My Activism

This memo presents my insights and reflections as an activist engaged in social and environmental movement over 20 years. Rooted on my own activism experiences I pleads for a new solidarity across social classes and generations in the work for a greener and fairer future of Thailand. Its achievements must be the result of actions by ordinary people creating a vision for change.

Southeast Asia is considered to be the most vulnerable and least prepared to cope with the impacts of climate change, I touches on sensitive matters within the local and regional movements engaged in struggles for climate justice as well as the ongoing debate in Thailand to strengthen the environmental  governance highlights the importance of moving away from the business as usual approach which has resulted in dramatic ecological damages and significant well-being for poorest of the poor.

The notion that human and environmental health is the price to pay for progress is in fact the root of the most critical humanitarian and environmental crises that many developing countries, including Thailand, have been facing. I agree that it is a paradigm that locks nations in a vicious cycle of poverty and ecological degradation that is contrary to any concept of development. To break away from this cycle of decline, it must be acknowledged that there is a model of development that is sustainable and just in which concern citizens, communities and people from all walk of life across Thailand and other Southeast Asia Nations can offer.

Back to the Future :

In 2002 I had a privilege working on translation for one of the famous reports “Jo’Burg Memo: Fairness in A Fragile World”[1] for audiences in Thailand. It was a moment when I realized the mutual and intricate relationship of ecology and equity. The Jo’Burg Memo elaborated that ;

Some claim that humanity faces a choice between human misery and natural catastrophe. This choice is false. We are convinced that human misery can be eliminated without catalyzing natural catastrophes. Conversely, natural catastrophes can indeed be avoided without condemning people to a life of misery. Getting ready to meet this challenge, however, requires revisiting the technologies, the institutions, and the world views that dominate the globe today.” 

Prior to World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), I worked with team of academics to finalize “White Paper on Industrial Development in the Existing Context of Globalization and its Impacts on Sustainability.”[2] We pointed it out that ;

“It is not the discussion about whether or not communities deserve to have a clean environment in which to live and prosper. Rather, it is about the myth that industrialization is the only path to development, and it is about the extent to which the bulk of the global economy (that controlled by the Multinational Corporations) now lies beyond the control of any democratically elected entity. It is also about the choices that lie behind decisions that one community, rather than another, will reap the benefits of industrialization while another will bear the burden”.

In 2007 I had been invited to be a moderator for the launch of “Human Development Report 2007/2008 : Fighting Climate Change – Human Solidarity in a Divided World”[3] organized by United Nations Development Program in Bangkok. The report put out to facilitate the debate on climate change mitigation and adaptation. It used term “Ecological interdependence” to address the inverse relationship between responsibility for climate change and vulnerability to its impacts ; 

“Ecological interdependence is not an abstract concept. We live today in a world that is divided at many levels. People are separated by vast gulfs in wealth and opportunity. In many regions, rival nationalisms are a source of conflict. All too often, religious, cultural and ethnic identities are treated as a source of division and difference from others. In the face of all these differences, climate change provides a potent reminder of the one thing that we share in common. It is called planet Earth. All nations and all people share the same atmosphere. And we only have one”.

When I began thinking about the content of this memo I set out the focus based on my own learning and experiences over the past 20 years. The challenge is to consider whether to take an academic or an activism approach. In order to generate the momentum required to face the challenge of defining moment, we need to inspire people – ordinary man and woman to grasp the context of a range of urgent issues and possibilities of solving them. In this sense I have decided to tell my own story.

Personal Account

Having spent my innocent years and adult life in social and environmental activism, I have learnt some key lessons as Kumi Naidoo[4] put it;

First, ordinary people have to get involved. History shows us it is not the action of ordinary people that lead to catastrophe like conflict and war. Terrible things happen when respectable man and woman stand by and don’t speak out. One single conclusion is that in some countries where there is, or recently been, large-scale conflict there is less scope for the rights of association many of us enjoy.

