Issue Date: April 18, 2008
Kids encounter Thailand's river ecology up close
By TERESA MALCOLM
A former rice barge is chugging north on the Chao Phraya. And up on the 20-meter converted barges teak deck are three trays containing a bit of the river itself -- samples of a large, leafy water plant -- and 25 kids are getting their hands into it.
Most of them. Some boys hang back reluctantly, some girls squeal squeamishly and clutch each other as their classmates pull apart the roots of the nonnative, invasive water hyacinth to reveal the life teeming there. Using magnifying glasses, the fifth-graders identify the tiny macro-invertebrates that have found a home in the plant: beetles, worms, shrimp, crabs, snails, spiders.
It is a simple measurement of water quality. Each species found is given a score based on its ability to live in polluted water, with 1 being species that can survive in the dirtiest water and 10 being those that need it clean. The highest-scoring species the children identify gets a 6: a damselfly nymph. The average score for that section of the Chao Phraya River that day, according to the students test, is 3.9.
I think a good amount of life is here, but we can always make it better, concluded John Gilbert, a 10-year-old American. Its OK for most river standards, but its not completely clean. Its not like every creature could live in there.
The water hyacinth investigation was just one activity among the games and hands-on study during a two-day trip designed to teach schoolchildren about the ecology of Thailands greatest river and what they can do to help preserve it. The learning experience is one of a number aimed at various age groups, run by the Bangkok-based Magic Eyes Barge Program, established in 1995 and now under the auspices of Chiang Mais Prem Center for International Education.
In January, I got to join the group of 25 fifth-graders from Bangkoks New International School of Thailand. With these children of diplomats, nongovernmental organization workers, businesspeople and journalists, the barge was carrying a spectrum of nationalities -- Thai, Indian, Japanese, American, Canadian, Italian, Australian, to name but a few -- to take them, if not to the heart of this country, at least a little outside of the glossy comforts of the capital citys wealthy quarters.
In the early 90s, I lived in Thailand for two years, but I was in the Northeast -- my river was the Mekong between Thailand and Laos, far away from the Chao Phraya. My own experience with the River of Kings was chiefly on the boats that run as public transportation through Bangkok. And so I jumped at the chance for a little immersion, metaphorically speaking.
For the kids, a literal immersion was the undeniable highlight: swimming and diving from the barge while it was anchored in the middle of the river. Canoeing was also part of this treat, a relief from the afternoons heat. I had left my swimsuit behind, but joined the motorized dinghy that herded hapless young canoeists who strayed too far from our own boat and were carried by the current toward a nearby massive, modern barge, also anchored, and upon which a large dog ran back and forth, barking at the interlopers while the humans aboard worked.
Just another taste of the river community we glimpsed as we cruised along the river, seeing other vessels -- barges big and small headed for Bangkok; long, narrow boats big enough for just one or two people fishing; recreational boats -- and on the banks temples, factories, and houses grand and humble. The river is Thai life, said native staff member Pradipath Paul Kumluerith, 32.
Its really sustainability in general that were teaching, said another staff member, Erin Stanley, a 23-year-old Australian. Sustainability being the connection of environment, society and economy. So we dont simply talk about the environment the whole time. Were going to say, OK, so hows that going to affect the people? And if those people dont have the materials from the environment that they sell, how are they going to get money? We talk about the connections.
The barge was meant to be its own little sustainable community. The students were called upon to prepare meals, wash their own dishes and swab the deck. The barge becomes a microcosm of the world, with conservation made a necessity by limited resources on board. Particularly water -- hence the three-minute shower rule, timed by the staff. Its a way to get 25 kids showered and ready for bed in a reasonable amount of time, and also a way to drive home the point of water waste that threatens not only the Chao Phraya, but freshwater sources wherever these children may go next.
For it is international schools in Thailand, with children from typically well-to-do, globally transient families, that are the primary clientele for the Magic Eyes Barge Program, though some school groups and even adult groups have come from other countries. Some Thai schools have participated as well, and the Barge Program helps underwrite trips for less affluent local schools.
Aside from the program I joined, which was targeted at grades three to six, younger children can take day trips around Bangkok, and there are more in-depth studies for high schoolers. Instead of the simple investigation of water hyacinths pulled in by adult crew members, for example, students from senior classes get into the river to collect water samples that they then test for oxygen, phosphates, nitrates and other elements. The Barge Program also offers land-based trips in the Chao Phraya watershed and marine studies on the Gulf of Thailand.
After a night sleeping below decks on the moored barge, the kids were sent ashore with bowls and a limited amount of money to the market in the riverside town of Pathum Thani, where they were charged with buying breakfast for us all -- resulting in a smorgasbord of sweets and treats and even healthy food. There was also an accounting of all the plastic bags acquired with the food, despite the bowls the shoppers had, and a discussion of ways to make purchases that dont produce nonbiodegradable trash.
Late afternoon on the second day, we cruised back into Bangkok, dropping the exhausted students off at a pier nearer to their school before the staff and I -- grateful for the peace and quiet after two kid-filled days -- continued south the rest of the way to where the barge is housed in a boat garage provided by Bangkok Bank.
For these students, the barge trip was just the beginning of a unit called Over the River, their teacher, Jennifer Baccon, explained. What we do from this point on will come from the childrens questions from their experiences on this trip, she said. From the trip, they get the idea too that research isnt just going on the Internet and it spewing information back to you.
Taking action is ultimately what we want the kids to do, said Baccon, who has now accompanied two of her classes on a barge trip. The best actions are the things that the kids just do because of this, even if they havent actually planned for it, said Baccon, who taught for 18 years in Catholic schools in Sydney, Australia, before coming to Thailand eight years ago. They turn to someone in the bathroom, and say, Turn the tap off -- youre wasting water. Thats real action and its really what we want.
Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008
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