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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Week Eight in Review

Last night the fire burned hot, and the breeze carried with it a November cool that those from the northern hemisphere expect and appreciate this time of year. We sat on the floodplain of the Mekong, toes and elbows in the sand, and listened to Annika share her Life Map; stories of people and places and pets who make up the many rivers of her life. Wes and Nick kept feeding the fire that they had prepared for us. Our minds did not drift, and as the stories grew, our laughter and exclamations rose and fell into the darkness. The moon is in its waxing gibbous phase, and our group has hit its stride.

With less than a month’s time left together, our pod of fifteen has found an internal rhythm that works. Students recognize needs and have them met. They think creatively to fill time. They care for one another. They advocate for themselves. New types of leadership are emerging in small and profound ways. We have only a few weeks left with one another, but time is flowing now in a way where specific days do not matter; Thursday’s and Saturday’s and Tuesday’s are insignificant. We just live into the moments rather than for. And here in Thailand in the community of Baan Tamui, it is easy to do just that.

Baan Tamui is a community of farmers and activists on the banks of the Mekong in Khong Chiam District in Ubon Ratchathani Province in Thailand. This village has been lived in since 1858, or year 2,400 in the Buddhist calendar. Up until very recently, the *rhythms of the village were based on the seasons; time flowed with the water and trajectory of the sun. Fish migration was predictable; different species traveled north from the Mekong Delta and Tonle Sap at different times of the year, and the residents of Baan Tamui knew how to fish in a sustainable fashion as to not threaten or disturb the populations. Crops grew on the river banks and there was always a surplus to sell. The economy of this community was reliant upon fisheries and agriculture, and families had enough resources for themselves and for local export. Within the last decade, however, this pattern has changed. Yields are down significantly, and many crops are not grown anymore. Some species of fish have not been found in this region for many years. The cause, according to the residents of Baan Tamui: the dams from upstream.

They first began to notice irregular patterns in water levels around twenty years ago when China began to construct dams along the Mekong. More recently Laos has followed suit and the effects have become more dramatic. The Xayaburi Dam located 800 kilometers upstream in Laos just opened its gates and turned on its turbines in October. It has had a detrimental impact on Baan Tamui’s ability to live along with the seasons. A few years back a dam was proposed for construction only two kilometers upstream from here. The villagers were concerned with what this could mean for their livelihood, and they set about to conduct research in the surrounding area for how it would impact their neighbors’ lives as well. They were able to negotiate with the government and show them statistics about how this dam would have severe social, environmental, and economical repercussions on the region, and the project was put on hold. But in the long-term, the future is less certain.

Baan Tamui is not just being squeezed out by the water, but by land as well. In the Thai government’s pursuit of “seizing back the forest,” the size and enforcement of National Parks has increased. As a result, farm land has diminished. In areas where residents of Baan Tamui used to plant corn, cotton, and cashews, where their cows used to roam free, the National Park rangers now roam and fine and arrest farmers they fine ‘illegally’ using the land. One man in the village shared that he was arrested and sued by the government for using his own land to plant crops. After a pause he said: “I can’t sleep at night. Whatever we do we are always worried it might be illegal or wrong. There are always new rules. We don’t understand why the people who are supposed to rule or take care of the citizens of this country came up with policies without consulting citizens or taking surveys. We have less meaning in the eyes of those with power here. I really feel we are looked at as an unimportant minority.” As he shared this with us, many nodded in agreement. One of the village elders added that was true, but he still continues to grow cashew nuts on the what-is-now-National-Park land. “I’m old,” he said. “It is worth the risk.”

Baan Tamui is adjusting to the circumstances that have been forced upon them. The changes in the climate and land use have caused changes in their way of life. But they want to share their stories, and they are eager to hear about the challenges other communities face in their homes around the world. Our week has been spent in an exchange of information. We have had morning boat rides out to fish, free time spent weaving on the looms, and mornings and afternoons talking with members of the community about agriculture, history, and culture. We had the chance to help prepare for, and participate in, a festival that raised money for the village’s new temple. Dozens of monks were in attendance and we made desserts and barbecued fish for the event. We also had the good fortune of having two of Dragons’ administrators, Reed and Aaron, visit for two days. During their time here we camped out on the banks of the river, had a bonfire, watched a movie on the community center deck, and revisited X-Phase itineraries. We have even had a lice outbreak. We have played volleyball and gone on long walks and slept in home-stays. Our time in Thailand is short, we will be leaving in just a few days, but it is full on. The afternoon and evening breezes have helped keep cool the heart and mind, and every day we have the chance to watch the sun rise and set behind the mountains of Laos. If we have the chance, for a brief moment, to exist with the light and dark of the day, why not do it? Everything is temporary.