My first act of resistance to environmental injustice was in 1986, standing up together with student fellow all over the country for the right to protect our last remaining forest. I joined “the Student Committee for Natural Resource and Environmental Conservation” that played an integral role on “Anti-Nam Chon Dam movement”. The movement is collective actions of various groups from forest people, local residents of Kanchanaburi province, academics, students, mass media and non-governmental organizations to stop the mega-hydro power project to be built inside Thung Yai Naraesaun Wildlife Sanctuary. It focused largely on cultural aspects of the issue through the inventing discourses, inventing of tradition, and constructing of common identity. The Nam Chon Dam Project was finally cancelled in 1988.

The anti-Nam Chon Dam movement was phenomenon. Despite it did not lead to alteration of power structure and its control over natural resources management, or did not pave the way for an achievement of other social movement that protested against dam projects in subsequent period, it has been observed that the movement revealed a significant feature of a “new social movement”. It was an inspiring action. This is what effect the movement is having in term of change.

Student movement had brought me up to get involved in a wider social movement. I have learnt and worked with vibrant network of people working on community forest, appropriate technology, small-scale fisherfolk, impact of tourism, conflict over resources, self-reliance local economy, wildlife protection and toxic pollution from industrial development.

I had the benefit of attending Chiang Mai University during my years of soul searching. This gave me the academic background and intellectual exercises to support my experience, it is as the saying goes “practice without theory is blind; theory without practice is sterile”.

In the Movement

The term “social movement” is used by many different people and institutions to serve different interests. The one I referred to is the movement that is a collective act of will to relate to people and nature with respect, not the one that is both a promised result and/or prerequisite of top-down conventional economic development[5].

In the face of the current convergence of large-scale crises, it is imperative that we need to re-framing social movement space for the future. How do we identify ourselves and consequently our role today? Where do we apply people energy? One of the prominent human rights reminded that: “Firstly it is important to accept the notion that social movement as well as civil society cannot be strengthened in a vacuum. It must be achieved in the context of real people and real problems”[6]

During the 1980s many activists around the world embraced a simple but evocative slogan: “Think globally, act locally”. The message was that in acting at the local level, one needed to understand how global forces impacted on local reality. In short, trying to tackle local issues without understanding the ever-increasing power of global processes was tactically inappropriate.

By the mid-1990s, activist from the global south began to question this logic. Some asked whether this did not trap social movement and civil society in solely local interventions when in fact many of this cause being persues locally had reached the point where they need to be advance on the global scale, within the context of global forum and process. They argued that perhaps we need to turn this slogan on its head and instead learn to “think locally, act globally”. In the reality, citizen action does not have the luxury to think only globally or locally and to act only globally or locally. They need to do both and understand how these different levels of governance interact with each other.

There is an urgent need for new paradigms about how we think about development. The saying that goes, “give a man a fish and he is fed for a day, but teach a man to fish and he can feed himself forever,” is in need of revision. If you teach a man to fish, does he have a line and net to be able to catch any fish? Does he have access to water? Can he get his fish to the market to earn income? If the man fished, do any of the fish get to other member of the family? And do the poor even like eating fish at all? Are the poor actually sitting by unpolluted and well-stock water, just waiting to learn how to catch fish? Or the issue really one of power and poverty? Is social movement’s job to teach the poor, or to people identify their own needs and ensure the right questions are asked?

The challenge is to think out of box, rather than allowing social movement to be constrained by limitations of current institutional reality. Can we imagine the world that can be genuinely more just and equitable; ultimately one that can be safeguarded for future generations? In the act of seeking to realize this version, we can actively do our parts as social movement to close the gap on the democratic deficit.

Campaign Journey

I joined Greenpeace at the end of 1998 when the organization has already been for almost 30 years. As a new comer I asked colleagues how organization has been able to thrive for a three decade. One of the most respected activists put it:

“Ture, Greenpeace is an environmental group. But above all, Greenpeace stands for the continuity of its core message “There is another way of doing things”…with responsibility, courage and unbroken will.”

“There is no law of nature that says people have to stand by and helplessly watch how narrow-minded politicians and short-sighted captain of industry blow our children’s future. There are still people around whose sole aim in life is not to have subordinates and dependants licks their boots” he added.

Each of our activities is an appeal to citizens to use their common sense. It is hugely visible objection to standard phrases used to dull people’s wits : “There is no other way, it’s not as bad as all that, we have everything under control. There’s nothing you can do anyway.”

