'Kru Thi' hailed as river guard

'Kru Thi' hailed as river guard

Niwat Roykaew holds his 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize awarded by the Chiang Khong Conservation Group by the Mekong River in Chiang Rai. (Photo: Paskorn Jamlongrach)
Niwat Roykaew holds his 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize awarded by the Chiang Khong Conservation Group by the Mekong River in Chiang Rai. (Photo: Paskorn Jamlongrach)

Niwat Roykaew, a teacher, activist as well as founder of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group in Chiang Rai province, has been awarded a 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the world's pre-eminent awards for grassroots environmental activism.

Mr Niwat, or Kru Thi, has campaigned for more than 20 years to stop a project that will change the Mekong River ecosystem.

He is one of only six recipients of the prize this year and accepted the award during a virtual ceremony held today in the United States.

The group recognised Mr Niwat's unflagging opposition to blasting along stretches of the Mekong River for the construction of a navigation channel meant to allow Chinese cargo ships to pass into Laos and Thailand. The work of Mr Niwat and other civil groups eventually led to a cabinet resolution cancelling the transboundary project.

The joint project between China and Thailand began in 2000. The Chinese government announced that it would blast an 886-kilometre stretch of the Mekong, from the southern part of China to Luang Prabang in Laos and Chiang Rai in Thailand. If completed, the channel would have allowed convenient passage for barges of up to 500 tonnes to navigate the river all year long.

Mr Niwat, together with local residents and civil groups, presented key facts and numbers estimating detrimental environmental effects if the plan was endorsed.

Despite visits by Chinese and Thai government officials travelling to Chiang Rai to allay fears, on Feb 4, 2021, the Thai cabinet announced the project had been cancelled.

"If we do not stand up for the Mekong River, it will be destroyed completely. This river is economically tied to the lives of people in many countries. We are helping and protecting those people," said Mr Niwat.

Tuenjai Deetes, recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1994, said that Mr Niwat had worked for 20 years to protect the life of the Mekong River. His collaboration with civil groups, NGOs and government sectors had raised awareness among locals and officials to improve water management.

"If the Mekong is monopolised by the Chinese government and private sectors, then grassroots people living in riverine areas will have to face the consequences. It is rare for governments to cancel projects on the Mekong River, but Kru Thi managed to win the day against all odds," said Ms Tuenjai.

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