A win for Kru Ti and the Mekong River
Over the past 20 years, Niwat Roykaew, a teacher, activist and founder of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group in Chiang Rai province has been campaigning to bolster the grassroots movement he initiated to protect the Mekong River, a crucial lifeline for countries in the Mekong Region.
The movement began in earnest in opposition to a state-endorsed project to blast rapids along the river. It needs to be mentioned that the rapid clearance is the result of cooperation between Thai and Chinese authorities, with the goal of opening a logistical route for large cargo barges from Yunnan in China's southwestern region to Luang Prabang in Laos.
Now the long struggle has started to bear fruit with another small conservation group, the Mekong School on Local Knowledge, emerging as a learning centre for children, students, civil servants, Buddhist monks and the general public.
This week, the Goldman Environmental Prize 2022 went to Mr Niwat, also known as Kru Ti, who is playing an important role in opposing the Mekong rapids blasting project, officially called the Lancang-Mekong Navigation Channel Improvement Project. Kru Ti is one of six recipients of this year's prize, a prestigious award for grassroots environmental activism.
His efforts, along with those of other civil groups, ultimately led to a cabinet resolution scrapping the project.
In 2000, China, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos joined hands to develop a navigation channel allowing 500-tonne cargo ships to sail through the Mekong River. This led to dredging and clearing -- through the use of explosive materials -- to wipe out rocks and rapids along the river from southern China to Luang Prabang, spanning a total length of 886 kilometres. The section along the Thai-Lao border in Chiang Rai alone runs for 97km.
The project has been carried out from China's Yunnan to downstream nations. As it reached the Thai border in Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen district -- part of the infamous Golden Triangle -- it faced fierce resistance from the Chiang Khong Conservation Group.
Local villagers see the rocks and rapids in the Mekong as an important part of a vital ecosystem, acting akin to natural dykes that slow the speed of the water during the flooding season. Importantly, the rapids add oxygen to the river, while also providing a habitat and refuge for migratory fish.
In historical terms, they have served as a de facto fortress defending the river. These natural barriers prevented Chinese troops in ancient times from sailing too far south -- allowing downstream countries to establish and retain their independence. The Chinese empire in the olden days relied on marine power and thus refocused its maritime expansion to depart from the country's eastern coast via the South China Sea instead.
The campaign sparked Thai society's awareness of the importance of the Mekong and its resources, and the Chiang Khong Conservation Group has been at the centre of this movement in northern Thailand.
The group also opened a local knowledge and research centre to educate people about the importance of the Mekong's ecosystems. The centre has produced a body of local knowledge about the river's ecology with the help of villagers and academics.
At the same time, complaints were filed to policy-level agencies such as the National Human Rights Commission, as well as senate and parliamentary committees. Media investigations were also launched and presented to the public. Finally, the blasting project was shelved in 2005.
Yet amid all the campaigning, Kru Ti realised there were other threats to the Mekong.
At that time, the Chinese authorities had already built the first dam on the upper part of the river. At that time, a cascade of eight dams had been constructed in Yunnan, which came as a shock to the villagers living downstream who had not been informed of this.
Villagers have observed occasional changes in the river's flow. Naturally, in the rainy season, the Mekong used to flood and flow into tributaries and wetlands, creating spawning grounds for migratory fish.
But with the appearance of more dams controlling the river's flow, the seasonal floods started to disappear. In the dry season, both sides of the Mekong used to serve as rich agricultural land, keeping the banks fertile with their nutrients.
For many years, flash floods occurred overnight during the dry season. Yet it is clear that the natural cycle of the flowing Mekong has been adversely affected due to the operation of these dams.
At the end of 2016, Thailand's cabinet once again revived the Mekong rapids blasting project, as it approved the Lancang-Mekong International Maritime Development Plan 2015-2025 to serve as a guideline for the development of international waterways on the Lancang-Mekong River.
Mr Niwat and his conservation group know only too well that this paves the way for China to blow up the Mekong's rapids once again.
The latest battle has grown more intense as the local civic group secured the backing of academic experts from universities both locally and abroad.
Moreover, villagers who live along the Mekong came together to express their concerns about the project.
The campaign was widely supported by people all over Thailand. At every hearing, most people disagreed with the rapids blasting project, and complaints were lodged with several national policy agencies.
In addition, surveillance has been stepped up to prevent private concession companies from exploring the Mekong along the Thai-Lao border. Villagers' boats were seen filled with protest signs as the company conducted a survey in Chiang Khong.
Eventually, on Feb 4, 2020, the cabinet passed a resolution terminating the project for good.
Today, the rocks and islands in the Mekong on Thai-Lao border are still there, providing ecosystem services to this great river of Southeast Asia. The beauty of the Kon Phi Luang rapids and various islands that are inhabited by aquatic animals can still be seen.
However, the achievement of Kru Ti and the Chiang Khong Conservation Group stands as an isolated case. The construction of hydro-dams along the Mekong continues without any sign of stopping -- the health of the mighty Mekong is in peril.
Meanwhile, the river has become a geopolitical battleground between China and the United States. Kru Ti and the Chiang Khong Conservation group have to keep themselves in balance.
"You can be the United States, China, Australia, Japan or whatever country. If you see that the Mekong River needs to be preserved and restored, you are our partner," Kru Ti said in one interview that clearly reflected the position of the communities along the Mekong River.
Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th
Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th
- Kru Ti