Sharing Lessons Across Borders

Last summer I participated in a three week faculty seminar in Thailand hosted by CIEE. We visited with villagers in the northeast who were fighting against destructive development projects – dams, copper mines and eucalyptus plantations – that either displaced or undermined the livelihoods of local people without adequate compensation. The same projects often had detrimental environmental impacts and largely served to enrich wealthy investors and government officials.

In each case the villagers were struggling for their rights using varied methods – political action, legal challenges and civil disobedience. As we met with the villagers to hear their stories, I noticed that staff associated with various NGOs often sat on the periphery of the meeting. These folks, often connected to an umbrella NGO called Armies of the Poor, provided the villagers with strategic advice and assistance, but generally stayed in the background and encouraged villagers to take charge of their own cause.

After one meeting, I spoke with one of the NGO staffers. My daughter has worked as a community organizer in Iowa. Like most community organizing groups, hers was inspired by the principals of community organizing espoused by Saul Alinsky, who worked on the south side of Chicago and wrote several famous books on organizing. I mentioned to my Thai friend that the methods I witnessed in Thailand seemed very similar to the Alinsky model. He replied that “Yes, we learned to do this work from studying Alinsky.”

We visited an encampment located in a eucalyptus plantation that stood on what was once a diverse forest that supported a thriving community. The local people had, years before, been removed from their land in order to make way for the plantation. Working with community organizers, they had reoccupied the land while waiting for their legal case to move through the courts. I mentioned to the NGO staffer that these tactics reminded me of the landless movement in Brazil (MST). He said that representatives from Brazil’s MST has visited Thailand and shared lessons from their experiences back home. I then mentioned that one of my friends in Cambodia had told me of similar tactics being used by displaced rural people in Cambodia. The organizer said that the Thais had passed on such organizing techniques to their brothers and sisters in Cambodia.

It is tempting to see each country and each struggle as unique. But peoples working for social justice are aware of and learn from similar struggles elsewhere around the globe. This is the bottom-up and democratic side of globalization.

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