Fisherwoman Keng Sreymom remembers a time before the Mekong River was dammed, before the swamp forests surrounding the lake burned up, before the fish disappeared.
Perched on the floor of her home, which stands on stilts inside Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake, Sreymom recalls: “Growing up, life was not modern, but it was peaceful. If we wanted to eat fish, we didn’t even need to catch them. We could just drive the boat out onto the water, and the fish would jump right in. The swamp forests were dense and full of monkeys. I used to swing on the trees with them and eat wild fruits.”
But the lake started to change around 2007, when hydropower dams in China and Laos started blocking the reverse flow of the Mekong River into the lake, causing the water to recede. The water temperature rose too high for some fish to breed, and the swamp forests where many fish lay their eggs started to dry up and burn.
Sreymom can think of at least 15 species of fish and mollusks she used to catch that have vanished completely.
“Today, if we try our best, we can’t even catch one kilo in a day,” she says.
The environmental changes and government mismanagement of the environment afflicting Sreymom and her community could just as easily be described by any of the hundreds of millions of people in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam whose livelihoods depend on the Mekong River and its tributaries.
Today, there remain few opportunities for these communities to confront these threats collectively, but the organisers of the Mekong-ASEAN Environmental Weekend (MAEW) aim to change that. An online event held in Bangkok from September 25-27, MAEW was held to create space for cross-border collaboration between communities across the region.
“The problems caused by large-scale projects on the Mekong include displacement, migration, and violence against people who are fighting to protect their resources. These problems are not confined by national borders,” said Premrudee Daoroung, coordinator of the environmental activist group Project SEVANA South-East Asia and founder of MAEW.
“But these situations are very heavy, so communities tend to focus on their own struggles. Our objective is to bring them together so they can work across borders, compare notes, and build a more effective regional movement.”
Get rid of these leaders
Sreymom tried to save her community’s livelihood, but her solitary efforts were quickly crushed. As chief of the floating village of Ou Ach Kok, she petitioned the local fisheries administration to stop illegal overfishing by corrupt officials and commercial fishing projects, to prevent agricultural concessions from dumping harmful chemicals into Tonle Sap, and to devise a community development plan for Tonle Sap’s fisherfolk.
However, rather than support Sreymom’s struggling village, the authorities fired her. One official told her: “You’re speaking out, but you don’t understand the internal issues, so just shut up.”
“Now I can’t do anything,” she said. “Before, at least I had a government rank. Now I am a zero. There’s nothing we can do to change the system.”
Throughout the Mekong region, governments routinely disrupt the sustainable relationships local communities have with their forest and water resources in favour of large-scale foreign investment projects. In all these countries, those who oppose environmental destruction meet the same fate as Sreymom, or worse.
Investors identify certain leaders within the community, and they think that if they can get rid of these leaders, the struggle will collapse. Sometimes, it works
“The way it usually goes is a company or some investors come in, and they try to do business without discussing their plans with the local community,” says Luke Duggleby, a photographer whose photo series For Those Who Died Trying was on display at MAEW. The series features portraits of slain environmental and human rights defenders at the exact locations where they were murdered or abducted.
“The community tries to shut down the mine or the dam or the plantation, so the investors identify certain leaders within the community, and they think that if they can get rid of these leaders, the struggle will collapse. Sometimes, it works,” he said.
Between 1974 and 2018, at least 62 activists have been murdered or disappeared in Thailand in cases where no one has been held accountable. Just last week, conservation activist Lertsak Kumkongsak reported receiving several death threats demanding that he stop organising opposition to a limestone mine in the Dong Mafai community forest in Thailand’s Nong Bua Lamphu province.
“This is one of the most dangerous struggles that has ever happened in Thailand,” Duggleby says. “Four activists have already been killed in this area.”
Interconnected and intensifying
Duggleby hopes his ongoing documentation of the Dong Mafai community’s struggle will serve as a resource for similar movements throughout the region. A panel of environmental journalists at MAEW expressed the same hope for their work, decrying the obstacles posed by the absence of press freedom throughout the region.
“It is no coincidence that the governments allowing the Mekong River to be dammed and polluted all rank toward the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index,” said Bangkok Post assistant news editor Anchalee Kongrut during last weekend’s panel.
Yodsapon Kerdviboon, a reporter for the Isaan Record in northeastern Thailand, said one way to loosen these governments’ grip on the flow of information would be for local journalists to share tips on how and where to publish safely and how to secure funding for independent reporting.
“If people do not have the ability to make decisions about their own land, I call this environmental injustice,” Kerdviboon said. “Giving people this access to information through journalism can help them make these decisions.”
One thing stronger journalism could achieve is helping to reform the development industry. Shalmali Guttal, executive director of Focus on the Global South, which co-organised MAEW, said major development players have long been complicit in the suppression of movements seeking to protect community resources and ways of life.
For instance, in Myanmar, the International Finance Corporation, the Asian Development Bank, and development banks based in the UK, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands have collectively invested more than US$170 million into Irrawaddy Green Towers. The mobile phone tower company works for Mytel, a telecom joint venture co-owned by the Myanmar and Vietnamese militaries, both of which are responsible for widespread rights abuses against communities on the Mekong and beyond.
“Countries in the Mekong region receive billions of dollars in official development aid, which largely panders to the interests of corporate investors and props up unaccountable regimes, while doing little to advance human rights and justice,” she said.
“The assault on peoples’ rights and the environment across the region are interconnected and intensifying, and we must respond to them through regional solidarity and joint actions.”
All of the presentations at the Mekong-ASEAN Environmental Weekend have been archived and can be viewed in both English and Thai here. Jacob Goldberg is the outreach coordinator for Focus on the Global South, based in Bangkok.