Grad student explores role of local knowledge in environmental decisions

Vanessa Lamb

Increasingly, local environmental knowledge is being touted as a key consideration in environmental decision-making globally. But is this the reality? Not according to what York geography PhD candidate Vanessa Lamb found.

A graduate associate at the York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR), Lamb had the opportunity to watch how local  Vanessa Lambenvironmental knowledge played into the decision-making processes as it unfolded during her fieldwork in Thailand.

Left: Vanessa Lamb

The subject of her scrutiny was the Hatgyi hydropower project, a joint development between the state-run Myanmar Electric Power Enterprise, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and the Chinese-run Sinohydro.

Lamb, whose research concentrates on the incorporation and dissemination of local knowledge in this context, is interested in what is called “Thai Baan” or Villager Research. She is investigating how this knowledge of the environment has been incorporated into decision-making processes and environmental governance.

The Hatgyi hydropower project proved a good test case because it is to be located on the Salween River, which supports the livelihoods of about six million people in China, Burma and Thailand. The smallest of five planned dams, it is estimated to cost US$1billion and energy generated from the dam is expected to be fed into Thailand by 2019.

“In the face of hydroelectric and other impending river developments, local knowledge was and is being promoted as one way that local residents can create a counter-discourse to the scientific ways of knowing that normally dominate the development process,” says Lamb.

A Thai government subcommittee that was responsible for public information disclosure of the Hatgyi hydropower project began actively compiling and disclosing information about the project. But what Lamb found was less than ideal.

“Unfortunately, while the subcommittee aimed to be inclusive of multiple viewpoints of the project by including representatives from civil society groups, as well as from government offices, my preliminary analysis showed that while local environmental knowledge was brought to the subcommittee’s attention, this knowledge was largely discounted in both public information disclosure meetings, as well as in closed subcommittee meetings and reports,” says Lamb.

“I am still investigating how this same local environmental knowledge was in used in parallel informal decision-making processes, although following the work of the subcommittee did allow me to see how ‘messy’ decision-making is in action.”

While she said it was easy enough to attain information about these meetings through interviews and discussions, disconnect still exists in the flow of information when looking at the process of the Hatgyi environmental impact assessment (EIA). “What is interesting is not the EIA report, but the associated processes that the EIA facilitates,” says Lamb. “And actually, this is in my opinion the most interesting part, that the EIA facilitates a process, it gets people involved and provides a space for discussion that might not happen otherwise.”

Lamb is aiming to finish writing her main dissertation chapters during a fellowship in Denmark at Roskilde University and defend in late fall or early winter after a research trip to Thailand. While in Thailand, she will be focusing on climate change and ecological knowledge-related research at the Salween, funded by the International Development Research Centre, with every intention of checking in on the Hatgyi process.

“The impacts of hydroelectric development are not limited to construction or post-construction,” she says. “I think my research clearly shows how the planning process is a significant part of transforming people’s lives, livelihoods and relationships with one another and with the state.”

Lamb’s road to doctoral research at York, under the supervision of geography Professors Peter Vandergeest and Robin Roth, was not paved in gold, but something much richer – experience. Her undergraduate studies began in a pre-veterinary medicine fast-track program where she was offered an opportunity to study in Tanzania, performing fieldwork on habitat quality, change and its convergence with human-wildlife conflicts.

Lamb’s focus shifted to Southeast Asia where she taught science and technology on a boat. After earning her master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin’s Conservation Biology & Sustainable Development, she took a job in Bangkok working on a magazine for a Thai non-governmental organization, Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), where she was introduced to the issues unfolding at the Salween River.

At this point, Lamb saw an opening for future study, leading to York’s Department of Geography. She saw the potential for future conceptual work that combined issues of conservation, development and cross-border environmental decision-making. Her most recent fieldwork in Thailand allowed her to gain a first-hand understanding about the demonstrable disconnect between local knowledge and governmental decision-making in Thailand.

Submitted by Daniel Pomerants