Raising buffalos in Bung-Tham forest reflects how the villagers there are dependent on the forest’s fertility. Bung-Tham forest is a public asset, which provides opportunities to even landless and poor families to have their piggy banks. It helps boost financial security for livestock farmers and communities.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

Battling odds to revive the ‘Nai Hoy’s way’ amid Rasi Salai upheaval

The Rasi Salai dam might have helped the government achieve its ambitious plan to divert the mighty Mekong, but an enormous environmental price has been paid. The country has lost one of its most fertile assets_ the Bung-Tham forest, which is the Northeastern region’s womb, and the way of life born out of it, including the Tham buffalos, the cattle-raising, and their Nai Hoy

A 29-year-old community development graduate, Charnvit Chueahong, a native of Rasi Salai district in Si Sa Ket province, oversees his herd of over 50 cattle grazing in the shrub part of lowland floodplain forest, or locally known as the Bung-Tham forest, behind the village. Mr.Charnvit, who has turned his back on urban life, watches over the herd from dawn till dusk every day during the dry season.     

“Wua Tham (lowland floodplain cattle) are much easier to raise than those in a cowshed,” says Mr. Charnvit. “We don’t have to feed them or take any special care of them. We just know where and when to let them graze. The animals also get a natural immunity boost by roaming freely like this,” he adds.

A graduate in community development from Sisaket Rajabhat University some years back, the young man decided to return to his village to apply his knowledge in the real world.

Mr. Charnvit is a rare breed of Bung-Tham livestock farmers in the Northeast (Isaan). Over the years the number of his seniors in this niche profession has declined as drastically as their livestock cattle and water buffalos. 

The winds of change started blowing late in the rainy season in 1993 when the Rasi Salai dam was completed and it started to store water behind its formidable concrete wall. It was one of 20 dam and irrigation projects planned in the early 1990s as part of the government’s ambition to divert water from the mighty Mekong for use in the country. (Read: Sidebar)

After filling up fully, it was then followed by the extensive overflowing of the Mun River in the region’s largest Bung-Tham forest, which covers three provinces_ Si Sa Ket, Roi Et, and Surin_where the country’s popular trails of livestock traders, known as Nai Hoy, were subsequently submerged forever. 

According to the now-defunct Energy Promotion and Development Department, which had proposed the project to the government at that time, up to 38,000 rai of Bung-Tham forest adjacent to the Mun River was submerged under the water stored behind Rasi Salai.

“Kwai Tham” or Tham buffalos don’t need a great deal of care. They are raised in the Bung-Tham forest naturally, so they are strong and have natural immunity against diseases. As night falls, some may be chased into a cowshed simply built in the forest. Others are set free to roam in the forest, without fear of losing them.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Bung-Tham forest is rich in biodiversity, with plenty of shrubs and vines and grassland to feed livestock animals. This helps save livestock farmers’ money. The animals are their piggy banks, from which they can withdraw money immediately when needed. If not, they can be passed on as the families’ inheritance.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Chawee Kleeb-bua, a 56-year-old Bung-Tham livestock farmer, has been raising water buffalos in the Bung-Tham forest since he was a young man. He remembers nostalgically how the Bung-Tham forest used to nurture his buffalos.

Due to the region’s geographical features, a high plateau with the end sloping down and then flattening until it becomes a vast floodplain, it is hard for floodwaters to escape during the rainy season. As the floodplain is inundated for a long period of time_up to three to four months_ this condition enables the lowland floodplain forest to expand and dominate the region’s floodplain extensively. In areas where the floodwaters cannot be totally discharged a Bung, or swamp forest, is formed. In contrast, in areas where the floodwaters dry up, nutrients brought by the floodwaters help fertilise the land and encourage trees and shrubs to grow, forming the Tham forest. 

Such is the unique ecosystem formed in the floodplain that together they are called Bung-Tham forest (lowland floodplain forest). It is generally regarded as the Northeast’s womb, as it helps absorb a huge volume of floodwater during the rainy season and discharges it until the dry season, enabling the growth of various types of sub-ecosystems that are rich in biodiversity. 

