Governing the Mekong: Engaging in the Politics of Knowledge
Editors: Rajesh Daniel, Louis Lebel, Kanokwan Manorom
Publisher: SIRD, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (June 2013)
Download book flyer Governing Mekong Flyer_with TOC.
Publisher: SIRD, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (June 2013)
Download book flyer Governing Mekong Flyer_with TOC.
Explorations on using video for improving research and communication in resource governance by Rajesh Daniel. Paper presented at the panel session on Filmed Ecologies: Possibilities and Challenges in Environmental Communication at the 11th International Conference on Thai Studies – Visions of the Future, held in Siam City Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand on July 26-28, 2011.
In recent years, it has become increasingly common to take cameras and videos to meetings, interviews and for fieldwork. In my research work in Thailand and the Mekong region, video was frequently used to complement a research project.
The use of video in social research has become more widespread and my own work and that of colleagues has evolved and benefited from learning about similar efforts in various fields. For example, Bateson and Mead (1942) were the pioneers in using visual image observation in the field of anthropology. Later the term “visual anthropology” gained wider use after Collier and Collier (1986)  who wrote a practical guide for using photography as a research method.
My primary use of video has been as a research tool in interviewing people and filming where and how they live and practice their livelihoods. One of the positives of video is it clearly communicates who and what we see, who we choose to listen, and to reach our conclusions. At the same time, the interviewees also grasp not only their own but also other’s viewpoints especially when put next to each other in an edited film.
Filming interviews and watching the recorded footage of seminars, as people’s perspectives were shown side by side on film, often helps to better understand the issues and people’s views, afford new insights into local resource or governance politics, and act as a more direct format for communicating ‘ethnography’.
There are also experiments using the video filming as a “process” and not just documentary film as a “product” that is obtained after hours of filming and editing. It seemed that the process of interviewing people and watching/listening to them on film by itself often helped break through difficult research situations such as when ethnic language was a barrier. The process of filming helped improve understanding of resource conflicts and sometimes even facilitated dialogue meetings on resource management.
This paper explores some experiences with video in Thailand and the Mekong region to draw lessons and reflections on the use of video in social science research and, in particular, in resource governance. It also poses some questions and ethical concerns about video technology as the format can lend itself to abuse. With digital video, it is as easy to show genuine scenes, as it is to move content and people out of context to serve certain interests and agendas.
The paper is structured in five parts. After this section one, the introduction, section two provides a brief background and literature review of the use of video in social science especially in the fields of anthropology and sociology. Section three briefly explains the use of video and some ideas about visual research, and why I think it’s useful to incorporate video, in particular as complementary to research.
Section four illustrates some of my video experiences from Thailand and the Mekong region, with some lessons and reflections as well as questions. For example, can video/visual research improve resource governance? Can the process of filming foster empowerment and participation? Or improve efforts to raise awareness on health and ecosystem related issues? It also looks at some of the challenges both technological and practical. The last section five is on video politics and ethical concerns related to the use of video in research that explores how video is not a neutral technology and there are significant questions of simplification, power and control when used in research.
For the full paper, please contact the author.
The floods are over. We have lived through Thailand’s worst floods in almost half a century. All of Oct and Nov we waited tensely for the floods to descend on our home on Bangkok. We bought and stocked up on provisions, moved things to the 2nd floor, sealed the house and moved to Rawin’s grandparents on 22 Oct. A few days later, the floods peaked and hit the outlying areas of Bangkok. In Nov, our house and surrounding areas were considered at risk.
After weeks of tense waiting, by mid-November, the waters finally came around and flooded the nearby roads and some of the streets of our house in Bangkok. It was perversely a relief to know that the waters were finally all around us. Our house remained dry. We have been more fortunate than most people in central Thailand and Bangkok. We are totally grateful for this.
Now the floodwaters have finally decreased in many areas and people have been returning to their homes and fields to assess and repair the damage and try to return their lives to some semblance of normalcy.
Now, a look at what happened. Granted Bangkok and most of the central Thailand provinces that form a large floodplain do receive northern run-offs every year. As an ecological activist pointed out recently in a detailed presentation in Chiang Mai, floods happen every year. A number of provinces in the lower north and central Thailand suffer damage to crops, orchards and rice fields as well as homes and property. On occasion, some people are also swept away by fast-flowing rivers and lives are lost. And every year, the government doles out compensation to farmers and families. And life goes on … until the next year’s floods.
So in 2011 what was different? At least three major factors. One, the sheer volume of water was a lot higher than in the previous years. Two, this was because of a lot more rain: the 2nd monsoon rains usually lasts for several weeks in July/Aug but this year continued all throughout Sept aided by a couple of tropical storms. Last, the large volume of water did not all come from the rains, but 4 dams in the lower northern region stored then released their “excess storage” water around the same time that the northern run-off was reaching the central plains.
