Knowledge is Power

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Community-based research in Thailand, known as Thai Baan research, is reinventing the way that villagers and decision-makers perceive and value local knowledge and experience. Thai Baan means villager. The Thai Baan method enables local people to take responsibility for understanding and revealing knowledge about their relationship with natural resources because, from conception to dissemination, villagers themselves are the principal researchers. Thai Baan research has been effectively applied by communities threatened by the development of dams, and those looking for better ways to manage their local resources.

Villagers involved in the decade-long struggle that forced the Thai government to temporarily decommission the Pak Mun Dam in Northeastern Thailand pioneered the Thai Bann methodology in 2001. Recognizing that traditional research methods used by development experts commonly misunderstand or ignore the complex relationship between local livelihoods, culture, and river-based ecosystems, affected villagers seized the opportunity to conduct their own research on the impacts of opening the dam’s gates on their lives and the Mun River ecosystem. Over 14 months, 200 villagers from 65 communities gathered and recorded data on fisheries, fishing gear, use of native herbs, vegetable gardens, ecosystems, and impacts on social, economic and cultural aspects of their lives. Staff from a local NGO, South East Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN), and volunteers acted as research assistants, assisting with recording data, writing the report and facilitating discussions and field surveys. Villagers, however, were the primary researchers and were involved in every step of the research process.

The villagers’ research revealed that over 156 fish species returned to the Mun River following the temporary opening of the dam’s sluice gates. Fishing gear made obsolete by the dam was put back into use. Villagers living on the riverbanks of the Mun River and its tributaries resumed catching fish, cultivating vegetables in riverbank gardens, and collecting plants and herbs on islands and rapids. Thai Baan research demonstrated that opening the dam’s gates had a definite positive impact, and nowadays the gates remain open for four months of the year, although the struggle continues to permanently decommission the dam.

Since Pak Mun, local communities have increasingly applied the Thai Baan research methodology. SEARIN, for example, has assisted villagers to set-up similar research in four river basins to date.

Thai Baan on the Salween River
On the Thai-Burmese border along the Salween River in Mae Hong Son province, Thai-Karen ethnic communities concerned over the proposed development of a cascade of dams decided to apply the Thai Baan methodology to demonstrate the value of the river’s natural resources to decision makers. While the Thai Government only recognizes a small number of settlements in the area on official maps, in reality there are over 50 villages and all participated in the research.

For two and a half years, villagers applied the Thai Baan method to investigate fish species, traditional fishing gear, agriculture methods, indigenous fauna, and the culture of the Thai-Karen. The research identified 18 ecological systems, and 15 sub-ecosystems along the tributaries with a rich diversity of fish species and sources of food for villagers. “Engineers may see only water, rocks, and sand. But we see our fishing grounds, riverbank gardens, and our lives,” said Nu Chamnankririprai, a village researcher. The research also explored ceremonies the Thai-Karen villagers perform in appreciation of the land, river and forest that provide for their families.

The report was launched in a village along the Salween in November 2005. In attendance were community representatives, government officials, and journalists. The research report was submitted to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and other relevant state agencies. In March 2006, villagers organized a public forum to discuss the research findings and potential impacts of the dams. “With the research, we hope the decision-makers in Bangkok will consider our lives and our resources that we preserved for generations,” Nu says.

For more information visit Living Rivers Siam

This article appeared in International Rivers, World Rivers Review, Vol 21, No 5. Published in October 2006.