The drawbacks of decentralised natural resource management
Thailand, like many other developing countries, has experienced a shift in political governance and natural resource management, from the highly centralised system of government to simple devolution of power to the regional and provincial level, and then to constitutional reform, placing greater inclusiveness of the local community in natural resources management and decisions.
This is to ensure that local communities, political organisations and civil societies, who have never been part of decision-making, have a greater control over natural resources management.
From my fieldwork observation during the past few years for my research on water governance in Thailand, this shift, however, has been found highly problematic and produced undesired results. Water resources development and management in Thailand has turned out to be the sole mandate of the government and has become expert-driven, and government agencies did not always support the involvement of new water parties and institutions.
Apart from the lack of actual involvement that intellectuals, local communities, NGOs, etc always claim, and being critical of government officials, we have overlooked the fundamental factor that has barred local communities from having a major voice or impact in decision-making and participatory process - information and knowledge.
During my fieldwork, I observed that most of the farmers, the local community and political organisations did not produce and develop adequate information necessary for allocation and management to support their influence on decision-making or participatory forums. It was found that accurate and timely data to support the development of water allocation policies is generally lacking and unavailable to them.
In line with other sets of information and data, key information on scientific and technical variables that underpin water allocation decisions, such as rainfall and runoff levels, is often only available at government offices in Bangkok where the information is generated and collected.
Surprisingly, access to some of these basic water data generally requires permission from a government department, which can take nearly three weeks to gain. And, sharing the same experiences with many of us, there were major difficulties for the individual farmers and local water users to directly discuss and interact with government officials, as they usually need to meet at specific locations, particularly in a government building during office hours (8.30am-4pm), with an appointment to be made well in advance.
As far as the role of technology is concerned, the main communication technologies for many small-scale farmers and local water users in rural areas are the mobile phone and local radio network. These technologies, however, do not support reliable Internet access in downloading information from government water agencies' websites. Limited financial and technological resources, and, most importantly, the expertise necessary for this information technology to work among local communities, also impeded access to the data.
Instead, a local and traditional knowledge base remains the primary form, shared at village level through the simplest medium of word of mouth, to gather and pass on local news, information, and knowledge. This is based on well-established and solid kinship and community networks. Of course, this makes people aware of what is best for their own community, but prevents many from understanding other people's needs beyond their tiny local area.
As a result of such limitations, the local knowledge that is produced and developed by individual farmers and local water users is, in most cases, seen as outdated, incomplete and rarely understood by outsiders. From the interviewing process with government officials and other water parties, such as the industrial and business sectors, this is particularly true, as many of them see information being developed by farmers and local communities as imaginative or exaggerated.
For farmers within the same local community, it was found during the interviewing process that many of them even codify knowledge differently for their basic agricultural practices on the ground. An astounding example is the way durian growers in one small village cannot reach consensus or even come up with the precise level of water needed for growing their durian crops. In other words, it can be said that there is very little cooperation among local communities in trying to standardise, publish or pass on new skills and knowledge on the ground, thus preventing them from influencing water allocation decisions.
As for key information being passed on to farmers and local users, this is done by influential people in local areas, such as village headmen and leaders of local political organisations. These people, however, often make use of their personal influence to guide and persuade local farmers and users to see their point of view. In Rayong province, during a severe drought in 2005, some farmers made use of information from one specific source, which was incomplete, biased and claimed to represent their interests. An argument was made by influential persons supporting the agricultural sector that freshwater should be prioritised to farmers via a pipeline at the expense of industry. This caused social and water conflicts in the region.
There are variations in the capacities and powers among different parties that lead to differences in their ability to influence government officials in order to gain regular access to information. Field evidence shows that some water sectors are given regular admission to key scientific hydrological variables, whilst many farmers and local users have to seek permission from the relevant agencies.
In general, there is a need to look again at knowledge - this time through a more localised lens - and to highlight the relevance of making new skills and knowledge widely available and accessible at the lowest level. This support from government agencies would allow local communities to learn and exchange new skills and knowledge, resulting in them being able to produce and scale up this new knowledge to enable a higher level of decision-making.
Equally necessary is that the process of communication and interaction be enhanced among all stakeholders involved in natural resources management. This should be the first major step that will bring a sustainable and longer-term approach to natural resource management in Thailand.
Goranij Nonejuie is a trade officer at the Business Development Department of the Commerce Ministry.