According to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation, it is estimated that the Northeast region once was home to up to four million rai (640,000 hectares) of the Bung-Tham forest, or 90 per cent of the country’s total lowland floodplain forest. The largest area was beside the Mun River, the region’s largest basin. 

Due to the rapid development of urban areas, land conversion, as well as a number of mega-projects, Isaan’s vast Bung-Tham forest has been either destroyed or fragmented over the years, leaving only around 150,000 rai along the major rivers such as Mun, Chi, and Songkhram. One of the most fertile and largest parts of the Bung-Tham forest that has survived is the one below the Rasi Salai dam, covering around 30,000 rai.

“Before the dam was built, a great number of water buffalos was raised in the Rasi Salai Bung-Tham forest because there were plenty of shrubs and vines to feed our animals. We bought the buffalos at around 3,000 baht each and one family could buy up to 20 buffalos and raise them for some three to five years before selling them to Nai Hoy, who then collected them along the way and travelled as far as the Central plains to trade them. 

“During those years, the Bung-Tham forest helped raise our buffalos which we used to plough our rice fields and which were our piggy banks. Such a way of life helped secure our financial status. If we wanted money, we just sold them. If we didn’t, we just passed them on to our children as their inheritance. 

“The forest was also a part of a fascinating legend of Nai Hoy of Isaan, which helps groom tough guys like them and their stories are full of adventures,” says Mr. Chawee, who is also a member of Nai Hoy School. The villagers are making renewed efforts to try to preserve the Nai Hoy way of life, Bung-Tham livestock raising, other local practices that reflect their cultural values as well as the importance of the Bung-Tham forest of the Lower Mun, on which they have long been dependent.

Mr. Chawee said that shortly after the Bung-Tham forest was flooded by the Rasi Salai dam, farmers in the area rushed to sell their livestock in fear that there would be no forest to raise their animals. Since then the raising of buffalos in Bung-Tham forest has declined sharply, leaving only a small number of people raising buffalos.

Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute (CUSRI) did a study last year on the loss of livelihood and income from the Rasi Salai dam. They interviewed 1,034 livestock farmer households_884 in the dam affected area, and 150 below the dam site. The study found that up to 93% or 826 households in the affected area used to raise livestock before the dam was built. With 4,025 buffalos and 3,755 cattle, they averaged around four to five animals per family. These animals, in turn, generated an income of 46,000 to 58,500 baht per family per year.

However, the number of livestock farmer households that have given up the profession has drastically gone up. As of last year, only 37%, or 330 families, still raised livestock_375 buffalos and 1,233 cattle, or no more than one animal per family. These animals help generate an income of around 5,400 to 15,000 baht per family per year, down 91%.

Families living below the dam are also seeing the same trend. Up to 93% of them, or 140, raised livestock before the dam was built, while today there are only 62 families engaged in the profession.

Ubon Yoowah, an adviser of the Tham and People Association, said Rasi Salai villagers have learned a hard lesson during the years-long fight for compensation from the state for their lost livelihood.

Their communities have been divided, so they have been trying to learn a more reconciliatory way, starting with community development and welfare. That also means reviving and preserving local knowledge and values to help guide their fight, just like Nai Hoy School, which helps livestock farmers of Rasi Salai Bung-Tham forest find more restful places for their remaining animals, Ubon said.

The Rasi Salai dam has cast a shadow over the Mun River. The building of the dam has brought tremendous change to the communities there, as it has submerged the residents’ forest, which they are dependent on. The residents of Rasi Salai have staged years-long protests for compensation. Their stories have become a saga of the communities’ fight against the state’s miscued development ideas, and has not ended up until now. More than 10,000 are reported to have sought compensation.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Small projects to tackle floods and drought are still being pushed in the area. Some are successful, others have failed, but most of them are not the result of the participation of the local communities.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom
Extension of irrigation facilities has been abandoned, like these water supply canals. This is because communities have no money for water diversion from water sources and those planning the projects did not think about this. The residents call these canals “Blank Tubes”.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom
The Rasi Salai dam has also affected another old profession in the area_a salt boiler. Communities who pursued this profession have had to leave it behind as the dam has flooded their salt wells. As the wells are flooded, the water has become salty and can hardly be used for irrigation as first envisioned. Only 23 families_out of 411 in 1992_are still pursuing the profession in the area, according to the CUSRI.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom
Boonkerd Kamkoon, an officer at the Tham and People Association, has encouraged residents in the communities to revive their traditional knowledge; drawing is one of the ways to collect their memories.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

