CASE STUDY FOR EMPOWERMENT AND DEMOCRATISATION HIGH LEVEL PANEL
Thai Baan Research (Villagers’ Research): Local Wisdom for Resources Management
By Chainarong Sretthachau, Ph.D. Candidate, Tai Studies Program, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Mahasarakham University, Mahasarakham, Thailand, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thai Baan research ― research undertaken by villagers ― has recently emerged as a counter-hegemonic approach, aiming to reveal local knowledge about the environment and how villagers interact with it. It reveals their practical understanding of the complexity and dynamics of natural resources, the way resources have been used, and the moral economy of those who depend on them for their livelihoods.
Thai Baan research was established in 2000 when the Thai government agreed to open the Pak Mun Dam sluice gates to evaluate the social and environmental impacts from the dam’s operation. In this case, for the Pak Mun villagers who tried many ways to voice their concern and register their grievances about the environment, economic and social impacts of dam construction, the Thai Baan research has proven a means and another phase of their contested development. Many academic institutes were assigned by the Thai government to conduct various types of research but the reports did not reflect the “social reality” and ecological situation from the point of view of the affected-villagers. Academics from Chiang Mai University, the Southeast Asia Rivers Network, a regional non-governmental organisation and villagers affected by the Pak Mun Dam developed the Thai Baan research approach in order to collect data on issues such as local knowledge of fish, traditional fishing gear, natural plants and herbs, ecosystems and activities which returned after the opening of the dam gates. The research conducted was published and submitted to the Thai government to coincide with findings submitted by academic institutes. This type of research was meaningful for the villagers because were able to take control over the process and “write” their own story on how they perceive and interact with their environment and how to coexist harmoniously with it.
The findings of the Thai Baan research at Pak Mun have gained acceptance by academics, the media and civil society groups. The methodology utilised has been adopted and replicated throughout other areas in Thailand such as Rasi Salai, along the Upper Mekong in Chiang Khong, the Salween River along the Thai-Burmese border and the Songkram River Basin in the northeast. This expansion has allowed for an informal network of researchers to develop, share information and learn from each other.
The Thai Baan methodology represents an approach that builds on local people’s wisdom, experience and traditional culture for assessment and monitoring of natural resources and livelihoods. It presents an opportunity for dealing with the challenges of long-term regular monitoring of complex, dynamic river systems that allows local resource users themselves to set their own research agenda, collect and analyse data, and contribute to making informed management decisions.
The methodology pays specific attention to including all villagers who are interested in engaging in the research. Villager researchers are selected by members of their own communities. Research teams are identified and involved in setting up their own terms of reference including collecting field data, taking samples and recording information based on their everyday local practices. With support from research assistants (students and/or NGOs workers) the research findings are analysed into a final report. Regular meetings/workshops are held among the Thai Baan researchers to present the findings, review the information and seek comments from a wider network of stakeholders such as academics, government officials and other interested parties.
Techniques employed in Thai Baan research are field surveys, groups discussions, key informant interviews and photo documentation.
Objectives of Thai Baan
The methodology developed by Thai Baan research does not only aim to focus on collecting data on local knowledge but also aims to empower local villagers. The villagers involved in the research are able to present their own social reality such as the importance of their livelihoods and the linkages to the natural resource base which often has been ignored in traditional research methodologies and decision-making processes. The Thai Baan research presents a concrete example of how common villagers can conduct and utilise research to negotiate the imbalance of power relations that exist in the process of knowledge production and development.
In the case of the Upper Mekong in Chiang Khong, northern Thailand, Thai Baan research was conducted and used to influence the decision-making process around a large development project, the Upper Mekong Navigation Channel Improvement Project. Local people and NGOs submitted their findings to key State environment and human rights agencies to compare and contrast with data collected for the environmental impact assessment (EIA) by a consultancy company.
Since Thai Baan Research was established it has gained acceptance from academics, environmental journalists and civil society groups.
At the local level the Thai Baan approach has been modified by academics, NGOs and villagers and replicated in several areas in North and Northeast Thailand. Villagers from all over the country who are affected by degradation of natural resources and poor planning and implementation of development projects are interested to conduct the research using the Thai Baan approach.
Nationally Thai Baan has gained acceptance by the National Human Rights Commission and various Senate sub-committees of Thailand. The Commission and Senate have organised several hearings and forums to allow villagers to present findings from their research. This has been a significant opportunity for local villagers to be heard and inform decision-makers.
Regionally Thai Baan has been introduced to other Mekong countries such as Cambodia and Viet Nam. In both cases, the methodology is adapted to the local situation. Learning and exchanges are conducted among villagers in the different countries to gain more expertise on how to implement the approach within local contexts.
