Pozzolan Mine Wearing out the People of Mt. Popa

“I have to eat my lunch so late so that I will not be hungry again in the evening,” the woman herding cattle told me as she ate a simple meal of cooked rice, beans and chili. On a sunny day in June 2014, I took a trip to the Mt. Popa area to conduct my research on land confiscation caused by a pozzolan mining project. Mt. Popa is an extinct volcano near Bagan in central Myanmar, best known as a pilgrimage site with many important Nat (spirit) temples and relic sites on the top of the mountain.

When I visited one of the villages where I was doing my research, I saw the old woman beside the road. The afternoon sun was beating down and the ground was hot. This skinny little woman was wearing a shabby old cloth on her head to protect her from the sunlight and holding a stick in her hand for herding her cattle. Behind her, I observed a wide expanse of mining area and the majestic Popa Mountain in the distance.

From our conversation, I learned that she is one of the many farmers who lost their land due to the pozzolan mining project. In 2004, the Ministry of Electricity No2 confiscated 246.2 acres of farmland belonging to local farmers in order to mine pozzolan powder. Pozzolan powder is a type of volcanic ash with high value used to enrich cement for the construction of dams in other parts of the country.

As she continued her meager lunch, I noticed her face was weathered and she appeared exhausted and very old.  I was shocked when she told me that she is only fifty-two years old. Her wrinkles illustrate how tired she is and the hardships she has suffered. With sadness in her voice . . .

The Victims of a Mega Development Project

On a cool day during the rainy season, I visited a village that had recently been relocated due to a large-scale development project.  On my walk around the village, I met one of the relocated villagers. He is 54 years old and has a big family. Prior to being relocated, he was a carpenter and planted vegetables on his land. Now, he does not have a stable job so he struggles to earn an income. He is depressed. As we spoke, I saw how upset he was as he told me his experience and the contrast between his original village and the relocation site.

“We were living happily with a regular income and doing agricultural work in the original village. Now, where is my land for planting? What will we do? As you can see, dirty water is also flooding under my house so our family breathes this terrible smell every day." 

With tears in his eyes, he said that his wife had passed away 15 days after their relocation. As a consequence of his terrible living situation in the new village, his son, who had been in Grade 11, dropped out of school to take up work in a factory. I felt sorry to see and to hear about their suffering.

Myanmar is a developing country that is undergoing political, economic and social changes. One such change is the ever-increasing number of development projects. Our country is always inviting local investment as well as foreign direct investment into the country as it seeks to benefit from a globalized world. All too often, these projects result in widespread land confiscation and other negative consequences for local communities. The topic I chose to research for my fieldwork with the EarthRights School Myanmar is one of these big development projects in . . .

Karenni Social Development Center (KSDC)

Position: Volunteer English Teacher

Location: Ban Nai Soi, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Duration: Minimum of 3 months, up to 40 hours/week.

Start date: 28th November 2014.

Program Area: 

Do development projects bring happiness?


Based on my own experience working closely to development projects, I have realized that there are different definitions of development and happiness.

From the government’s perspective, development will improve people’s lives and therefore bring people happiness. They say that modernization or urbanization is the means for people to obtain this happiness and so they try to bring big development projects like mining and hydropower dams to communities. In reality however, most of the benefits go to investors and governors. What have communities received from this type of development? Suffering, hurt, tears, and unhappiness.

On our first day arriving arriving in Northeastern Thailand on a field trip with the EarthRights School Mekong, we discussed this idea with local villagers. There were many perspectives about these questions, however almost all of the villagers we talked to said that they used to be happy. They were happy because they were able to rely on nature and lived collectively and without harm to their livelihood. Even though the villagers weren’t rich people, they felt that they used to be a rich community before the government started bringing development projects to their village.

When we asked them about development, the villagers replied that their definition of development was the support of community activities such as training in technical agriculture and eco-tourism. They said that it didn’t only mean being asked whether or not the community agreed with the projects proposed by the government, but being asked what type of development they really wanted. Otherwise, they claimed, development projects are harmful and not really development at all.

The community knows clearly how to develop sustainably. Supporting their own decision-making power and developing the existing potential in the community is a much more sustainable form of development. Respecting their perspectives is the best way to help. If a . . .

Mother Somboun: A Happy Life on the Moun River

Mother Somboun

 “For me, development is not about modernization. It is not about new technologies and modern materials. For me, development comes from inside the heart—what I call moral development.”

These words, along with the beautiful smile of Mother Somboun, came to my mind while reflecting on my recent visit to the Rasi Salai community in Sisaket Province with the EarthRights School Mekong.

Mae (‘Mother’) Somboun has lived in the Rasi Salai community for a long time. Mae Somboun is just a regular woman, but the people of Rasi Salai call her ‘Mother’ to show the deep respect they have for her and her role within the community.

Mother Somboun is critical of the government’s approach to development and the harms of focusing only on economic growth. The government did not even ask people what they thought or if they even wanted that kind of development in their communities. She told us that the development the government provided for her community was not real development because the benefits were not going to the community; the benefits were only for the authorities and for the people living in the city. The villagers in Rasi Salai gained nothing but the loss of their land and the disappearance of their rich food source. She added, “If the government says what they do is development, what kind of development is it? And for whom?”

