Fragments of Klong Toey (catch-up)

This is the last uploading of my thoughts during the field trip:

The selection of communities we visited conveyed the fragmented nature of the Klong Toey district.

From the presentation of the site on Saturday and reading articles in London I had my suspicions that Klong Toey may be the Dharavi of Bangkok. But the level of its complexities seems under-rated. The impact of land issues and the communities’ capacity to raise and sustain a movement to assert their rights was mega. It seems that although people may want to improve their homes and neighbourhood, their motivation and will to mobilise doesn’t occur until a major event or calamity befalls thus binding them together.

Each community we visited had a slightly different history and story to tell us. Some Baan Mankong upgraded groups seemed more organised than others, even those also within the programme. The first community we visited was super organised. The community leaders showed us plans of how they designed their site with technical advice regarding implementation from the Thai Community Foundation architects (who deal with housing and environment issues). The community formed a savings group with the household who chose to remain on the land after a fire and threat of eviction in 1982. They seem well-organised. After the rushed rebuild after the fire, the community organised themselves and contacted CODI to enter the Baan Mankong programme. The Foundation assisted with design and construction issues. The experience of the fire stimulated their need to organised simulations to educate people as to what to do in case of future emergencies. The community collectively made decisions about plot allocation and open spaces during meetings. This story of spatial organisation and functions seems to be a recurring theme, however varied, between communities regardless of their stage of upgrading.

Another interesting story was of a community located on an island with entry via a motorboat or delivery road owned by the Port Authority and so contested. The community are descendents of the labourers who dug in the creation of the canal during the reign of King Rama 1, more than 200 years ago. These were Thai people originally from the Batham Thani province of Northern Bangkok region. So many of the inhabitants of the island have grown up with each other hence one of the reasons why they are such a tight-knit community. They have great respect and love for the community leader; people tend to flock to him for advice and support. He was also the person who mobilised the community to approach CODI to enter the Baan Mankong programme following the fire that destroyed a third of the houses. The savings group which they had begun before the fire came in handy in compensating for partial costs of the reconstruction. From speaking to some members of the community we discovered that there were two savings groups in operation on the island. The first was a community savings group which covers maintenance and service costs other than the construction and the second was the Baan Mankong savings group which pays back the loan people obtained from CODI for the reconstruction. The community’s ability to organise themselves was in effect due to their strong relations through their shared histories and growing up together.

Walking around the island site I noticed how beautiful some of the houses were, those both within the Baan Mankong programme and those that were not. One of the house under reconstruction is a 3 million Baht house of a man whose son-in-law is American. The house is pretty amazing with good quality finishing so far. I had to ask Naam (one of our Thai students) to tell him that his house was going to be better than my home in London! But it wasn’t only the expense of the houses that amazed me. One of the houses not in the Baan Mankong scheme or reconstruction programme was just as great. It is located towards the back of the island and so unaffected by the fire. It had been built many years ago by the father of the inhabitant who now lives here with his wife, son and his family. Although it doesn’t have the greatest finishing the old house was quite large, spacious with great airflow on a great location beside the canal. It’s no wonder people don’t want to move or enter a programme whereby new proposed plot sizes would effectively reduce their current homes by half. It also amazes me that communities such as these are considered slums or squatter settlements when in fact many residents are middle-income earners, are happy and their homes are beautiful.

To contrast such beauty we also visited communities who are not so lucky. A community that is separated from its neighbour by only a relatively thin sign gateway are in urgent need of infrastructural and in some cases house upgrading. This community is perhaps double the size of its neighbouring Baan Mankong assisted community. The houses are made of timber and so are prone to damage from fires, floods and termites. Every time the area floods the community have to raise their floors up until the water levels recede. This is not helped by its concrete constructed neighbours; I didn’t spot any permeable surfaces to help control flood waters despite many drainage channels and gutters. This community does have leaders with the drive to mobilise people but I didn’t feel any sense of urgency. I’m wondering now whether sharing with them experiences of people in similar positions in Rio de Janeiro and Delhi would have made them more complacent or given them an extra push to move forward.

Perhaps drugs, crime and unemployment issues are underlying causes for the lack of urgency. Much like another community we visited people didn’t seem motivated to drive for a collective movement. These issues can have psychological impacts leading to lack of self-esteem. Whatever their reasons as a community from my limited perspective they seemed to lack passion or desire to work as a collective. The community leader we met told us how sad he was to return to the area a couple of months after 10 years to find no improvement. His main vision for the area is to make changes happen. He wants to convince people to strive towards community-led improvements to the housing, sanitation and infrastructure. It’s going to be a challenging and slow process but one that will be worth it once transformations begin to take place.

To be honest for all the good that the Baan Mankong programme does at what it was launched to do, it’s questionable at how it can scale up. For Klong Toey it was apparent that the amount of people it doesn’t reach is massive. In London some of the members in the group, including myself, were cynical as to who was able to enter the programme, questioning the capacity to reach the poorest of the poor. I didn’t realise that what I had imagined to be a minority would actually turn out to be a majority. The texts presented to us in fact understate the actual reach of the programme in reality. Just to clarify I’m not questioning the value and good that the programme does, for Baan Mankong is hugely successful in the areas it does reach. However the criteria to apply for the programme limit the majority. Whether it is out of choice, misunderstanding, lack of capacity to mobilise a whole community or the lack of financial assets, the fact of the matter is it cannot reach everybody that it needs to. Is it ok not to reach a minority or the majority? Or is the fact of not being able to reach people at all ok? Is it too idealistic to reach every sector of the community?

Thanks for reading such a long blog! These last few days with the community have been so informative and intense. It’s been difficult to limit my thoughts in writing as we have met so many people and obtained so much information on site. Dealing with the heat has also been a challenge, I could go on forever with the many thoughts that have been entering my head but I’ll stop here for now!

[19th May 2011]

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