Buffalos will normally follow their leader in a herd. So their tracks are created all over Bung-Tham forest. Livestock farmers just make sure that they don’t go off-track and into plantations. Otherwise, they have to compensate the plantations’ owners with their livestock.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

Kalong is a locally made bell dangling from the buffalos’ necks so that the owners can follow and find them in the vast Bung-Tham forest through the sound from Kalong. Livestock farmers say, this is their GPS.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

Some buffalos will be chased into a makeshift cowshed simply built in the forest. Their owners will help ward off insects by either setting a fire on a bonfire to get smoke that helps disperse infects or splashing water on the buffalos until the soil is soaked so they can dust themselves. Livestock farmers simply make a deal with one another that this is not permanently owned because the forest is public domain. So, landless or poor families can also make use of the land and a cowshed.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

For those who have some space at home, they may build their own cowsheds to keep their animals after letting them roam freely in the forest. Mosquito repellent lights will be turned on at dusk and mosquito nets will be spread to cover them to help prevent insects.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
While following the buffalos, livestock farmers can collect edible plants and vegetables in the forest for their dinner. It’s their “supermarket”.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Forest product collection is food security and economic security of communities in Rasi Salai.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom
A reservoir behind the dam is normally claimed to be the new fishing ground for villagers, but it cannot compensate for what has been lost, something that the state tries to avoid mentioning.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

Since the dam filled up with water, a number of local fishing gears are left behind. The water behind the dam is so deep that locals’ fishing gears are not capable of catching fish. They have to learn to use new fishing gears and that increases the financial burden on their families.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

It all started in the late 1980s, the ambition to divert the mighty Mekong for use by needy parts of the country. A series of formidable barriers were built on the river’s tributaries in the northeastern region on a scale not seen before, to intercept their natural flow. The ambitious plan was kicked off in the Mun River, the largest basin of the region, by the now-defunct Energy Development and Promotion Department under the name Kong-Chi-Mun mega-project.

Back then, technocrats at the department viewed the Northeast, or Isaan, as a region of extremes_ “chronic flooding” and water scarcity_due to the lack of water management infrastructure, which made the locals of the region the poorest in the country. The department proposed to the government at the time to consider a plan to draw water from the Mekong River to help ameliorate the difficulties faced in the region.

According to the department’s blueprint, a series of water diversion systems and irrigation infrastructure were to be built across the major tributaries of the Mun and Chi basins. It was divided into three development phases spread over 42 years at least. In the first phase, which started around the early 1990s, at least 13 dams were planned across the tributaries, Rasi Salai included.

If successful, the department believed that it could develop five million rai of new irrigation area in 15 provinces in the region. But as the first phase of implementation continued, it encountered strong opposition from the locals, who viewed these structures as obstructions to their livelihoods, especially those relying on the Bung-Tham forests, which were extensively submerged under the new reservoirs.

The Kong-Chi-Mun project had to be scrapped as opposition grew with tens of thousands stepping out to demand compensation. Their protests against the government over the project became one of the loudest and longest in history.

However, in recent years the project has been revived with a new name_Kong-Loei-Chi-Mun mega-project_under the stewardship of the Office of the National Water Resources as part of the country’s 20-year national strategy. The same old idea has been peddled; that the region still faces chronic flooding and water scarcity, and it needs water from the Mekong River ever more, as it is now being increasingly contested for by neighbouring countries’ development projects.

As of this year, China has built a cascade of 11 dams at least on the upper Mekong, while in the lower Mekong 11 more dams have been planned, with two already completed and operational, and four more in the pre-construction process.

Battling Odds to Revive the ‘Nai Hoy’s way’ amid Rasi Salai Upheaval is part of an exclusive photo essay series to present to the public the values of the river basins and tributaries of the country and the Mekong region, their rich biodiversity, unique landscape and geography, livelihood and culture, which could soon vanish without a trace because of rapid development in the region.