Born in a small remote town of Aranyaprathet, Sakaeo Province – popularly known as “Aran” (meaning “wilderness” or “forest” in Hindi) – on the eastern Thai border adjacent to Poipet, Ou Chrov district of Banteay Meanchey Province, Cambodia. “Aranyaprathet” is located along the so-called “Thai Corridor” – a region between the Chaopraya and Tonle Sap river basins that has been identified as a strategic sensitivity when it comes to geopolitical conflict between Thailand and Cambodia at all times. Aranprayathet is also one of the busiest border crossings and a major trade route between the two Kingdoms. The border is now a popular tourist route between Bangkok and Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor Wat.
The Cambodian civil war (1970-1975) and its aftermath changed the face of border towns like “Aranyaprathet.” Tara sees it as a human tragedy. Influenced by a series of massive forced migrations caused by civil war – at least five major movements of refugees from Cambodia (in 1975 by those fleeing the Khmer Rouge when they took power, 1979 by those fleeing starvation and the advancing Vietnamese army, 1984/85 Vietnamese offensive along the Thai border, Hun Sen’s 1997 coup, and 1998 by Khmer Rouge remnants). Tara witnessed the “suffering (Dukkha)” of those who lived in deplorable conditions in some of the border refugee camps. It sparked his curiosity and personal commitment to make the world, or at least the world around him, a better place.
Tara fully engaged in “activism” during the 1980s by volunteering to various activist groups both inside and outside of university, including one of Thailand’s leading and most well-known student movements, the Committee for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation from 16 University Campuses (คณะกรรมการอนุรักษ์ทรัพยากรธรรมชาติและสภาพแวดล้อม 16 สถาบัน – คอทส). One of the success stories was the landmark campaign against the Nam Chon Dam, which was proposed to be built within the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. Thung Yai Naresuan, together with Huai Kha Kaeng Wildlife Santuary, form the largest protected area on mainland South-East Asia, covering 622,200 ha in total, and were designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1991.
Tara was inspired by the work of volunteers from the Adaptive Technology Group (later renamed Energy Ashram : Appropriate Technology Association) who use “local wisdom” and “scientific knowledge” to promote rural development. This included the development of low-cost/locally manufactured ground water pumping equipment for drought-stricken areas.
Tara moved to Thailand’s eastern seacoast after graduating from King Mongkut Institute of Technology in Latkrabang in 1998 and lived with locals in Rayong province’s fishing community to learn more about “right livelihood.” Tara discovered on Thailand’s eastern seacoast that a massive storm was preparing to make irreversible impacts along the entire beautiful and pristine eastern seacoast in the name of “Industrial Development.” Rayong province’s seacoast is now known as “pollution heaven” as a result of oil and gas and petrochemical giants’ “development at any cost.”
Tara was able to conduct participatory field research on the impact of mass tourism, aquaculture, and industrial development on small-scale fisherfloks and coastal ecosystems funded by Asian Cultural Forum on Development (ACFOD), as well as gain more expertise in building and organising the movement on the ground, by participating in youth training and community development work.
One of Tara’s field research works is “Japan Official Development Assistance (ODA) and the Fate of Eastern Seacoast Communities,” in which he lived in the last remaining small fishing village of Leam Chabang, Chonburi (which is now a major deep seaport) and documented the stories of people who have been fighting to protect their ancestor land from deep sea port expansion and industrial eviction. The book was then printed in Japanese by Iwanami Shoten Publishing and sold in Japan in 1994, thanks to the generosity of Japanese friends.
Tara left the eastern seacoast in 1992 to work as a Media Officer for the Village Foundation and Rural Development Foundation. He began “travelling the world” extensively to document and publish stories about “local wisdom” in relation to sustainable natural resource utilisation, community rights, community-based businesses, saving groups, cultural diversity, and self-reliance local economy.
Tara moved to Chiang Rai in the summer of 1993 to work for the Hill Area and Community Development Foundation. His role was to assist in the mobilisation of resources to develop a highland sustainable agriculture model and ethnic community land-use patterns. Tara also learned how to use geographical knowledge and mapping as key tools to debunk the myth of “slash and burn” agricultural practises on the highland in collaboration with a professor from Chiang Mai University’s Department of Geography.
Tara spent several years in Chiang Mai province, where he earned a Master of Science in Geography (Geography, 1994-1997) from Chiang Mai University. His dissertation, titled “Spatial Mobility and Health Risks among Factory Workers in the Northern Region Industrial Estate, Thailand” was the result of extensive research on female electronics workers and their fight for occupational health and human rights. Tara wrote a book called “Lamphun under Industrailization’s Shadow : The Story of Social Change and Environment Health Impact after Two Decade of the Northern Region Industrial Estate” which was published in Bangkok by the Committee of Toxics Chemicals (1997), which is now known as Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand (EARTH).
Tara worked for the Wildlife Fund of Thailand (WFT) under the Royal Patronage of H.M. the Queen between 1997 and 1998. Tara worked with the Policy and Advocacy Unit to mobilise local communities to defend their rights as a result of ill-advised large-scale development, specifically the hydropower project. Tara conducted research on “the Environmental Changes of the Mae Yom River’s Floodplain” to address the role of wetland in mitigating flooding and prolonged drought rather than building a large dam upstream. This also included a study on “Conflict Resolution and People Participation in Large Dam Construction Scheme,” which was funded by Thailand Research Fund and was to be proposed to the Ad-Hoc Committee under a Council of Ministers Resolution (1997).
Another piece of work done with colleagues at the Wildlife Fund of Thailand was “the Critical Analysis On The Ecological And Social Impact of Yadana Gas Pipeline Project (ผลกระทบทางนิเวศวิทยาและสังคม โครงการท่อส่งก๊าซธรรมชาติจากแหล่งยาดานา สหภาพพม่า),” as part of the involvement in the non-violent conflict resolution of controversial issues surrounding the project.
Tara collaborated with colleagues at the Wildlife Fund of Thailand to mobilise communities in Chiang Khong district, Chiang Rai province, to investigate and implement a conservation plan for the “Mekong Giant Catfish.” Tara actively participated in the development of the Action Plan for Biodiversity Conservation for Kantuli Swamp Forest, Surat Thani Province, which is now one of the country’s National Ramsar Sites. For further implementation, an action plan has been submitted to the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning.
Tara Buakamsri is a founding member of Greenpeace Southeast Asia and has been a campaigner for the organisation since December 1998. Tara took on a new role in 2011 as Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s Campaign Director, and in August 2014 as Greenpeace Thailand’s Country Director.