Co-op Dream Alive in the Rubble (1996)

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    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
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                         October, 1996

            (Source : ICA News 4-5/1996, pp.6-7)


          Co-op Dream Alive in the Rubble of Ruamjai

                         by David Shanks
            of the Canadian Co-operative Association
         ********************************************

The search is on as Jalan Thuansuwan, 36, steps gingerly over
the rubble that was once his home. He has trouble negotiating
the broken boards and bottles that litter a patch of earth he
once knew like the back of his hand. Careful not to slip into
the murky waters of the klung below, Jalan is looking for the
spot where he lived for 29 years. Gone is the doorway through
which as a young man he proudly brought his bride Thawin and
later their newborn son Thawat. Also gone is the wooden porch
from whose uneven steps he watched manicured rice fields
disappear under Bangkok's relentless advance of buildings,
billboards and dusty sidewalks. 

Moments later the wiry young man points to a clump of boards
near an old shoe. "Here it is!" As Jalan speaks, the back hoe
that had flattened his home days earlier is still at work
among the rubble of the community.

"The landlord's son was my best friend when I was a boy," says
Jalan wiping dust from his eyes. His mother told us we could
stay on her land until she died. But now they want to build an
apartment here so we must leave." Like dozens of communities
caught in Bangkok's breathtaking growth, the 23 families
living in Ruamjai Samakkhi are expendable. "The landlord has a
bad heart," says Jalan. "Thailand is growing but the heart of
the people is not."

But the people of Ruamjai are wrestling back control of their
future. With help from the Canadian Co-operative Association
(CCA) and a local housing organization called Building
Together Association, they joined 31 families from a
ten-year-old settlement in nearby Bangna to buy some land of
their own. When construction is completed - sometime in 1997/8
- 54 families will make the move to a site in neighbouring
Samutprakarn province just 5 km beyond the edge of Bangkok.
"We formed our savings group in 1992 and became Muang Mai
Phattana Housing Co-operative Ltd.," says Jalan, who joined
the co-op board two years ago. This gave members the buying
power they needed to arrange a loan from the Urban Community
Development Office (UCDO), a Thai agency set up five years ago
to give loans to poor people. 

Jalan remembers how hard it was at first to set aside money
from their meagre income. He earns 8,000 Baht ($400 CDN) a
month as a driver for a municipal welfare agency and, though
his income has grown in recent years, the cost of living has
jumped dramatically in that same time. Today, each family pays
750 Baht ($37 CDN) a month towards the loan and an extra 250
Baht ($12 CDN) to prepare the land for construction. The
20-hectare property is located on wetlands and must be drained
and land filled before construction can begin. Their old homes
destroyed, families from Ruamjai have already begun to move to
temporary housing on the co-op site. 

While the co-op promises Ruamjai residents a new lease on
life, the road has been long and difficult. The first eviction
notice came in 1992. "When we tried to negotiate the landlord
took us to court to enforce the eviction," says Jalan. Their
legal avenues exhausted, the people of Ruamjai were told to
pack up and leave in May. "We asked the landlord to give us
two more weeks because our new land wasn't ready but she
refused." Unable to leave, the families moved into temporary
shelters they hastily built just 50 metres away on land owned
by the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority. In all, the landlord
compensated the community just 40,000 Baht ($2,000 CDN). 

Jalan was seven years old when his family moved to Ruamjai in
1960. For 29 years Jalan has watched this small farm community
become a bustling downtown neighbourhood lost among Bangkok's
sprawling urban landscape. Today, his family can only watch
helplessly as work crews carve away the last vestiges of
Ruamjai life. "Early this morning, I awoke to the sounds of
heavy machinery tearing up the road. I ran to my window to see
what was happening but before we could react there was a loud
noise. The back hoe had broken our water line. Now we have no
water and the road to our homes is gone."

Despite the hardships, Jalan says his heart will be heavy the
day he leaves Ruamjai for the last time. The place he is
moving to is foreign to him and, in a city famous for its
traffic jams, will add another two hours to his already long
commute to work. "When we picked the new land for the co-op
three years ago, I felt it was very remote in the countryside,
not close to anything. But there are factories with jobs for
our people." The co-op is near Bang Plee New Town, a new
high-density village with many apartment buildings and homes.
Bang Plee holds the promise of jobs and there are schools,
hospitals and services nearby. Jalan now sees a good life in
the future and is eager to build a new community without fear
of eviction, on land the co-op can call its own.

"Building housing co-ops in Bangkok is an uphill battle," says
former BTA director Dr. Chamniern Paul Vorratnchaiphan. It
begins by organizing families to create a savings group to
pool their modest resources. After lengthy negotiations for a
government loan they must find and purchase a piece of
affordable land, negotiate with their landlord for
compensation and time to remain in their homes until the new
land is ready, prepare the land for building and move into
temporary housing during construction. There are now 29
housing co-operatives at various stages of development in this
city of 8 million. With technical and financial support from
CCA, the Building Together Association (BTA) brings
government, housing groups, and development agencies together
to educate them about the housing situation and to advance
co-op housing solutions among the estimated 1,500 slum
communities in the greater Bangkok area. Vorratnchaiphan says
a newly formed Housing Co-operative Federation plays an
important role training members and coordinating and
negotiating with concerned agencies for support. It is a
welcome ally in securing Muang Mai Phattana Co-op's new home. 

Jalan has found the obstacles are not always financial in
nature. This year, torrential rains, as well as heated
resistance from the National Housing Authority (NHA), caused
further setbacks and delays. In the spring, co-op members
literally had to find their way across troubled waters -
waters which threatened to flood their land. "We got together
and built a bridge over the canal that separates our land from
Bang Plee New Town," says Jalan. "Then we applied for a second
loan to add landfill to prepare the site for construction."
The NHA, which controls the loan fund, stonewalled Muang Mai's
attempts to prepare the land and on one occasion arrested and
charged their workers with trespassing. Co-op leaders took
their complaints to the central government and eventually
persuaded NHA to drop the charges and let the work resume.

The co-op then tried to get permission to use a road which
runs through NHA land right to the co-op site. The NHA
refused. The move effectively barred co-op members from
accessing their own land. Far from discouraged, Muang Mai
members have emerged from setbacks like these battle-hardened
and more determined to succeed than ever. "Sometimes we must
fight very hard and sometimes we must withdraw to negotiate,"
says Jalan. "We are gradually winning the support of the
Ministry and now the NHA is not so quick to block our
efforts." By applying pressure through UCDO, Muang Mai won
temporary access to move onto their land this June. Once we
are on the land we will be very powerful." 

Muang Mai Phattana Co-op will bring families from two
long-standing slum communities to live together in a new way.
At first, the members from Ruamjai knew little about their new
neighbours from Bangna. But after attending several joint
seminars they are very close and plans to move to their new
homes are in full swing. "We will build a child care centre
and open a shop for our members," says Jalan. "And the co-op
will give loans to help members improve their lives. But for
now, we have more pressing concerns." The co-op is arranging
financing for construction and must build more temporary
houses. It must arrange for electricity and get the government
to approve the land plots for each home. Jalan has already
asked his boss for a truck to move everybody and their
belongings to the co-op. "It will take us one or two days to
move using a van. We will use whatever material we have on
hand to build our new shelters and buy the rest from the
market." 

Jalan now squats on the narrow wooden bridge gazing out over
the co-op site. He sees beyond the solitary tree standing
amidst the barren clumps of earth. He sees the future and it
is moving toward him. After a long pause he remarks.  "It
won't be long now before we move into our new homes." Breaking
into a broad grin he swings around and adds "...and we won't
have to move again!"