In a rare moment of political candour, the Agriculture Minister admitted that he had ordered the dams in the lower north to store water despite being in “excess” of capacity for irrigating rice fields in the central plains. When the rains did not stop, the 4 dams were forced to release a large volume of water suddenly and very late in Sept, rather than releasing smaller volumes starting from Aug, making the entire situation far worse than it could have been.
Then when the flood situation worsened, there came the complete and gross mismanagement of the disaster relief operations mainly featuring misleading information (and cover-up of the extent of flooding) and administrative quarrels and cock-ups.
Infighting among bureaucracies, and between the ruling Pheu Thai Party government’s Ministers and the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (headed by an elected Governor from the opposition Democrat Party) – Petty quarrels continued on whether a letter had reached the relevant minister’s office or not, or about borders and administrative jurisdictions.
The lack of up-to-date information on the volume and timing of the flood waters and what often seemed to be a “people will cope with it as best as they can” attitude – Sometimes communities were assured they were completely safe, then suddenly given orders to “evacuate within 2-3 hours”.
Misleading official proclamations (more often soundbites) that only made situations worse – For instance the Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Surasawadi (who gave us the infamous Night Safari and the Salween timber logging scandals) telling a press conference not to worry, he will use 1,000 speedboats to propel the floods into the sea through the Chao Phraya River.
But then at least he was around albeit either being really useless or at best providing tragi-comic relief. But some other politicians went completely missing from the action not giving a rat’s arse whether the rest of the country was drowning or not. Most notable was deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung (he later popped up along with a secret decree to sneak the fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra back to Thailand), who disappeared from the public eye for almost the entire month of October when the flood disaster was at its peak.
Flood relief was not always reaching everywhere and everyone on time, leaving large areas of people waiting and waiting – Many supply trucks were hastily covered in banners and signs by opportunistic politicians more interested in advertising their names and getting political mileage out of relief efforts.
Among these watery ruins, bickering and political delinquency, the newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ran around in boats and helicopters, giving out relief packages, holding meetings and trying to secure some vestige of leadership but often giving the impression of someone not fully able to cope.
But there were also some very good things. The Thai media has been doing a great job, especially television, taking up the slack and providing updated information and analysis. Many TV reporters went everywhere, working from 6 am to midnight, getting interviews, doing analysis back at the studio, providing maps and data, taking calls from people who were stranded without food or water, and TV channels even rushing their own relief supplies to many areas. Many newspaper reporters wrote heart-wrenching stories about farmers and communities, and a few even about their own experiences in evacuating from their flooded home.
For once, the Thai army was a big help to people rather than relying on its usual method of staging coups or shooting civilians. The army’s large cadre of young soldiers often waded neck-deep in waters pulling and pushing boatloads of people, distributing supplies using trucks and helicopters and providing technical know-how in building sandbag barriers.
Then there were the hundreds of people helping each other, friends and neighbours and students and many others who took boats and distributed food and water or volunteered to put up sandbags or repair flood barriers through the night.
So what happens now? The clean-up after the flood waters has begun.
And the clean-up in terms of governance and accountability? Well, a few things that could take place (in a perfect world probably) where decision-makers would show or take accountability for their mistakes, lessons would be learned, and preparations put in for the next potential natural disaster.
At least one official, the Agriculture Minister, would be asked to resign. Or even better, is it possible to charge him with criminal negligence causing several billion baht damage to crops, industry and property, and culpable homicide for the loss of more than 500 lives in the floods? The many politicians who went missing in what was arguably one of the worst flooding disasters in Thailand’s recent history would have to explain where they were and why they did not help, and be penalised for their truancy.
A complete stock-taking of dam operations would begin, especially their water storage and release plans, and how these decisions are now made given that the period and duration of the monsoon rains are not as predictable as before.
Another stock-taking would begin of the infrastructure development, both past and planned, especially construction of large industrial estates that are situated right in the flood plain channels and that have drained wetlands and swamps, and blocked canals and natural river run-offs.
Also a closer look at what works and doesn’t (and why) in disaster prevention and mitigation, and how these can be improved.
None of this has happened so far.
No one is holding their breath.
SIEMENPUU INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL “SIIRRETYT-DISPLACED”
During 1-10 October 2011, Siemenpuu Foundation organized activities including seminars on minority and indigenous peoples’ rights, displaced people and Mekong region energy issues as well as an International Film Festival “Siirretyt-Displaced” (6-9 October) in Kino Engel (Sofiankatu 4), Helsinki, Finland. It was attended by many film makers from Asia and Europe. We also had panel discussions including a beers-round table in a pub.
