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No Flood No Food

Burmese Journalist

There is a sweet smell from the roasted mushroom. Mr. Somkhun is smiling as he flips the large and white mushroom over the fire.He breaks off a piece with his fingers and tastes it.
“Oh delicious,” he shouts. He is about 60 years old and lives in Muang Choom village, in Piraphon district, Chaing Rai, in northern Thailand. Somkhun is a member of the wetland forest conservation committee, which protects the forest where he got the large mushroom.
He pours rice wine into a small cup and drinks; his brown face is getting red. And then he breaks off another piece of roasted mushroom and eats it. The rice wine was made by his wife with sticky rice and sugar from his farm. Their life is very peaceful and he is satisfied for that.
After he’s had two or three cups of wine, he hears his wife’s sharp voice. “The lunch is ready,” she shouts.

Their food has come from a rare wetland forest along the Ing River, a tributary of the Mekong. It floods every year when the Mekong pushes the waters of the Ing back upstream, providing a perfect breeding environment for fish.
“In the past, this wetland forest was very rich with over 100 species of fish and 40 kinds of plant,” said Mr. Somboon, headman of the Muang Choom conservation group. “But 12 years ago, we started to worry about the wetland because we were catching less and less fish. At first, we didn’t know why.”

So villagers had a big meeting and decided to develop a conservation zone. The forest is 500 rai. They also designated a fish conservation zone covering 400 meters of the Ing.
      “We founded the group in 2000 to watch the conservation zone,” Somboon added. “We have about 10 members. If a villager catches a fish from the conservation zone, he will be fined 5,000 baht, while outsiders will be fined 4,000 baht for two fishes.”The village’s effort came just in time.“ In the past, there were three wetland forests here, but now there is only one left, because the officials and the villagers cut the forest and plowed it for farmland,” said Mr. Suay Sisom, the headman of Muang Choom village. Such forests have largely disappeared from Thailand, according to environmentalists.
      “There were many wetland forests in Thailand before, but most of the people didn’t know how important wetlands were, so they cut many trees from the forests and plowed them for farming,” said Jeff Rutherford, from the Unit for Social and Environmental Research at Chiang Mai University.
Fish like to lay eggs in the flooded trees and small fish are more protected in wetlands. They like to go in and out among the trees, Rutherford explained.
Floods from rivers also bring nutrients to farmlands, making them more productive for growing crops like rice.
   “No flood, no food,” said Mr. Witoon Permpongsacharoen, director of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), a regional NGO with headquarters in Bangkok.
    To protect the wetland forest of Muang Choom village, members of the conservation committee conduct regular patrols.

  “The villagers want to cut the trees for their firewood, so we let them to cut the small trees, but some of them break the rules and cut big trees, so we have to watch them,” said Mr. Chuay Sakorn, the assistant headman.
And the villagers like to cut trees for making charcoal, said Chuay, pointing to a big hole that was dark from burning wood. The village has banned charcoal burning, and taken other steps to protect the forest.
“One idea is to put the robes of monks around the big trees, because most villagers believe in Buddhism, so they are afraid to cut the monk trees,” Somkhun said.

Since 2004, the village has held an annual monk tree festival. They have placed robes around 300 trees a year, so there are many monk trees in the forest.
Now, the Muang Choom forest is richer then before, with a variety of herbs, trees, big bushes, bamboo, mushrooms and bamboo shoots, some smaller species of wildlife and birds, monkeys and so on.
This forest is flooded from August to January, and villagers have to use boats to go through the forest in September and October, when the water is highest.
By the end of  August, there are many fish in this area. Somkhun’s colleagues are coming back from the conservation zone, where they had gone for a walk with visitors.
The members of the conservation group are sitting on the floor of a sala, or small house built for resting, made of bamboo and grass. On the wall is a map of the forest. Members sit around their meal, which was prepared by Somkhun’s wife and the wives of other members.
There are three or four dishes, including roasted fish with lemon grass, mushroom and bamboo shoot soup, fish soup and boiled vegetables. Most are spicy and the main food is sticky rice. All of the fish came from the Ing River, while the mushroom and bamboo shoots came from the wetlands and the sticky rice came from their farms.
The villagers don’t have to worry about food. They know all of their food comes from nature.
Somkhun and his colleagues may not know much about the connection of the Mekong River and its effect on their conservation wetland. But they have their own local knowledge. Now, they are happy they have conserved the wetland and the Ing River.
Somkhun and his colleagues start their lunch. They eat roasted fish and sip the rice wine. Their faces are rough and brown but beautiful because of their smiles. They are poor and uneducated, but they love their nature. And they know that, “No Flood, No Food.”

Copyright 2009 IMMF.