thinking critically. I will always remember the “AH HA” moment I had my freshman year of college when I finally realized that the teachings in textbooks are not indisputable facts, but information gathered by human beings that inevitably reflects current and historical opinions and perspectives. The thoughts and perspectives that students develop are therefore largely reflective of the thoughts and perspectives of their culture, and the values and norms that their education system promulgates.

Prior, to coming to Thailand I struggled with my opinion of globalization. Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing, or are there both positive and negative aspects to globalization? As a student studying business and economics I was mainly exposed to the benefits of globalization, as seen from a Western perspective, and taught through lectures, case studies, readings and projects in the United States. My education in Thailand, which has been based on experiential learning and observations, therefore, provides me with a great opportunity to compare what I have learned about globalization from books and college courses, to what I have learned through observations and experiences living and working with rural communities in Thailand.

Reflecting on the two different types of learning, I feel that my Western education provided me with a background on some of the arguments for and against globalization; however, only through experiential learning was I able to form my own opinion on globalization as I experienced firsthand the affects it can have on people, culture, and the environment. It is amazing to me how my ideas have progressed and developed so rapidly over the past three months, while engaging in experiential learning. I have never felt so mentally stimulated, inspired or connected to the issues that I am studying, and the potential I see in experiential education is exciting.

One of the concerns, however, recently expressed by our Thailand student group is how we share what we learned here in Thailand with our friends, family, teachers and peers back home, so that they are not only more socially aware, but are passionate about supporting social justice causes in some way. I am the first to admit that this is something I have struggled with every time I have returned home from a study abroad experience in a developing country, and I found it very hard to live around people, who I felt, were completely unaware of how unjust the world is. I now realize that without personal experiences to connect to difficult issues, such as poverty, human rights violations and environmental degradation, it is hard to know what to make of, or how to relate to, issues discussed in books, newspapers, classrooms and newscasts.

What then, would it mean for our education system to focus more on experiential learning? What if more high school students had the opportunity to live, work and learn in a poor region of the United States or a lesser developed country? Would we be a more socially aware society? Would it be harder to go back to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality that I know I fall into when living in the United States? Would our eyes be more open to the social injustices in our own backyards?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chan Ben Chow Na

During unit 4 we spent one week living with villagers in Na Nong Bong and learning about their way-of-life. Na Nong Bong is a community struggling to have their basic human rights respected, as their health and traditional livelihoods have been dramatically affected by a gold mine that was constructed near their village in 2006. While in Na Nong Bong we had exchanges with local NGOs, the villagers, the Provincial Health Office and the Provincial Ministry of Industry to learn more about the challenges facing the villagers, but the unit was not all business. We also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with our host families.

I stayed with Kate and Hilary, and our host family farms corn, rubber and soybeans. They have two large farms, and with harvesting season upon us, they were more than happy to put us to work. On the morning of our first day in Na Nong Bong we piled into the back of our Paws pick-up truck and headed for their soybean farm. Along the way we made a few stops to pick up some essentials for the day. Three new hats to shield Hilary, Kate and I from the sun, papaya for lunch, and at the final stop, about 15 more villagers who would be helping in the fields. After cramming everyone into the back of the pick-up truck we were on our way.

Once at the farm the villagers put on their hats and gloves, grabbed their sickles and went to work. This was the first time I had seen a soybean plant, which ranges in height from half a foot, to two feet tall, and grows in rows beneath the rubber trees. To harvest them you either pull them out of the ground from their base, or cut them at the base with the sickle. You then place them in piles throughout the rows, which are gathered at a later point.

After observing the villagers’ technique my Paw handed me a pair of gloves and a sickle. Settling in among the other workers, I quickly developed a rhythm, moving swiftly through the rows, careful not to leave any soybean plants behind! I was so in the zone that I failed to notice how humorous the spectacle of three Farangs farming soybeans was to the villagers.

Look how sweaty the Farangs are! Look how tall they are, and how they struggle to stay in a squatted position! Aren’t you getting tired? Do you want to take a break? They joked and laughed at us, and with us, as we struggled to find comfortable positions to squat down or bend over. I was constantly standing up to stretch out my back and legs, which are not used to that type of manual labor. I knew I would be feeling pretty soar in the morning, but it was so gratifying when at the end of the day I looked around and saw how much work we accomplished. “Chan ben chow na (I am a farmer)!” I told them. They just laughed and told me I could come back and work anytime.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In pursuit of something more sustainable...