My film “The Mekong – Grounds of Plenty” was screened at the festival.
About 1000 people attended the film festival and some 200 participated in the seminars and activities. More information is available at http://www.displaced.info/.
Democratizing Water Governance in the Mekong Region. 2007. Lebel, L., Dore, J., Daniel, R., Koma, Y.S. (Eds.) Silkworm Books/Mekong Press, Chiang Mai. 284 pages. http://www.mekongpress.com/catalog/detail.php?isbn=9789749511251.
Over the last few decades, the Mekong region has been facing complex pressures and challenges in water governance driven by a range of economic integration efforts and relationships motivated by national self-interest.
This book, the first in a four-volume series, brings together the work of researchers, scholars, activists, and leaders in the Mekong region to provide a baseline, state-of-knowledge review of the contemporary politics and discourses of water use, sharing, and management, and their implications for local livelihoods.
The chapters critically analyze contested discourses on such topics as regional hydropower development, floods, and irrigation, along with the broader yet interrelated issues of gender, media, dialogue, and impact assessment. The writers explore the interplay of power relationships between actors such as state planners, regional institutions, the private sector, and various water users, in particular, politically marginalized groups including women, urban and rural poor, and ethnic peoples. The diverse array of topics and perspectives provides a sound basis for engaging in policy-related action.
The book will appeal to a broad readership and, at the same time, contribute to the Mekong region’s search for democratic water governance options.
Sustainable Production Consumption Systems: Knowledge, Engagement and Practice. 2010. Lebel, L., Lorek, S., Daniel, R. (Eds.) Springer Verlag, New York, 278 pages. http://www.springer.com/environment/book/978-90-481-3089-4?detailsPage=toc.
The pursuit of sustainability in particular places and sectors often founders at the edges. Efforts to tackle environmental problems in one place shift them somewhere else or are overwhelmed by external changes in drivers. Gains in energy efficiency of appliances used in houses are offset by greater total numbers or compensating changes in patterns of use. Analytical perspectives and practical initiatives which treat production and consumption jointly are needed to compliment experiences and efforts with sector-, place-, product- and consumer-oriented approaches.
There is now a growing body of scholarship exploring a diverse range of initiatives and experiments aimed at enabling sustainable production-consumption systems. From this body of work flow useful insights for others who would engage, for example, in re-designing relationships around and with technologies and resources in view as in product service systems or markets for the poor.
A systems view of production-consumption systems currently has some limitations related to complexity. For instance most analysts and practitioners struggle to cope with issues of both scale and network linkages simultaneously. Interdisciplinary challenges also increase when the two-way interactions between social institutions and human behavior are related to material flows and transformations. Research- and experienced-based knowledge plays a critical role in many initiatives, but it is rarely separable from issues of power.
This book brings together a set of designed case studies intended to provide a more in-depth understanding of challenges and opportunities in bringing knowledge and actions closer together for the sustainable management of specific production and consumption systems. The case study approach often enabled researchers to engage directly with some of the actors involved in the production, consumption or regulation of specific goods or services and other stakeholders impacted by those processes. Such engagement was particularly worthwhile when it helped mobilize actors to pursue linking knowledge with action in ways that improve the prospects for sustainability.
Critical States: Environmental Challenges to Development in Monsoon Southeast Asia. 2009. Lebel, L., Snidvongs, A., Chen, C.-T.A., Daniel, R. (Eds.) Gerakbudaya, Kuala Lumpur. 473 pages. http://www.gerakbudaya.com/products-page/asian-studies/critical-states-environmental-challenges-to-development-in-monsoon-southeast-asia/
The peoples of Southeast Asia share a common need for action: a proactive engagement with and forward-looking response to the multi-level environmental and social changes which are redefining vulnerabilities and opportunities in development.
Extraordinarily rapid economic development has radically transformed urban-industrial, agrarian and marine environments throughout Southeast Asia. Future development is now being constrained by the consequences of decades of largely unregulated exploitation of the region’s rich natural resources and biodiversity. It has also increased or altered the vulnerabilities of Southeast Asian populations to both climatic variability and global economic shifts.
Critical States provides transboundary “state-of-the-science” reviews, case studies, and assessments of issues in the environmental change-development nexus, including: governance and institutional challenges, urbanization, climate change, poverty, and land-energy-water use.
After the Logging Ban: Politics of Forest Management in Thailand. 2005. Daniel, R. (Ed.) Foundation for Ecological Recovery (PER), Bangkok. 220 pages. http://www.terraper.org/publications.php (price 350 baht).
