Weaving narratives on the defense of ancestral land, from Lamnamkok to Chico River


A Reflection from the community visit in Yang Kham Nu, Chiang Rai, Thailand

“We forged an unbending unity among the affected villages; we linked with organizations outside; we trooped to the capital many times until we were able to convince the Prime Minister not to sign the contract for a dam project along the Lam Nam Kok river,” Rattanachai Kriangkraipraipana narrated as we, from several countries in Asia and the US sat in a community center in Yang Kham Nu listening to him as he proudly recalled how they stood firm in defense of their ancestral land.

NARRATIVES OF VICTORY. Rattanachai Kriangkraipraipana recalling their victorious struggle against the Lamnamkok Dam project. Photo courtesy of Patara Maneerat from Indigenous Peoples Foundation for Education and Environment (IPF).
The Lamnamkok Dam project

It was in 1987 when the prime minister arrived in their village and told them about the huge dam to be constructed. The said dam was to affect around 40 communities of Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, and Mien ethnic groups along and surrounding the Lam Nam Kok river. There was no clear plan for physical and economic relocation so, almost all the communities opposed the plan outright.

Rattanachai said that unity building took them three years to achieve. Since 1987, they held endless meetings and consensus building among the 40 villages. In 1990, they were finally ready to face the prospectors head on. He pointed out that it was crucial for all the speakers and members of the communities to speak only one position. There should not be any deviation in the narratives, to avoid any opportunity for the prospector to strike its divide and rule tactics. One of the huge protest activities was in 1992 when the Prime Minister was in Chiangmai for the ceremonial signing of the dam project. Villagers from all the 40 communities gathered, all holding a flower to be offered to the Prime Minister. The guards let them near unaware of their plan to pressure the official to halt the project. Because of their numbers and their steely resolve to fight against the dam, the Prime Minister was pressured not sign the contract.

When asked about the role of women in the struggle, Rattanachai’s eyes sparkled with humor and said that women played a significant role in negotiations. There were several mobilizations when the women were in the front to avoid violent clashes between the indigenous men and the state security forces. The women were also known to have grabbed the balls of the security forces who used force to break their mobilizations. He said, women’s tactics were always effective.

EDUCATIONAL TOUR. A visit inside the community managed Yang Kham Nu forest. Photo courtesy of Patara Maneerat from Indigenous Peoples Foundation for Education and Environment (IPF)
From Lamnamkok to Chico River

As he was narrating their struggle, it sounded and felt like a replay of stories in my homeland in the Cordillera. Their stories from Lamnamkok have vivid similarities with the stories shared to us by men and women who have participated in the life and death struggle against the Chico river dams project during the dictatorship of then President Ferdinand Marcos.

The stories of courage from every village that would have been inundated by the Chico river dams have become building blocks of our people’s drive to defend the ancestral land from corporate plunderers. These stories also fired up the more recent resistance against dams, mining and other extractive industries that threaten to displace us from our economic sustenance and our identity.

The narratives of this struggle did not only galvanize the indigenous peoples’ movement in the Cordillera but also inspired other regions in the Philippines. As real as it gets, the struggle is a trailblazer in defining the indigenous peoples right to self-determination. It happened because our people are tireless at telling and re-telling the stories of resistance, of lessons learned, and ways forward.

In battling both dam projects, from Lamnamkok to Chico, the people’s best weapon is their unity. It has been proven that remaining steadfast in one position is the key to victorious struggles. The indigenous communities in Lamnamkok spent several years in painstaking unity-building.

The tribes along the Chico river signified their one position through inter-tribal peace pacts. In these peace pacts, they set guidelines including punishments for tribe members who violate the position of the majority. Tribal leaders in Chico upheld the guidelines and had to banish some clans or families who gave in to the deceptions of the World Bank-backed National Power Corporation (NPC) that was implementing the project.

The steely disposition of both peoples in defending their home is a story worth repeating especially to the younger generations. The battles that the younger generations are facing today when it comes to extractive industries are more complicated but learning from our forebears is a huge leap forward.

One of the commonalities of Lamnamkok and Chico narratives is to never compromise our ancestral land rights. The leaders of the anti-Chico dam struggle did not back down despite the avalanche of offers (bribes) from NPC. This was also the same with the story of Lamnamkok. They turned down educational scholarships for young people, opening of roads, money, women to name a few. They put the common good on top of everything. They battled against their personal interests and did not compromise the future of their people.

Weaving narratives of defense

These narratives need to be woven into the social fabric of the younger generation of indigenous peoples. It is a reality that the last frontiers of the earth are found in the territories of indigenous peoples because of generations of defense and nurture. With the fast depletion of natural resources, most profit-driven projects are mapping out all the frontiers. Defense is then necessary not only for the tribe but for the planet to live a bit longer.

The lessons from the courageous narratives of Lamnamkok and Chico are an inspiration not only to indigenous peoples but also the younger generations of rights defenders around the world who believe that, in a way or another, we can change the world. # nordis.net/Photos courtesy of Patara Maneerat from Indigenous Peoples Foundation for Education and
Environment (IPF)