Despite the strong support of the Thai Baan approach by academics and civil society in Thailand, politicians and consultants for development projects often do not accept the research findings because it is not seen as scientific. In addition, Thai Baan research, which reflects realities on the ground, has often proved that previous development projects should not be developed in their current form and therefore the findings are usually discredited by development planners.
In addition, in order for communities to engage in the Thai Baan approach they need to allocate significant amount of time to the process. This is not always easy for local villagers who have other responsibilities within their households. Taking time to collect data in the field, obtain samples and record information is time-consuming. Therefore, Thai Baan research still needs to rely on the strong support from academics, students and NGO workers who provide significant help in the collection and analysis of data and report writing.
Expansion of Thai Baan
In 2004, the Thai Baan approach was expanded to the Ramsar sites in the Lower Mekong in Cambodia and Viet Nam. In Cambodia, Thai Baan research (which is known as “Sala Phoum”) is carried out by ethnic groups in Stung Treng, the NGO Culture and Environmental Preservation Association (CEPA), Health Unlimited (HU) and the Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity Programme (MWBP). In Viet Nam, Thai Baan Research is conducted by An Giang University, Tram Chim National Park, Lang Sen Preserve Forest, Care International and the MWBP.
The process of Thai Baan in Cambodia and Viet Nam was started by local people and NGOs after participating in exchange visits to the Thai Baan site in the Songkhram River Basin. The exchange provided opportunities for learning and sharing about the methodology and techniques used. After the exchanges each group held meetings to discuss their research interests. A technical workshop was organised to train research assistants, and a community workshop was organised to train villager researchers.
In addition to setting up research sites in Cambodia and Viet Nam, the Thai Baan approach also aims to develop an informal network among researchers. The regional network is being further developed and it is planned that this network will continue to exchange information and experience and become the basis for civil society engagement in the monitoring of change.
The strength of the network lies in local people talking to local people. This influences how workshops and meetings are held. While there have been several regional attempts to bring local people and civil society groups together the format of these workshops and meetings have largely followed a formal conference, with presentations, questions and answer sessions. This type of forum rarely allows for genuine discussion, and is too easily dominated by those most familiar with these tools of presentation and argument.
It is hard to say what the total ‘cost’ of the Thai Baan research has been so far. It is also hard to calculate the total ‘benefit’. There has been a huge contribution of unpaid effort and knowledge by people in many different communities. Suffice to say that the cost of this research and networking has been very demanding on time and commitment, but requiring of relatively modest amounts of cash.
Innovation of Thai Baan
The Thai Baan approach is providing innovative solutions to complex water management issues in the Mekong Region. The findings of the Thai Baan research are important documentation of local knowledge that illustrates the inter-connections between ecosystems, livelihoods and culture. This provides a baseline for future ecological assessments. It is information and analysis that would otherwise not be available in a way that supports local people’s participation in development planning decisions. It provides a basis for more informed, balanced negotiations between local stakeholders and government. By working with local development institutions and gaining the support of provincial and national government agencies the Thai Baan is complementary to decentralisation initiatives and national policy towards more integrated water resources planning and the establishment of river basin organisations.
The value of this knowledge is being recognised in the way that it is being incorporated into local school curriculum and the basis of training programmes and field visits by regional academic institutions.
Lessons learnt & key messages
Villager-led research groups are now operating in northern and northeast Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam. The villagers are the researchers. Those helping them are research assistants. By involving a large number of resource users, the research process can be linked with local planning. Thai Baan research is also a mechanism for local people to assess management options and to better present their interests on development decision-making processes such as in the case of the Songkram River Basin in northeast Thailand.
Thus, traditional research hierarchies are being turned upside down. Thai Baan is boosting the understanding of communities and government officials of the links between rivers, wetlands and rural livelihoods.
Thai Baan has rapidly gained credibility by ‘bringing in’ and respecting the knowledge of local fishers and farmers, and effectively communicating their knowledge to other actors through photo exhibitions, Thai and English booklets and videos.
As Thai Baan is already in the process of being replicated in other parts of the region, early lessons indicate that the methodology and implementation need to be adapted to the local situation.
This local action is very inspiring to others and has developed a great deal of interest among government, universities, international/regional/local non-government organizations and others.
Thai Baan is about building on local knowledge, empowering local people to engage in decision-making processes, building on movements of researchers, and contribute to local development planning opportunities.
Friend, Richard “Local Wisdom for River Basin Management: Thai Baan Research in the Songkhram River Basin”, Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity Programme (MWBP) 2004.
SEARIN and Assembly of the Poor, The Return of Fish, River Ecology and Local Livelihoods of the Mun River: A Thai Baan (Villagers’) Research, November 2004.
Sretthachau, Chainarong, Richard Friend, Rattaporn Pitaktapsombat, “Thai Baan Research: An Overview” forthcoming