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Rise of Trade Development in Mekong River :

A Zero-Sum Game?

By Kannika Kunakornvaroj
Thansettakij Newspaper

C h i a n g S a e n

Farmers and fishermen in Chiang Rai are willing to be laborers at Chiang Saen Port because of the good money.

At the busy Chiang Saen Port,  dozens of stalwart laborers hurriedly carried  sacks of garlic on their shoulders from the deck of a 250-ton Chinese cargo ship to a truck parked on a pontoon. While other men were doing their work, at a corner of the deck a tanned young man sat resting after carrying many sacks of goods during the morning.
            Tum, 26, was born in nearby Chiang Rai.  In the past rainy seasons after he finished rice harvesting,  he would work as a truck driver for a water company in Chiang Mai.    However, almost four years ago he heard about a job opening at the port. That was the beginning of his new life.
            “While I was a truck driver, I got 4,500 baht monthly.  It could hardly compare with the present job like carrying sacks of garlic or boxes of vegetables, in which I earn not less than 300 baht per day.  So, monthly I earn no less than 9,000 baht,” Tum said, smiling. He added that it was a well-paid job and he planned to work at the port for the next several years.
            The situation is the same as many young men in Chiang Rai province who are willing to be laborers at the port rather than fishermen or farmers because of the good money. Mr. Tanongsak Puednoak, who is a farmer and fisherman from Santae village, 15 kilometers from the port, is also one of them. While he is waiting for the new farming season to begin in July, he is working as a carrier at the port.  Usually, he can earn around 160-200 baht per day as extra money. 
            Lives have changed since the rise of trade between Thailand and countries along the Mekong River in the last few years.  Thailand and China agreed to trade freely in October 2003, and now around 2,500 cargo ships come to Chiang Saen Port annually.  More than 90 percent of them come from China.  
            Mr. Paiboon Photidee, Port Manager,  said from October 2005 until May 2006 the value of imports to Chiang Saen was worth 791 million baht while the exports were worth 3.8 billion baht.  For the last three years, China has been the major trade partner. The main imports from China are apples and Chinese pears, while the biggest exports are dried longan and rubber sheets.
            In order to extend the potential of  the trade between Thailand and trading partners like China, Laos and Myanmar in the near future, the Thai government already is looking to build a new international port at a cost of nearly 2 billion baht. It will be 7 kilometers from the Chiang Saen Port in an area 100 times larger than the present port.  Under the development plan, the project will be completed by 2009, while the older port will be transformed to a tourist port. Apart from that, there is also a plan to develop road transport by building a new bridge across the Mekong River from Chiang Khong district in Thailand to Huay Sai in Laos.
            “The trade boom in Chiang Saen Port lifts the way of life here,” Paiboon said. “Local people have more income approximately 100-500 baht per day. Social problems like stealing or crime drop. Members in the family live together warmly because no one has to leave home for work in other areas.”

Laborers at the port are always busy.

            Mr. Chatchawan Jeenanuphan, a member of the local Chamber of Commerce in Chiang Rai Province, added that under the free trade agreement, the nations in this area will not charge duty for agricultural products. China is a big market for Thai agricultural products.  So farmers in Chiang Saen or Chiang Kong district should benefit from selling more agricultural products to China, he said.
             If there were only one local community along the Mekong River, it would be a story with a happy ending.  In fact, people who live downstream are suffering from the consequences of modern development.   
            International trade is served by building dams or blasting rapids upstream in order to control the water level and create channels in the river so that big ships can pass through. But that also affects the environment as well as the livelihoods of fishermen who depend on water and fish. 
            Mr. Udom Thana, of the Pak Ing village 10 kilometers from Chiang Khong, has been a fisherman for 24 years. He fishes in the Ing River, a tributary of the Mekong.
            These days, during the fishing season from March to June,  he earns only 20,000 to 30,000 baht, compared with 40,000 to 50,000 baht four years ago. 

One of the Khon Pi Luang Rapids, the first group of rapids designated for blasting in
Thailand to create channels in the river.

Somkiat Keungchiangsa, from an NGO group in Chiang Khong.

“Up to 80 percentof the households around the MekongRiver Basin depend on fisheries, which means their jobs, their livelihoods, depend on fish, more or less.”
- Chavalit Witayanon

Overall, the Mekong River supports more than 60 million people in six countries — China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam — for water and food security. Up to 80 percent of the households around the Mekong River Basin depend on fisheries, which means their jobs and their livelihoods depend on fish.  And the Mekong River produces 300,000-500,000 tons of fish annually, according to Dr. Chavalit Witayanon, senior freshwater biologist, WWF Thailand.     Meanwhile, Mr. Somkiat Keungchiangsa, network coordinator for the Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network, an NGO working in Chiang Khong district, said recent research done by the network found that the number of fish species in the area had declined from 150 to 88 after dams were built and rapids blasted upstream.  The situation of the fish decline did not happen only in the Mekong River but also in the tributaries such as the Ing and Kok rivers, where  fish in the Mekong lay their eggs. Besides declining fish habitats, the unnatural changes in the water levels caused a decrease in water plants and seaweed, which are food for fish.     Since 2001, the fluctuating water levels have confused fish, disrupting seasonal spawning and migration patterns,  and villagers can’t count on fisheries as a main job like in the past.  Fish have sharply declined while the cost of investment is higher for nets and fuel.

Villagers downstream of the Mekong River live their lives as  fishermen.

“It’s not worth it to invest.  Right now I catch fish just only for eating not for selling anymore,” said Udom, with sadness in his eyes. He worries that he won’t have work as a fisherman in the future.
            Pak Ing villagers already are turning to  alternative work like agriculture. Almost half of the 43 households in the village depend on planting corn, beans and tobacco as the main source to make money for feeding their families. 
            Likewise, Udom and his family rent about 19,200 square meters of land for growing corn, beans and tobacco. Annually,  he earns about 100,000-130,000 baht. Deducting the costs of seed plants, fertilizer, harvesting tools and worker wages, he gets only half of the total, which is enough just for living day by day but not for saving.
            “Young men below the age of 35 mostly leave the village to work in the big cities, while the older people are trying very hard as much as they can to survive here,” Udom said. “For myself,  I’m 39 years old now. I want to stay here. It’s something about the bonding between man and local community. I don’t have any idea what to do elsewhere. Here, I can find a way to live my life somehow or other.

It doesn’t mean the network opposes development. The modern way of life should go along with the natural way of life.”
-Somkiat Keungchiangsa

However, Somkiat pointed out that the environment that has been changing lately is caused inevitably by villagers who took advantage of nature while rarely giving back.  Another factor also came from the government’s economic policy, which emphasized only making money without caring about the long term. It doesn’t mean the network opposes development, he said. The important thing that needs to be done is to help local people recognize the importance of the environment they depend on. It’s not just consuming, but preserving too.

Udom has been a fisherman for 24 years.  Now he counts on farming as a main job.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.