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Watershed, Part I

Burmese Relief Center--Japan
DATE:September 9, 1995
Sub: Excerpts from Watershed, Part I

Excerpts from Vol 1 No. 1, of  WATERSHED
from TERRA (Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional
Alliance) Burma--Indochina

TERRA is the sister Organization of project for Ecological
Recovery (PER), registered together as the Foundation for
Ecological Recovery.  PER, established in 1986, works to
support local communities within Thailand in protecting
forests, land, and livelihoods.

In 1991, TERRA was established to focus on issues
the natural environment and local communities within the
region.  TERRA works to support the network of NGOs and
people's organizations in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and
Vietnam, encouraging exchange and alliance-building, and
drawing on the experience with development and environment
issues in Thailand.

TERRA's Objectives: To identify root causes of the ecological
crisis and raise public awareness about its threat to the
communities, cultures and societies in the region; 

To support initiatives or existing regimes of local
systems of knowledge, and cultures which manage and protect
the natural environment upon which local people depend;

To strengthen the capacity of local organizations to address
ecological issues within their own political context;

To support research and analysis which can illustrate and
strengthen use and management of the natural environment by
local communities and cultures;

To build public participation and influence in policy and
decision making processes affecting the natural environment
and local people;

To advance a strategic, holistic and participatory approach to
environment and development issues, the ecological crisis, and
strategies for recovery.

Watershed is published quarterly by:
Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance
Editorial/Subscriptions/Contributions Office:
TERRA, 409 Soi Rohitsuk, Pracharatbampen Road,
Bangkok 10310, Thailand
Tel: (66 2) 691 0718-20; Fax: (66 2) 691 0714, email:
ISSN 0859-1601
Contributions & Subscriptions 
The editors welcome contributions from people within the
region and internationally.   Please send articles, letters, or
pieces to the editorial office. Contributions can be hand-written
or typed, in the Lao, Khmer, Vietnamese, Thai, French  or
English language; word-processed contributions can be on 3.5
or 5.25 inch disk, in text file format.   Subscriptions rates for
NGOs are: US$10 within Asia, US$15 for Aust/Europe and
US$20 for N. America.   Institution and business subscriptions
somewhat higher.  Any NGOs or community groups who
like to request a subsidy for their subscription, please contact
Please send an International Money Order only, to 'TERRA'. 
Prices are based on 3 issues per year.
other ecological threats to Burma.  BRC-J)

Why Watershed?

Watershed - In its simplest, scientific meaning, it is the
basin of a river, the area through which all waters flow from
their highest source before draining naturally to the sea. 
the watersheds of the great Himalayan rivers, the Salween or
the Mekong, for example, are the watersheds of thousands of
smaller rivers, streams and lakes, each with their own
character and history.  In the broader ecological sense, the term
watershed includes not only the land and the water but also the
mountains and forest, the flood plains and valleys, as well as
communities of plants, animals and people who live there.

These watersheds, large and small, have been ravaged by war
the past and still are today.  But the battles that now pervade
region are more commonly conflicts over natural resources --
who has the rights to use, conserve, expropriate, destroy, buy
and sell.  Lowlanders blame high-landers for destroying the
forests and water supplies for rice fields below, rural
communities blame urban and industrial centres for draining
and polluting their rivers, while many traditional systems of
management and conservation are discarded with the
of export-oriented cash crops and agri-business schemes.

To compound this situation, the watersheds of mainland
Southeast Asia now contain some of the last unlogged tropical
forests and undammed rivers in the world.  Consequently,
companies from all over the world are competing to exploit
these resources.  Other agencies insist these areas be roped off
from human activity in the name of global biodiversity
conservation.  Whether the demand is for development or
conservation, many communities in the region who have
lived with the forests and rivers are threatened with eviction.

