Nine NUS students travelled to remote villages in northern Thailand to experience the local way of life and learn about issues of land rights, deforestation and discrimination. The insightful trip, led by Associate Professor Peter Vail of the University Scholars Programme (USP), was part of the NUS Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment (STEER) programme, and an off-shoot of the USP Special Term module on Participatory Social Development in Southeast Asia.
The programme is unique in its adoption of the Participatory Action Research (PAR) model, an alternative to typical top-down approaches to developmental work. The students stayed in two indigenous villages, Meud Long and Pong Sa Yaen, for a total of 13 days to immerse themselves in the daily activities of villagers. Besides fishing, planting dry rice and witnessing ritual sacriﬁces alongside the locals, they applied PAR principles on small-scale projects designed to address the needs expressed by the villagers.
One group, for example, recognised that many parents in Meud Long send their children to boarding school and some of the youths eventually go on to work in the city. To assuage the parents’ worry of their next generation losing touch with their culture, the team compiled photos of the village’s traditional artefacts to be given out to the children as a reminder of home and their Lawa culture.
The participants gained an insight into the complexities of environmentalism in upland areas through discussions with non-governmental organisations dealing with environmental conservation in the district. They learnt that the villagers are increasingly being forced out of subsistence agriculture into cash-cropping. Thereafter, the farmers get caught in a vicious cycle of debt and have to resort to burning their ﬁelds after each crop season, and becoming “culprits” for the ensuing haze and deforestation.
The students also met with villagers from Chiang Dao district who recently had large portions of their land seized by the Thai National Parks Department, and learned about local land and citizenship rights.
The STEER programme provided the undergraduates with immersive experience for advocating the villagers’ rights and needs. “I found the trip enriching and thought-provoking. It has allowed me to reﬂect on such issues and what we as university students can do to improve their lives,” said Year 1 NUS Engineering and USP student Feng Ye.
By Lim KangLi, NUS Psychology and USP, Year 1