Dickinsonians teach environmental health in Thailand
March 18, 2008
Jack Treichler '08 teaches Burmese students about the environmental implications of gold mining during ALLARM's two-week expedition to Thailand.
Jack Treichler '08 and Danielle Cioce '08, student staff members for the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM), and the group's director, Julie Vastine '03, recently spent two weeks in Thailand.
The team traveled to the other side of the world to translate ALLARM's 22 years of knowledge and experience training Pennsylvania communities into useful skills for Burmese activists to address their own alarming environmental issues.
For ALLARM's first international collaboration involving Dickinson students, the group partnered with EarthRights International (ERI) to teach at their yearlong school in Thailand for emerging Burmese leaders.
"I was impressed by the infrastructure and framework that was already in place when we got there," says Treichler of the well-established program, which dates back to 1998 and boasts connections to approximately 60 grassroots organizations in Burma.
The history of Burma is long and complex. Colonized by Britain until 1948, a military coup overthrew the democratic government in 1962. Today, Burma's democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is under house arrest. In a country where the military controls everything from the media to the educational system, human-rights abuses are rampant, and natural-resource management has resulted in gross environmental destruction. In response, ERI developed a school to teach community leaders about human-rights documentation, international legal mechanisms, democracy, government and law and field-research techniques. The ALLARM team was there to bolster ERI's environmental curriculum and teach environmental monitoring techniques.
Treichler, Cioce and Vastine presented case studies to the ERI students about agricultural issues linked to genetically modified organisms as well as health and environmental issues associated with copper and gold mining. In Burma, mercury is used to extract gold, and the ALLARM team spent time discussing the health effects of mercury. It was the first time these students learned about the risks of handling mercury. Several described how, as children, they would find and play with mercury in streams near gold-mining operations.
ALLARM also provided training in environmental-monitoring methods like visual assessment techniques and basic chemical monitoring, including the use of pH strips.
Back home, when ALLARM trains communities how to monitor stream health, volunteers are openly taught right next to the stream. Teaching Burmese community leaders in Thailand presented a tricky situation. Students learned to assess water health concealed, inside a building so not to draw attention to themselves. In Burma, participants could easily be seized by the military, but even in Thailand they are in danger of being raided by or reported to the Burmese government.
After observing a nearby waterway though the windows of the ERI office building, students discussed what they saw and strategies for raising community awareness when they return home. As a result of the military controlled education system, the students had never had lessons to help them understand the health of their environment and basic scientific applications. The students found the environmental monitoring lessons taught by ALLARM empowering. Cioce noted that after the lessons, many of the students told the ALLARM members they would take these tools back to their communities. They finally had a way of understanding the destruction taking place in their communities, and now they had avenues to educate people about environmental health implications.
"At Dickinson, we talk a lot about getting international experience," says Treichler. "To go into Thailand and do something concrete like this—to help them learn to protect their waterways and human rights—felt good. I know they are going to go back home and do great things."
ALLARM hopes to build upon this experience and continue its relationship with ERI.
"ERI was thrilled with the resources we brought in," says Vastine. "There is potential for us to help the [school's] alumni program, and we've been asked to go back to Thailand … This was a pilot program that shows how to translate the tools we use here in Pennsylvania into global usage."