Monday, June 6, 2011

Vietnam – A communist country with (limited) freedom of religion

A typical joke you hear about a communist country:

"A potato farmer to a minister: Our harvest this year will be so good that the pile of potatoes will reach the knees of God.

Minister: Remember that in our country, we no longer believe in god.

Potato farmer: That’s okay. Remember in our country, we no longer have potatoes."

I heard this story/joke for the first time in the U.S., just a couple of weeks before my departure to Vietnam to do my practicum. The person who told me is one of the co-founders of the foundation that I am working with in Thai Binh province. I was preparing my heart and soul that the people in Vietnam would be pretty much atheist people.

But the reality is very different from what I was told. As a person who had never visited a communist country before, I am presented with somewhat an existence of a belief in higher power/existence. In the building where I live, there is an altar where people present food and other offerings. In Indonesia, the country where I am from, this altar is very common in Hindu society in Bali Island. And most of the times, people will relate a presence of an altar with Buddhism.

Ten days after staying in Vietnam, I was taken to an event at a pagoda in the province to celebrate a new statue of Buddha from Thailand. I was amazed by the number of people attended the event. Most of them were elderly women, although I also attended a Buddhism lesson for the young people in the evening after the celebration.

And just two days ago on Sunday, I had the chance to attend a mass at a Catholic church in the province. Interestingly, the church segregate the seats between women and men (in the picture, the women are sitting on the left-hand side and the men are sitting on the right-hand side).The church itself was built 3 years ago by a wealthy family in the area. I have attended Catholic masses before as I attended a Catholic school when I was in middle and high school. I have to admit that the mass in Vietnam is a lot simpler and far less movement than the masses I have been to.

Despite the existence of places of worship, I was also told that whatever present in the Vietnamese society, they have to be first approved by the government. Vietnam is an interesting country to study as it embraces communist principles, while the people are allowed to choose their religions, of course, only from those that are authorized by the higher authority.

Santy Otto in Thai Binh, Vietnam (MS in Development Management)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Welcome to Intag Valley

On Monday afternoon I completed the long journey from Quito to Ecuador's Intag Valley, approximately 7 hours total of winding through the highlands by bus. My first stop was Apuela, home to the DECOIN office and the most substantive town in the Zona de Intag. DECOIN stands for, in English, Ecological Defense and Conservation of Intag. For more than 15 years, this grassroots organization has been central to organizing against destructive mining projects in the region and has successfully kept out a major copper mine. They've also implemented numerous community development, conservation, environmental education, and watershed governance projects. You can read more about their work on their website.

I will be working with DECOIN over the next three months as a volunteer intern and also conducting sociological research on their development vision and activities (more about that later). So, naturally, I was anxious to get to DECOIN's office in Apuela on Monday. However, it was already fairly late in the day when I arrived and no one was there. I was also hoping that DECOIN folks could give me some tips on where to unload my backpack and sleep for the night, so not finding them in the office gave me the opportunity to walk around town and introduce myself to people. It did not take long to find a lovely older couple with an extra room that they let to visitors for $5/night. I ended up staying there for two nights, and finally got to speak with William at DECOIN on Tuesday.

The back wall of the office is covered by a huge poster depicting various mining disasters, underlined by DECOIN's slogan: "Dile no a la mineria!" (Say no to mining!). In front of the poster is a single desk, where William is seated; to the left, a shelf with piles of environmental leaflets and documents; to the right a motor cycle used for visiting projects. William explained to me that there is currently a big problem with a planned copper in mine in El Paraiso. He also showed me a collection of soap, shampoo, and loofah products that a women's group was producing. After we talked for about 20 minutes, he got in touch with Carlos, DECOIN's President, to make a plan for us to meet at his Santa Rosa home.

The next morning I rushed out of my $5 room, said "muchisima gracias!" to the elderly couple, and hopped on the bus toward Otavalo. They dropped me at the Santa Rosa school, as requested, about a half hour drive from Apuela. From there, I followed a trail into the forest to find Carlos's home. It would have been an hour walking, but I was lucky to be picked up by some guys working for the electrical company, just as it started raining.

I was so pleased to have the opportunity to speak with Carlos, and to spend a few days in his home. I have read and admired so much of his work. Over coffee, he updated me on some of the most recent developments, and listened to a brief overview of my research plan. It was a huge relief when he said that the research plan coincided with some information they needed in the El Paraiso community. Carlos immediately gave me a huge list of contacts throughout Intag who will be important sources for my research, and we also came up with a short task list to get started in my internship role.

Today is day 2 at Carlos's. Two leading community activists are coming to visit this morning, so I will have some time to talk with them about mining struggles in the region. Later on, a student group from the US will be here to take a tour through the forest and hear about various facets of DECOIN's work. I have decided to stay for this, since it will clearly be a good introduction for me too.

I'm looking forward to what the next three months will bring, and to occasionally contributing my reflections (rather than mere descriptions, as in this case) to this blog.