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Fighting to fish

by Ekaphone Phouthonesy
Vientiane Times
Lao PDR.

It is early morning in Ban Pak Ing, a small village on the banks of the Mekong River. A 60-year-old woman named Buathong Saensan widens her fishing gear, known as ka-doung in the local language, and then she throws it into the water.
After a while, she lifts it up and she shows the visiting journalists some little fish in the net before releasing them back into the river.
“This is the way we do fishing in the village,” the woman said in her Lao accent, while gesturing her hands to convince the foreign onlookers to try it. The fishing practices in the half-century-old Lao village in Thailand have become an occasional performance for visitors.
The fish population in this area has dramatically declined due to overfishing, dam development and navigation improvement upstream. All of these have forced the more than 100 villagers who once relied on food in the river into agricultural cultivation, a harder way of life.
In recent years, China has built dams in its jurisdiction to supply electricity to major cities in the south.  The dams are said to hold a lot of water, which is released without prior consultation with downstream countries.

A fisherman catches a fish from the Mekong.

Upstream Mekong developments do not only change waterways but also ways of life among the people who settle along the banks of the mighty river

     Two hydroelectric power dams - Manwan and Dachaoshan – have already been built in the mainstream Mekong, while another dam, Xiaowan, is now under construction, according to a well known environmental activist, Mr. Witoon Permpongsacharoen.
Witoon, director of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA) in Bangkok, said several additional dams are planned in the mighty river.   
Also, in 2000, the governments of China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand signed an agreement to operate commercial navigation. The agreement allows China to blast rapids in the Mekong from China down to Luang Prabang in Laos.
In the agreement, China will have to ensure navigation year-round. By this, it means that China would blast rapids to improve navigation channels and open dam gates to release water once every few days to make navigation possible in the dry season.
The rapids blasting destroys fish habitats and nesting areas. Environmentalists and villagers agree: All of these developments have caused not only fish to decline, but also the popular edible seaweed known as gai in Chiang Khong district, Chiang Rai province.
“Now, we do not get the same amount of fish to eat as in the past,” said Mr. Boonkong Boonward, head of Pak Ing village. 
Development in the Mekong, which some people believe brings more prosperity to the region, has resulted in economic imbalance. 
In recent years, local villagers have not been able to catch a lot of fish compared with the past. While no one is able to give the precise amount of fish and gai that have disappeared in the river, there are many local and NGO movements against further rapids blasting from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong.
Boonkong said that they were facing hardship compared to the past. Now many villagers have to do farming as the main job to earn a living.
“In the past, after cultivation season, some industrial fishermen could earn around 50,000 baht a year,” he said in his clear Luang Prabang accent, looking on as his village members performed fishing practices for visitors.
He said that the people in the village, from the ancestors to the new generation, have been relying on food in the Mekong.

Rapids along the Mekong provide natural habitat for fish.

He added that the villagers liked to have peaceful lives, which is the reason the villagers left their old village near Luang Prabang. They avoided being recruited as soldiers in 1943 during the constant fighting between French and Japanese forces during World War II.
The villagers moved upstream along the Mekong to Pak Ing, where they found fertilized land and fishing ground. There they settled down and have lived ever since.
“We lived simply in the past. We grew a basket of rice and spent the free time to do fishing in the river to get food,” he recalled.
He added that the village was located in the jungle when the people first moved there. He said that sufficient food from nature did not inspire villagers to capture the land for agricultural activities in the past. Many villagers sold the land to capitalists who foresaw future industrial development in the district.
That is the past. Now, many people in Pak Ing have begun to pay the cost of environment damage. Boonkong said villagers had to rent land to do agricultural cultivation.        “Villagers have to pay around 700 baht to rent one rai of land (40 square meters) from a landlord in one cultivation season,” he said.
The villagers now grow corn, tobacco and beans to sell in the market, according to Boonkong. He said that some villagers earned just sufficient money, because they had to pay a lot of income toward fertilizer, and sometimes had to import laborers from a village on the Lao side of the river to help with their farming.

A fisherman shows how to catch fish in the Mekong.

“The ones who/ do a lot of farming can earn around 100,000 baht from selling agricultural products. The middlemen have come to buy the products in the village,” he said.           The villagers can do little about problems upstream. They are powerless to negotiate, and a fish conservation zone is just one way villagers are fighting for the future. Boonkong  said that the village authorities decided to establish a fish conservation zone at the confluence of the Ing River and the Mekong in 2000. The 200-meter-long zone allows fish to reproduce and increase their populations.
“I got the idea from conservationists in Nan province while I was on an educational tour,” Boonkong said.
“At first many villagers opposed the concept, but I said that I want all villagers to join the project for two years.”
Six years after the zone has been installed, villagers said they can catch more fish outside the conservation zone. Boonkong said the village authorities set strict regulations banning fishing in the conservation zone.
“We have asked cooperation from all villagers to conserve the zone, including Lao fishermen,” he said, adding that anyone who breaks the regulations will be fined up to 3,000 Thai baht.
Besides conservation efforts, Boonkong said the villagers have joined hands with other villages along the mighty river to voice opposition to the construction of dams and navigation improvements from Chiang Saen to Luang Prabang in Laos.

“We have submitted official letters to oppose the plan,” he said, adding that people along both sides of the river should work together to conserve the environment of the Mekong.

“We have submitted official letters to oppose the plan,” he said, adding that people along both sides of the river should work together to conserve the environment of the Mekong.
He said that a large flood in the village occurred in 1966, due to a dam in Phayao province, which released water after heavy rainfall. Their  experience with that disaster — which resulted in the community splitting into two locations — has caused the villagers to have a  negative image today of dam development in China and navigation improvement, according to Boonkong. 
He said that he had learned China would do its best to protect its interests, keeping water and making the river dry up in the dry season, while in the wet reason it could release water and it would flood downstream villages. “China is the big country; no one will be able to tell it what it has to do in its own jurisdiction,” he said.          
Besides the environmental impacts, the navigation route could allow Chinese agricultural products to be sent to downstream Mekong countries. That would kill local farmers’ business because their products could not compete with cheaper prices.
Already, some garlic growers have complained about the import of cheap products from China; many farmers have quit their jobs, said Boonkong.  
He said the fate of all villagers is uncertain due to uncertain development. He said that China planned to establish an industrial zone in the district and many people would quit farming and work in the factory. “Water and air will be polluted when the day comes,” he said. 
It seems that the villagers of Pak Ing are facing hardship, changing from simple lives to complicated agricultural lifestyles.
After many years of hardship, Boonkong  said that he would not lead the villagers to seek new settlement as its ancestors did in the past. “There is nowhere for us to run to. We will stand to fight in the village.”

Chinese cargo boats can navigate down to Chiang Saen district, Chiang Rai province.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.