As a result of these pressures and conflict, some people are
advocating a "watershed approach" to managing natural
resources.  This implies a way of looking at things as a whole,
of seeing people and not just the trees but the forest, not just
river but all that creates and diminishes its flow.  A watershed
approach can be an alternative process of learning, of learning
not by separating and isolating knowledge, but by awareness
the interaction and interdependency of people and nature, the
blending (and clashing) of cultural, ecological, political and
economic forces which constitute life ... and destruction.  In
sense, the watershed is a unit of analysis or study known as
political ecology.

Far from being just an academic musing, a watershed approach
is a practical way to examine, and begin the search for
to, real life problems faced by member communities of a
watershed.  At the heart of this approach is empathy, a respect
for life downstream and in the mountain forests where water
springs.  All communities in the region have known this em-
pathy at one time or another in their culture and history.  Tra-
ditional systems of living were indeed based on respect for
nature and neighbours.  But these have often been disrupted by
the ambitions of warring armies, colonial powers, and, more
recently, by the agents of 20th-century industry.

Today six nation states lie within the great watersheds of the
Chao Phraya, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Red and Salween rivers,
which collectively are home to a cultural and biological diver-
sity unparalleled on earth.  In ecological and cultural terms,
borders of these states were never more than arbitrary lines on
map drawn in distant capitals.  But now, even in economic and
political terms, the significance of these borders is fading as the
region enters the era of economic globalization.  With the
exception of Burma, still shackled by military rule, Yunnan
the states of Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam are opening to
the global economy, undergoing radical transformations,
by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and
World Bank, and by a model of industrial development
followed in Thailand for the past several decades.  As such, the
movement of money, people, natural resources and
environmental degradation across borders is accelerating with
the demands of the global market economy.  Having exhausted
much of its forests and water resources in the drive for
economic development, Thailand's demands are now driving
policies and pace of resource extraction in neighbouring
Lao PDR and Cambodia.  Power plants and industrial
operations, supplying markets in Japan, Europe, Thailand or
Asia's economic tigers, are being shifted to Yunnan or the
Mekong Delta where raw materials and labour are cheaper and
plentiful.  The ultimate goal, of course, is higher profits and a
temporary competitive edge in the global marketplace.

Thailand's experience indicates that rural communities, espe-
cially those outside the cultural and economic mainstream,
a double threat from this kind of development.  First,
development demands extraction and expropriation of natural
resources upon which communities depend.  Forests are
labelled 'degraded', and then offered up to private companies
industrial tree farms.  The destruction of fisheries becomes a
"trade-off" or "acceptable environmental cost" of hydroelectric
development.  Not only does this process deprive people of the
resources needed for survival but alienates these people from
the knowledge and traditional practices that once helped
their communities and culture.

Meanwhile, development experts, armed with indicators of
poverty and economic growth, interpret communities as igno-
rant and backward, destroyers of the environment, and in des-
perate need of development, basic tools, and training in how to
succeed in the modern world.

In this region, where the pace of environmental destruction and
investment in development is staggering, development as
currently defined by government-industry alliances should be
questioned.  To do that, Watershed begins with a thought
provoking feature on development and its definitions.  Not ev-
eryone will agree with this feature or have the same world
as its author, but it is imperative that people engage in open
democratic discussion about critical ecological and de-
velopment trends in this region.

Because Watershed is produced in English, we wish to apolo-
gize for its exclusivity.  However, we hope to reach many
people who are either working with communities or shaping
policies and projects affecting communities and watersheds.

Finally, there is another meaning of watershed - a turning point
in the course of events that signals a break with present trends
and the beginning of something new.  Such a watershed is
needed both in thinking and in practice.  In this spirit,
Watershed is offered as a hopeful forum to encourage critical
thinking and discovery of paths, new and old, which can lead
sustainable development in this region.

The editors welcome letters and comments from readers. 
send letters to:
The Editor, Watershed, TERRA, 409 Soi Rohitsuk,
Pracharatbampen Rd,
Huay Kwang, 103 1 0 Bangkok, Thailand.