By Chularat Saengpassa
Almost two decades after the controversial Kaeng Sua Ten dam project in Phrae province seemed to have been shelved, activist Seng Khwanyuen finds himself preparing to go into battle once again. Flood-hit residents in neighbouring provinces recently started calling on the government to dust off the project and put an end to their miseries.
A kamnan in Song district, Seng says this time he hopes to ensure that the dam project is shelved permanently.
And if he cannot manage to achieve that in his lifetime, he's pinning his hopes on the future generations of tambon Sa-Iab residents.
"They've been 'indoctrinated' to continue the fight," says the 58-year-old.
The first batch of youngsters, called "Takon Yom" [Sediments of the Yom River], all of whom have been trained from a very young age, have now graduated from various universities with some having gone on to study for their master's degrees. "They work and live elsewhere but will return home whenever they are needed to fight off the dam project," he adds.
"We stick to our position: 'No Kaeng Sua Ten dam, and we will not move out. We insist on that now and we will do the same in the next 50 years," he says.
Seng is not being bull-headed: he feels for the flood-affected people but says the dam is not the solution. And science backs him up.
Studies and research by a large number of institutes, the Thailand Development Research Fund, have concluded that Kaeng Sua Ten dam project, which would flood a vast area in Mae Yom national park where it would be sited, could not prevent seasonal flooding in the province, nor in Sukhothai, Phitsanulok and Phichit.
Seng has given lectures and attended numerous meetings in those provinces to meet with residents and explain to them about the studies and research, but continues to face criticism. They accuse Sa-iab residents of being selfish. "Even Phrae residents in other areas still say we lack insight and fail to foresee the benefits of the dam project," he says.
"In addition to research and studies, I always ask them why provinces located south of many dams built along the Ping, Wang and Nan Rivers are still flooded each year."
These days, Seng goes out less often to meet with residents and assigns the task to younger activists on the Takon Yom team.
Seng and his friends are currently meeting with Sukhothai residents to discuss the issue and he claims they are reaching an understanding. "I don't want to hear anything like 'victory belongs to Phrae residents while defeat goes to those in Sukhothai'. It's not productive. I want residents in both provinces to enjoy a win-win situation without the Kaeng Sua Ten dam existing, which would be best for all," he says.
A network of locals living in the four-province region, called the Yom River network, has been set up comprising residents living in 98 tambons, thanks to more understandings being reached, he explains. Members of the network are frequently invited to visit tambon Sa-iab to see with their own eyes just how useful and beneficial the forest is to everyday life.
Six thousand people now live in Tambon Sa-iab. Along with the some 3,000 homes that would be flooded if the dam were built, the country would lose 29,569 rai of fertile forests, another 28,831 rai of forest reserves, 21,481 rai of Mae Yom national park, and 11,206 rai of golden teak forests, the country's most fertile and complete.
Seng says the forests and canals in tambon Sa-iab are so rich in food that most residents live for days without money, simply by harvesting plants and fish. "With only Bt100, some families can live four or five days buying only the non-food items they need.
He's looked closely at the lives of residents driven from their homes as a result of other dam projects, including Pak Mool dam in Ubon Ratchathani and Pa Sak Chonlasit dam in Lop Buri, and is saddened at how local cultures and lifestyles have been lost, in addition to the permanent loss of natural sources of foods and insufficient compensation.
Seng, who left school at the end of fourth grade, is currently taking adult education classes and striving to complete his high-school diploma. He's also learning computer skills, which he says are important for his lectures. "Computer literacy is difficult for me, but the audience would not be convinced by my explanations alone without figures and details shown to them in graphic form during lectures and meetings," he says.
"Forestland is for us to conserve because it benefits humans in so many ways. Sa-iab people will protect their forest until their last breath".