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Mekong School, Chiang Saen District, Chiang Rai
Photo credit: Sirirung Srisittipisarnpop

Problems with the Mekong River in the northern Thailand are not new.  They began 30 years ago, in 1993, when the Man Wan Dam in Yunnan, China was completed.  This first Mekong dam was followed by others; at present, on the upper reach of the river alone, 11 have been built. The impacts have been felt throughout the region,  devastating ecological landscapes and disrupting the lives of people in 6 countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Mekong Community Institute in Chiang Rai lists some of the consequences: “riverbank gardening areas have disappeared due to erosion from unseasonal water-level fluctuations, referred to by locals as a ‘Destabilised Mekong’… living things and ecosystems in the area have also been affected … birds have lost nesting places along the banks and many food plants have disappeared. The seasonal migration of fish has also been disrupted, making it difficult to catch any fish, let alone large ones.”

In March of 2023, the Institute issued a report entitled ‘The Changing Mekong River: Research by Mekong Villagers in Chiang Rai Province’.  It notes that the river and its tributaries flow through many places in many countries, creating rich ecological landscapes that are unique to each area.  For generations, people have relied upon a shared knowledge of this diverse ecosystem for their survival.  A source of income and food, it shaped local culture.  Disturbingly, this body of local wisdom - and the environmental niches in which it arose -  are now being lost.

Dams on the upper Mekong River have had sweeping consequences for downstream communities that once depended upon the riverine environment.  The ‘little people” have been particularly affected; powerless to negotiate, they have often been ignored by state authorities. To change their fates and draw attention to what has happened to their lives, they have had to create their own networks and work with non-governmental organisations. Some have pursued local research in a bid to solve problems in the basin and alleviate the crisis until mechanism are in place to protect natural resources in the area.

The Mekong River at Chiang Saen District, Chiang Rai Photo credit: Sirirung Srisittipisarnpop

A ‘Destabilised Mekong’ - 30 years of crisis 

“Over the past 20 years, many dams have been built. It’s a crisis without solution. On the upper Mekong two dams were built. Then, on the lower Mekong, Xayaburi dam and Don Sahong dam were built. Now, the Pak Beng and Pak Lay dams will be built; the [Thai] government is in the process of signing power purchase agreements with these dams.  News of these projects just cropped up.” – Niwat Roikaew 

Niwat Roikaew, President of Rak Chiang Khong Group Photo credit: Sirirung Srisithipisalpop

In a talk given on September 9, 2022, Niwat Roikaew, President of the Rak Chiang Khong Group and a 2022 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, noted that the current Mekong River crisis must be addressed by liberating the river from ‘the discourse of ‘nation-state boundaries.’ The crisis stems from dam construction. The latest, Pak Beng Dam, is not in Thailand but adjacent to it. But the Thai government signs power purchase agreements with its neighbours. In this way, overseas investments are used to extract river resources.

The justification is that this benefits the nation as a whole . But extensive research shows that these ‘benefits’ are more than offset by the damage done to area communities and ecosystems. Dam building is treated as the sovereign right of states that are free to act without regard for the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the impacts on people living downstream.   As the Mekong is an international waterway shared by 6 countries, a single country should not be allowed to act alone.
“In 2013, people filed a lawsuit against the Xayaburi dam (in Laos). The Administrative Court ruled in 2022. The lawsuit argued that the government’s power purchase agreement caused the impacts to the river as it led to the building of the dam. But the court found that the agreement had no effect as the dam caused the problem.  Thai legal mechanisms cannot stop upstream dam construction.  It is a crisis with no solution.”

Describing the role of nation-states in the river basin crisis, Niwat added that nation-states often used power to manipulate river resources shared by people in many countries, without regard for the livelihoods of those living in the basin. Although the river belongs to everyone, state authorities are inflexible and act as they please for political, social and cultural reasons.  Borders were demarcated in the colonial era.  With the emergence of modern states, these became international boundaries on the map, delineating sovereign territories.  Tasked with management, state authorities seldom act alone and often collaborate with multinational capital.  In the case of the Pak Beng and Sanakham dams, big power companies are the key players pushing the projects forward. 

“Currently (2023), 11 dams have been built on the upper Mekong, where the river originates. In addition, eleven more including Xayaburi and Don Sahong are being planned for the lower Mekong. Justified in terms of national sovereignty, without a holistic view of the region, these projects contribute to unsustainable development.  The river ecosystem is being cut into pieces; this is a crucial point. When we talk about fish, there are no Lao fish or Thai fish - only Mekong fish, swimming unbounded without national affiliation.  Borders and nation-state labels provide the structure for dam projects.”