The book reviews the state of forests and forest policies in Thailand and shows why the nationwide ban on logging concessions declared in 1989 seems to have had little or no effect in halting forest degradation.
The book reveals how Thailand’s often corrupt forestry industry is exploiting forest resources not just in the country but across its borders such as in Burma and Cambodia, while other efforts to cash in on forest areas such as establishing large-scale tree plantations are bringing their own set of ecological problems and social conflicts.
In examining the critical problems with the forest conservation ideology of the Thai state, the book unveils how conservation areas such as national parks are placing more restrictions on access to forest resources by local communities as well as discouraging local forest conservation efforts. Meanwhile, important legal initiatives for increased local control over forests including the “People’s Community Forest Bill” are struggling to materialize.
The book points to new ways to build social spaces towards strengthening community-based resource management and reverse the present trends of forest destruction in Thailand.
A healthy Mekong River is central to mainland Southeast Asia’s food security. The rich wild capture fisheries of the Mekong River and its ecosystems feed not only people living alongside the river but are crucial for the livelihoods of millions of people across mainland Southeast Asia.
Caught using an array of nets, baskets and traps, and cooked in many amazing ways, the wild fish catch provides protein and essential nutrients. Yet, the interconnection between the Mekong River’s well-being and the fish on a family’s plate is not so apparent in the urban centers.
The film shows the Mekong River’s wild fish being caught and processed, and its passage through networks of trade as people work through the night and day to transport the catch to villages and towns, to markets, homes and restaurants.
Filmed in over 30 locations across the Mekong region
from Cambodia and Laos to Thailand and Vietnam.
Produced by: Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience (M-POWER), Unit for Social and Environmental Research (USER) and International Rivers.
For DVD copies please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
Full version available online at: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7225/The-Mekong—Grounds-of-Plenty.
Short version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeQYG0Idy-8
The film was screened at:
1. “Siirretyt (Displaced)” film festival organized by the Siemenpuu Foundation, Helsinki, 10-12 October 2011.
2. “Lifescapes” Southeast Asian film festival, Payap University, Chiang Mai, 2-5 February 2012.
“So you’ve finished a film recently?” the academic from a well-known university asked. The tone was one of amusement, as if she had found a mouse under her chair and it was dead. “So you’ve found a dead mouse under my chair?”.
I replied yes, it had taken some time but now it’s finally done after a year and a half. She asked, “So what was your role in the film?”. I said quite matter-of-factly, “I did the camera and was the director”.
“Ah, the technical stuff?” she queried, and gave a disparaging laugh.
Yes, the technical stuff. The research, then the script reworked and revised and then revised some more, the camera work across four countries and around 30 locations working from early dawn to late night in all kinds of situations. The transcripts of interviews and the translations from the four regional languages, and the final painstaking corrections of the English language subtitles. And then the long, long hours of editing, trying to turn 50 hours of footage into a 47 minute film. Yes, all very “technical”. I was upset that my creativity was not being recognised. Then I realised, why be ashamed of this word technical. Yes, film-making is indeed technical. It’s not that different from a university engineer building a bridge or a 60 storey building.
Yes, film-making is a craft, not only an art, and it takes a lot of patience and skill and time and energy. And yes, it takes a lot of knowledge about what one is doing. It seems in this multimedia digital era, where a child can (and often does) cut and paste digital footage into a film (and that’s a good thing, the ease of technology), it’s often forgotten that documentary film-making can still require so much of the film-maker.
It’s easy to dismiss a documentary filmmaker. It seems we have to be Al Gore or Mike Moore to be perceived as a good documentary maker. But in this digital day and age, even a 10 second clip on a mobile phone can become a documentary film depending on its content. And then we have an effort like ours – 47 minutes after more than a year of hard work. And I do say “ours”, because this film was due to not just long hours but an effort of collaboration by many people, those who funded us, did research for us, helped us to go to the right locations and gave advice. Sometimes it was people we had just met for the first time who allowed us into their busy lives, who simply assented to go on camera to tell us about their work and fears, to trust in us. To be disparaging of such a collaborative effort is not only inhumane but more simply to lack any imagination whatsoever.
We need to welcome all kinds of efforts at multimedia, not just from the Gore’s and Moore’s. From the simple mobile telephone-handheld 10 minute shot of a dam inside Burma (taken at great risk to the videomaker) to the 3 hour-long feature, we need to relish and revel in their efforts. If one is socially activist, why be restricted to just words at a seminar or the written article. Why not multimedia, when the power of the visual can provide such clarity to a life situation. If one wants to be engaged in the public sphere, why would one wish to denigrate the power of film, or the small efforts of the filmmaker as she or he tries to bring some small slice of reality in the visual medium into your lives.