Of course there is another way. A way that make ecological sense. A way that bear responsibility for the need of coming generations. According to the principle of precautionary action. The result : better quality of life. It is not because the technological possibilities are not available. Greenpeace has ever built CFC-free refrigerators and super-efficient car to prove that it is possible. If social pressure is sufficient and citizens and consumers assert themselves, all of a sudden industry has no problem switching over to ecologically acceptable products and production methods.

When it comes to the overall environmental picture, the story of Greenpeace and of the entire environmental movement is not a success story. Certainly, rivers have become cleaner in several industrialized countries. Whales enjoy better protection and CFCs have been banned. But at the same time, global problems involving issues such as water or the climate have grown. Unfortunately, it is still true to say that man’s attitude to the future is that of mayfly to a year.

In this regards, it should not be forgotten that Greenpeace was always a work in progress. Greenpeace is self-organized, multicultural. It always consciously fostered a cultural of difference. That is why Greenpeace means something different in each country, for each activist and in each era, and that is the strength.

Greenpeace activists take on many forms. From bright orange suits to dark grey business suits ; from scuba gear to climbing harnesses ; from chicken suit to lawsuits. We are lawyer, doctors, scientists, engineers, sailors, journalists, politicians, lobbyists, researchers, webbies, climbers, boat drivers and above all activist united by a common dream.

You can find us on the high street, in the court room, on the internet, in the newspapers and on TV. We work at the frontiers: from defending the whales in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean to protecting the trees in the depths of the Amazon ; negotiating treaties in the corridor of the United Nations Conference to promoting corporate responsibilities in the company board rooms.

It takes a lot to put together a successful Greenpeace campaign, with many talents working together toward the same goal – a green and peaceful future. All this work underpinned by the support of millions of people from all walks of life around the world. Many choose to support our aim with donations, but growing number also give their time by joining us as volunteer and activists. In addition we now have more than a million cyber-activist campaigning on-line.

My job at the start was to help and understand. I helped develop an understanding of how best to utilize style of Greenpeace campaigning at local level by undertaking investigation of selected environmental issue in Thailand to determine best campaign project. I undertook visit to Greenpeace National/Regional to be trained to understanding of Greenpeace campaign and culture, how campaigning achieve change, an commitment to using non-violent direct actions and other forms of direct communication to execute campaign project.

My colleague and I had been tracking toxic waste dumping from Taiwan that ended up in Sihanouk Ville province of Cambodia to make one of the strongest cases for Basel Ban Amendment under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal which is today seen as the most comprehensive global environmental agreement on hazardous.

Together with local advocacy group working on toxic pollution in Thailand we put pressure and took action on US government in Bangkok to be accountable for toxic legacy – agent orange chemicals being left at Huahin Airport during Vietnam war. We worked very closely with Greenpeace Scientists and UN experts to propose non-combustion technology to destroy Persistent Organic Pollutants(POPs) and now being implemented by UNIDO to treat PCBs waste left at former US airbase in the Philippines.

The highlight of my beginning at Greenpeace has spotted on “waste management policy”. In the Philippines, municipal waste incinerator ban was passed and ecological waste management law has enacted as a result of successful public campaign by Eco-waste Coalition and Greenpeace. In Thailand, I have been campaigning with local communities in Phuket and tourism operator in Samui and waste pickers in Bangkok to expose socio-economic, environmental and health impact from waste incinerator at the same time created platform of all stakeholders involved in making a real solution. In this case, international financial institutions like World Bank, Asian Development Bank(ADB) and Japan Bank for International Cooperation(JBIC) and International Export Credit Agencies have played a major role in funding projects. We argued that “zero waste” is another way that makes an ecological sense.

When it comes to energy issue, decision makers have been facing with challenging situation: heavy reliance on dirty and dangerous fuel for power generation, a power sector dominated by self-regulating monopoly utilities, and a decision-making process that lacks public participation and has tended towards inefficient over-investment.

Climate change is now widely accepted as one of the most urgent environmental threats facing our planet. Yet, in the area of electricity generation – the sector most responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. According to Thailand’s Power Development Plan 2010, most of new power plants scheduled for construction over the next two decade will be fossil-fueled as well as dangerous nuclear. While the potential for energy efficiency in our homes and businesses is considerable yet remains largely untapped.