Map of dams on the Mekong
Source: Internationalrivers

In a discussion of ‘The Mekong River Situation for the Mekong Children,’ a report issued by her organisation, Pianpron Deetes, International Rivers Campaign Director for Thailand and Myanmar, noted that it is important for people to understand that as electricity consumers, we are all part of the problem. Paying attention to the Mekong is not just for those who live beside it. It is about monitoring unjust government policies and capitalist ventures that have consequences, not only for people who live beside the river but also for electricity consumers in these countries.

Recent reports reveal that the Chinese government has plans to build a total of 20 dams on the upper Mekong. The 12th, Taoba dam, is currently under construction.  Given that the upper Mekong sits adjacent to an active geological fault line, there are grounds for worry.  Frequent occurrences, earthquakes in Yunnan Province near a huge dam reservoir could result in a disaster affecting hundreds of thousand people.    

The growing number of dams on the upper Mekong River has resulted in unseasonal water fluctuation. During the flood season, the volume of water is less than before. During the dry season, it increases due to dam construction and operation. On average, during the dry season, 45% of water in the Mekong basin is retained in China. Around 90-95% of the water reaching Chiang Saen District, Chiang Rai in the dry season comes from the Jinghong Dam in Xishuangbanna Prefecture, 340 kilometres upstream.

Forests without state protection: Using ‘information’ to restore local resources

Boon Rueng village in Chiang Rai is located beside the Ing River, a tributary of the Mekong. Some 400 kilometres downstream from the Jinghong Dam, the river and its ecosystem are suffering from dam construction. Upstream water retention has reduced its water volume and diminished the flow of nutrient-rich sediment that used to come during the flood season. 

Boon Rueng Wetland Forest, Chiang Khong District, Chiang Rai Photo credit: Apichet Sukkae

Pitchatpong Kurupratchyamak, Boon Rueng Community Coordinator Photo credit: Apichet Sukkaeo

Pitchatpong Kurupratchyamak, the Community Coordinator for Boon Rueng Village, has been instrumental in getting locals to preserve a community forest, an area of 3,000 rai beside the Ing River.  In a recent interview, he explained that the Boon Rueng woodlands differs from state forest in that it was protected “by villagers … who helped to replant and conserve it, using it as common resource which they managed with local wisdom, local knowledge, and local beliefs.  They have a common awareness … and follow rules to make sure that resources are shared by community members.”

In 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) government attempted to seize the area for a special economic zone development project.  They argued that the forest was a degraded area and targeted it for reclamation. People in the community resisted, however. Although powerless, they stood up and fought to protect the area, a decision that led to a movement for local conservation as opposed to another government development project. 'Boon Ruang Forest’ took shape in the process.

Out more than 500 entries from 120 countries, it was recognised as one of the ten best community forests in 2020 and awarded an ‘Equator Prize’ by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

 

World Wetlands Day, “Som Saeng forest ordination in wetland area of Ing River basin” February 2023.
Photo credit: Pitchatpong Kurupratchyamak

Local livelihood of Ing River children 
Photo credit: Pitchatpong Kurupratchyamak

Pitchatpong stressed the importance of information in environmental management.  Record-keeping allowed him to show how his community’s forest generated up to 121 million baht each year,  a return on local conservation efforts which benefits both consumption and forest management capabilities.

Community research also identified some 100 species of edible plants and herbs, as well as a variety of forest-dwelling mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. In terms of aquatic life, biodiversity has been greatly reduced; some 282 fish species were previously found in Ing River but as a result of changing water levels, only slightly more than 100 remained.  Of these, 86 were local fish and another 16 were migratory species. Although environmental changes have taken a toll,  the information collected by the Boonruang community indicates that the forest is still home for an abundance of plants, animals, and insects throughout the year.

As noted by Pitchatpong, the community’s forest has become “…a learning place. [We] pushed it forward, creating a local curriculum … showing that there are many things to learn here … creating relationships between people and the forest … as a result of the efforts of our network, allies, and civil groups … involved with rivers … and we can now inform academics and support other communities to learn.”

Debating the security Akha community livelihoods and local wisdom

Atu Pochae or Kraisit Sithichodok, Director of Association for Akha Education and Culture, Chiang Rai Photo credit: Apichet Sukkaeo

People living in upland areas adjacent to the Mekong basin have also been affected by river ‘destabilisation’ - particularly groups living in areas targeted by Thai state authorities for natural resources management.

According to Atu Pochae or Kraisit Sithichodok, Director of the Association for Akha Education and Culture in Chiang Rai, indigenous ethnic groups who live in the region - some 30 groups with the Akha the biggest -  are also suffering the consequences, economic and cultural, of large-scale development projects inside and outside the country.  They are often not even treated as citizens by Thai authorities, however.