In unit 3 we studied water issues in Thailand, specifically looking at the affects of dams on local communities. For the unit we lived and exchanged with two communities that have been dramatically impacted by a dam: Rasi Salai and Pak Mun. Upon arriving in Rasi Salai we were split into pairs and matched up with a family that we stayed with for four days. Jenny and I paired up and were met at the vans by Meena, our 15 year-old "younger sister."

Meena was so excited to meet us and was very patient with our limited Thai language abilities. She led us back to the house, and overwhelmed with the excitement of having visitors she clumsily scrambled to serve us dinner. At first, Jenny and I were a little bit confused about where the rest of the Meena’s family was. Meena's Yie (grandmother) was perched on the front porch, but her meh (mom) and paw (dad) were nowhere to be found. When Meena brought the food out and sat down with us I began to ask her questions about her family.

Me: "Cropcrewa con coon me cry bang ka (Who is in your family)?"

Meena: "Meh, Paw, Yie gop Chan (My mom, dad, grandma and I)"

Me: "Pawmeh con Coon yu tee nie ka (Where are your mom and dad)?"

Meena: "Pawmeh con Chane tom nyoung tee Bangkok" (My mom and dad work in Bangkok)"

Interested to learn more about Meena's living situation, but limited by our thai language abilities, the following day we sat down with Meena, her Yie and a translator to get to know her better. During our exchange we discovered that the land that Meena's family had farmed on for generations flooded when the Rasi Salai Dam was built in 1993. As a result, Meena's parents left when Meena was 3 months old to find work in Bangkok, and to be close to a hospital because Meena's mother has diabetes.

Meena's Yie raised her, but now that she is older, Meena is responsible for taking care of the house and cooking. Meena's daily routine consists of waking up around 5 a.m., cleaning the house, cooking breakfast, going to school, cooking dinner and doing homework. Although Meena has a lot of responsibility as a 15-year-old girl, she is still young, enthusiastic and loves to have a good time. She enjoys going to school, studying Thai literature and reading. She also expressed that she hopes to study at a university when she graduates from high school, but that ultimately she would like to return and live in Rasi Salai.

I really enjoyed hanging out with Meena and helping with her English homework, but my experiences living with her and Pak Mun villagers opened my eyes to the impacts that dams can have on local communities. Taking a step back to look at the big picture I have come to question the sustainability of my lifestyle, and of the society that I live in. In general dams are built to either provide irrigation for farming or to generate power for electricity. But, the average lifespan of an electricity generating dam is only about 50 years. In addition a large number of dams are constructed without environmental impact assessments (EIA), social impact assessments (SIA), or the participation and consent of the local people that are negatively affected by the dam’s construction. After working closely with communities affected by dams I cannot help but think that the costs associated with building dams greatly outweigh the benefits.

When I first visited the Pak Mun Dam, a project that has received international attention as being one of the World Bank’s greatest investment failures, I was struck by how out-of-place it looked. A giant concrete eye soar obstructing the flow of the Mun River and drawing attention away from the otherwise natural landscape. The Pak Mun dam was constructed between 1990 and 1994 to generate power for the region; however, in 2000 the 136-megawatt dam was barely generating 40 megawatts of electricity. The story is not much different today, as the dam, which cost US$233 million to build (almost twice as much as originally projected), still has not recovered its investment costs.

The failures of Pak Mun, sadly, are not an isolated case. The Rasi Salai dam was constructed in 1993 to provide local farmers with irrigation; however, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was never conducted, and the villagers were not included in the planning process. In fact, the villagers were originally told by the government that a rubber weir was going to be built to help with flooding, only to find out later that a large concrete dam was being constructed. Sixteen years later the dam does not provide any irrigation to local farmers. Why? The reservoir that the dam was built on sits above a large salt deposit, resulting in over-salinated water that is not suitable for agricultural use. Had an EIA been conducted this would have been discovered and the disastrous project may have been avoided.

Villagers in both Pak Mun and Rasi Salai have been deprived of their land, livelihoods and way of life. Some villagers have been partially compensated, yet many more have not. The fight for justice continues, 16 years after the construction of both dams.

So is it worth it? Is there a more sustainable way to go about development? Are we willing to make the changes? It’s easy to overlook the consequences of development projects when we are far removed from their impacts, but my experiences during our unit on dams makes me want to make some changes.