The problem is compounded by the fact that large scale, centralized power stations planned for development will actually waste approximately 60% of the energy contained within the fuels before any electricity even leaves the station. More energy is then wasted as the electricity travels along the power lines, and only at this point does the public face the challenge of whether they will waste or properly use the energy in their homes.

After year of climate and energy campaign we demanded that we have to moving rapidly towards the full utilization of Thailand’s enormous renewable energy potential and the decentralization of the country’s will provide the Thai people immediate, long-term, profitable and measurable benefits: sustained care for the natural environment of Thailand, real energy security, better use for Thailand’s remaining indigenous energy resources, the improved health of the Thai public due to avoided hazardous pollution, community ownership and responsibility over their own energy needs, more jobs, significant contribution to the global fight against climate change, and last but not the least, a more efficient and stable national economy.

The latest developments from the Ministry of Energy have been encouraging: upgrades to renewable energy regulations, development of regulations that encourage and facilitate efficient Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants, and discussion of real reform in the Power Development Plan (PDP) process to allow meaningful input by the public and greater consideration of clean, alternatives as well as the establishment of Independent Energy Regulatory Body. On the other hand, much bureaucratic inertia, mis-aligned incentives, and closed-door decision-making arrangements that empower dirty, inefficient “business as usual” remain strong.

Sustainable Development Dialogue

Thailand is one of Southeast Asia’s leading economies, but its economic development has been achieved at the expense of human lives and the environment. To simplify it, the country’s race toward “progress” began in the 1960s with relentless deforestation for teak and timber, followed by agricultural expansion for rice and rubber, and then rapid industrialization in the late 1980s and ’90s with toxic and hazardous technologies.

This dominant paradigm of development at any cost, for the most part excluded the country’s most important stakeholders – Thai citizens and communities -and diluted legislative and regulatory environmental measures. Predictably, this has led to the unprecedented poisoning of air, water, agricultural fields and the rich fishing waters of the Gulf of Thailand, posing serious dangers to the health and livelihoods of millions of Thais.

Currently, Thailand’s centerpiece for this single-minded pursuit of development is Map Ta Phut industrial estate. Established in 1988, the estate is part of a government policy to develop the Eastern Seaboard. The government touts this sprawling complex of petroleum refineries, chemical, plastic and PVC factories, iron and metal manufacturing facilities, and coal and gas power plants, as a vital engine that keeps the wheels of the country’s economy running.

But the story is different for the tens of thousands of Thais living around this compound. Even with just the simple act of breathing, they are putting their entire lives at risk. Map Ta Phut is perhaps the most toxic place in Thailand.

The rapid development of the industrial sector and the formation of industrial clusters in the Map Ta Phut area have brought about environmental and occupational health management problems such as air pollution, shallow-well water contamination, evaporation of organic compounds and water resource shortages, all of which to this day remain unresolved.

The incidence of cancer cases around this area is higher than in any other place in the Kingdom. A Greenpeace study in 2005 revealed that people in Rayong province are breathing cocktails of toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens, 60 to over 3,000 times higher than health standards in developed nations. A test on fly ash samples taken by Greenpeace in 2005 from the biggest coal plant in Map Ta Phut showed contamination from a range of substances toxic to humans such as mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic and nickel.

The continued of expansion of coal plants and energy-intensive industries in Map Ta Phut also contribute to climate change, which is projected to catastrophically affect the country. However, evidence of health and environmental problems have not diminished Map Ta Phut’s role as an economic hub. On the contrary, the industrial estate is gearing up for expansion, and worse, the government is showing signs that is keen to replicate the “success” of Map Ta Phut. Plans are ongoing to build similar industrial estates, together with more coal power plants, and nuclear plants, along the country’s southern seaboard.

Such plans are going ahead even while human health and environmental impacts of the showcase project remain unaddressed. And in this respect the government is hard-pressed to assure its citizens that it values the interests and well-being of Thai people.