Atu has compiled a body of knowledge about area food stuffs in order to preserve local wisdom of ethnic cuisine in the Mekong basin area. According to Atoo, local culture practices were already being disrupted by state resource management efforts that denied people access to resources and compelled them to comply with legal frameworks stipulated in the Forest Act of 1941, the National Park Act of 1961, the National Reserve Forest Act of 1964, and the Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act of 1992.

Such regulations, he argues, have created a knowledge gap between indigenous groups living in forests and authorities who do not recognise their rights. They are seen, instead, through the lens of national security discourse, creating problems that go beyond access to natural resources to include human rights violations as well.

According to Atoo, “modern borders have to do with resource management but categorising people with them denies diversity. If modern borders are erased, community relationships can be seen in terms of language and  culture.  The Akha people are dispersed throughout the Mekong River Basin from China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand. Wherever they are, they are Akha people.”

He believes that one of the best tools to counter the security discourse in border areas is to narrate the stories of local people differently. Articulating the relationship of ‘a people and the river’ where livelihoods and natural resources are both protected is the way to go.

He added that wherever Akha people settle, [they] have a knowledge and understanding of their surroundings. Recording this information and learning about the Akha and other indigenous groups will allow academic institutions to establish a network of indigenous cultural centres. Using the cultural dimension as a tool for development alongside state development, will increase the capacity of local communities to cope with a changing world.  Whether problems stem from natural disasters or epidemics, local wisdom can be used to help solve them. 

Seeds Journey: Telling stories to protect food diversity

Akha community in Mae Suai District, Chiang Rai Province, the starting point of Seeds Journey.
Source: Sirirung Srisithipisalpob

Kalaya Chermue, Founder of Seeds Journey
Source: Seeds Journey page

Seeds Journey team
Source: Sirirung Srisithipisalpob

One example of using a cultural perspective to enhance a community’s capacity to cope with a changing world is Seeds Journey.  A Facebook page that features stories about ethnic cuisines, it is the product of a new generation of Akha living in Pa Kia village, Tako Sub-district, Mae Suai District, Chiang Rai Province.

Kalaya Chermue, its founder, began with the idea of telling stories about Akha cuisine to help outsiders better understand the cultural diversity of people in Thailand.  Five years later, Seeds Journey won an award from the United Nations Development Programme’s Sustainable Tourism Contest.

“Whoever we are, no matter where we live – in a small town or big city - [we] all want to go back to being ourselves with familiar experiences such as the taste of food. Getting to know about food also builds relationships with places and people through learning exchange … Seeds Journey’s goal is to use food for communication – not for us but for a healthy environment. It emphasises the relationship between ethnic diversity and biodiversity.”

She presents local wisdom on food in a remote border village – far away from centre of development - to people in the city, building connections and relationships with people of different languages and ethnicities. Food also plays a role in the conservation of forest areas.   It combines the use natural resources with local knowledge. Community is not marginalised … and does not require special management from the state.

Before starting Seeds Journey, Kalaya suffered the same fate as many other ethnic minority members living in Thailand. She was a stateless person without an ID card until she was 25. Instead of focusing on education, she spent her childhood years endure discrimination and struggling to gain access to government welfare and services.
For a time, she worked in an air-conditioning assembly factory until it made her sick with rashes from a copper allergy. She was fired without compensation but couldn’t complain because she was stateless. After that, she worked in Mae Sot on migrant issues but faced obstacles when trying to leave the area. She had to provide documents to the village headman to get permission. One time, she almost got arrested, but the Mirror Foundation, helped out. “I had to deal with situations like that until I was 25, even though I was born in Thailand.” She adds that other stateless people received the same treatment. Not only they were discriminated against, they had to prove to those in power that they were worthy of citizenship and citizenship rights.

Kalaya finally settled down in her hometown to tell stories for Seeds Journey. She decided to: “use food to confirm our identity, livelihoods, roots, history and sense of community … to communicate to others that Akha or members of other ethnic groups are a part of the global community.” 

“Telling stories though food and culture can connect the dots, linking a small community in the forest to global environmental problems, to policies and politics … to issues about land use, rotational farming, chemical use, and plantation agriculture. It is also a way of helping outsiders to fully open their mind to accept the existence of indigenous groups,” said Kalaya.

Kalaya believes that her ethnic identity is about difference and that all Thai people, whatever their ethnic backgrounds, have similar differences.  Kalaya’s storytelling about her own home-cooked food not only reveals local wisdom and the worldview of her people but also creates acceptance and openness towards cultural diversity in Thailand. Acceptance of difference is part of respecting humanity. It is also the starting point for solving problems of injustice that Kalaya sees and hopes to change. 

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