Mae Somboun is what many people call a ‘long-life fighter’. In addition to being a first generation campaigner against the Rasi Salai Dam, she is also well known for her involvement in the Assembly of the Poor’s 99-day sit-in protest in front of the Government House in Bangkok in 1997. She is currently one of leaders in the Rasi Salai Learning Center.  It is no wonder that many people from both . . .

Students Embark on Social Justice Field Study

The EarthRights School Mekong students spent the last two weeks of August preparing for their field research. After a class on research methodology, students heard from two female alumni on women’s security issues while doing fieldwork in politically sensitive areas, based on their experiences.  Students chose a research topic that centered on on-going earth rights issues in their home country, and developed a comprehensive research proposal.

Program Area: 

Myanmar Activists Participate in Intensive Land Rights Training

A group of EarthRights School Myanmar alumni, from many regions in Myanmar including Kayah, Shan, and Rakhine States, as well as Bago and Mandalay Divisions, came together for a weeklong intensive Land Rights training this July. Each alumnus currently works with organizations in the region that address land and environmental rights.

Program Area: 

Spotlight on Earth Rights Defenders in Thailand

I am so lucky to have had opportunities to meet inspiring people who have dedicated their lives to public interest.  These people believe strongly in the capacities of the weak, and they work to protect earth rights. One of the most inspiring people is my senior colleague, Ms. Supaporn Malailoy or P’Noo.

P’Noo was one of the establishers of EnLAWTHAI foundation.  EnLAWTHAI was founded in 2001 with a mission to monitor and enhance positive environmental law as well as to strengthen industrial affected communities through providing legal training, promoting environmental campaigns, and being a representative in environmental lawsuits. As a general manager, P’Noo is still a key figure in the foundation.

P’Noo has given me invaluable inspiration and ambition.  I collaborated with her as a junior lawyer at the organization for three years. Even though she did not graduate from law school, she has tried her best to learn complicated legal issues through her work experiences. For me, P’Noo is a strong woman who sacrifices her life for communities all day and night. She never turns her phone off because she is worried that villagers might face some urgent situations and need her help. Her schedule is always full of meetings with local communities and networks. She told me that she always feels uncomfortable denying villagers’ requirements because when they ask her, they are in severe trouble, and hope that she can solve their problems.

P’Noo strongly believes that local people (almost all are farmers) play an essential role in protecting the environment. She does not want to block all development, but she thinks that local people know their area best.  Thus, they must have the right to decide how it is developed.

Even though I left the foundation a year ago, P’Noo’s devotion and determination still inspire me to . . .

Spotlight on Earth Rights Defenders in Vietnam

There are many earth rights defenders in Vietnam who support others in the face of human rights violations and environmental issues. Some of them work in government agencies and some work in non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, high-level government officials do not care about their responsibility to protect their people from harm.  The people working in NGOs make the greatest impact.

My director, Ms. Lam Thi Thu Suu, has a genuine enthusiasm for earth rights.  Ms. Suu made me recognize that human rights and environmental protection are important to social development.

When I graduated from university in 2011 I did not care much about human rights and environmental issues.  The first time I met Ms. Suu was when she accepted me as a volunteer in her organization. At the time, it was just a job. Four months later, I found that I really liked my work. Ms. Suu lit a fire under me through her boundless enthusiasm on human rights and environmental protection. She goes to the communities and talks to the women for hours on women’s rights, even when she is tired. After she goes to the communities, she continues to work with stakeholders at home and with foreign countries to call for support for the communities. Sometimes she does not have time for her husband or her two children.

Ms. Suu’s effort has been recognized by many people and organizations. Now, many people support the communities where she works.

I will do my best to help the communities get their rights. I will also get more knowledge about the environment to protect my community and environment from the impacts of development. Although there are many difficulties to achieving great success, if I make a sustained effort, I will succeed. . . .

EarthRights School Mekong Students Start Year with Forum Theatre Workshop

EarthRights School Mekong alumni Mueda Nawanat listens as others reflect on an exercise during the Forum Theatre workshop

The start of the rainy season in Chiang Mai, Thailand, also marked the beginning of the year for EarthRights School Mekong’s class of 2014.  On a stormy evening of the first Friday in June, I arrived to the welcoming party.  The sounds of the storm let up just in time for the performances to begin.  EarthRights International staff, alumni, and friends gathered to watch song and dance performed by the new students as well as students of nearby NEED-Burma organization.  

ERI’s Mekong Alumni Coordinator Tom Kaewpradit officially welcomed the students into the EarthRights International family, acknowledging that they are the ninth class of the EarthRights School Mekong.  As nine is the lucky number in Thai culture, he assured us all this class would bring great luck not only to the school but back to their countries as well.

The students are a charismatic crew.  An outsider at the welcoming party would never guess the students met less than a week prior, as their jovial interactions with one another are like those of life-long friends.  They come together all the countries that border the Mekong River, including China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The bonds they create with each other over the next seven months will strengthen relationships between their communities throughout the region for decades to come.

ERI Mekong Alumni Coordinator Tom Kaewpradit catches EarthRights School Mekong alumni Saw Lay Ka Paw in one of several trust falls ERI Mekong Alumni Coordinator Tom Kaewpradit catches EarthRights School Mekong alumni Saw Lay Ka Paw in one of several trust falls

As the students reflected . . .