The case of Map Ta Phut shows that the Thai government’s unchecked race toward industrialization favors dirty development and victimizes resources essential for economic sustainability. Such resources – people’s livelihoods and health, and the natural ecosystems and biodiversity on which these depend – are sacrificed for short-term prosperity that benefits only a very small sector of society.

Clearly this is a development paradigm that is unjust and unsustainable. The belief that human and environmental health is the price to pay for progress is in fact the root of the most critical humanitarian and environmental crises that many developing countries, including Thailand, are facing now. It is a paradigm that locks nations in a vicious cycle of poverty and environmental degradation that is contrary to any concept of development.

But, Thailand is in a position to break away from this cycle of decline if it acknowledges that there is a model of development that is sustainable and just. This is the model of development which communities across the Kingdom – from Nakhon Si Thammarat, Chumpon and Surat Thani to Rayong – are calling for and catalyzing. Thailand must shift gear toward a green and sustainable development model.

The current crisis offers a unique opportunity for laying the foundation for a greener and fairer economy, but if and only if we can infuse economic structures with democratic and participatory principles. To avert further ecological degradation, to adapt to the affects of changing climate and to ensure sustainable development requires technological leapfrogging, bold policy innovations and a new solidarity across social classes and generations.

It is also critical that new investments prioritize options that will strategically liberate our society from the treadmill of carbon-intensive and fossil-fuel-based systems. While job creation is essential, a meaningful solution to today’s problems lies not in simply restarting the engine of consumption. That approach led to the degradation and depletion of the planet’s resources even as it failed to meet the basic needs of the majority of humanity.

And so, as the government is looking at ways to stimulate the economy, it is critical that such economic interventions are also sustainable for the planet and especially for Thailand’s future. The Thai government must prioritize and support green investments that will help put Thailand on a low-carbon growth pathway, instead of maintaining and carrying on with investments that propagate climate-changing emissions and aggravate ecological and humanitarian crises.

The role of a sound environment is increasingly valued for reducing disaster risks and protecting livelihoods. Healthy ecosystems provide natural defend to human communities by regulating hazards, while degraded ecosystems can increase exposure and reduce community resilience.

In inaugurating the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Our lives depend on biological diversity. We stand to lose a wide variety of environmental goods and services that we take for granted. The consequences for economies and people will be profound, especially for the world’s poorest people. We need new vision. And new efforts. Business as usual is not an option.” 

Epilogue:

Clearly we don’t have to destroy the planet of impoverish other people to live well. We are often told that there are trade offs between doing well and doing right, but when we pull back and look at the big picture, those trade-offs usually prove to be illusions. In fact, we are learning more and more that doing the right thing in an intelligent way often pays off handsomely.

Small steps are great but we look for small steps that influence the big systems to which we are connected. Cutting our energy use and buying green power not only save us some money, but also help transform the wider energy system.

Individual actions are great, but we look for individuals actions that will influence the others – every time we design a bit of our lives to reduce our impact, support good efforts and make our lives more comfortable, beautiful, and exciting, we are sending a powerful message to everyone around us.

Good intentions are great, but we always reminded that only passion changes the world. There are so many great things do out there. We are not trying to everything but we try to do the right things. When we get a chance to make a difference that are both important and speak to us as people, we transcend good intentions and more meaningfully express who we are.

Of the two decades for social movement in Thailand and Southeast Asia, these are the modest suggestions for inspiring people to be a change they want to see in the world.


[1] The Jo’burg Memo. Fairness in a Fragile World – Memorandum for the World Summit on Sustainable Development Published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, World Summit Papers, July 2002.

[2] White Paper on Industrial Development in the Existing Context of Globalisation and its Impacts on Sustainability For World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002 Johannesberg, South Africa Good Governance for Social Development and the Environment Institute (GSEI) Thailand. August 2002

[3] United Nations Develoment Program(UNDP). Human Development Report 2007/2008 : Fighting Climate Change – Human Solidarity in a Divided World[4] South African Human Rights Activist and Executive Director of Greenpeace International.

[5] Watershed Vol. 5 No. 2 November 1999 – February 2000 “Theories and practice of civil society”

[6] Kumi Naidoo, “Boiling Point : Can Citizen Acion Save the World”, development dialogue, no. 54 July 2010, the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: