Updated: Feb 23, 2019
In Northern Thailand, a movement aimed to empower rural communities in their fight against ecological change and degradation has turned the nature of research upside down.
I'm sitting at a picnic table beside the shores of the wide Mekong river, the Thai town of Chiang Khong (เชียงของ) behind me, and the Lao town of Houayxay (ຫ້ວຍຊາຍ)across the water. The river is surprisingly fast-flowing, and makes a visible bend downstream, swerving around steep hillsides coated with tall grass, lush canopy, small gardens, and colorful houses. Across a seemingly familiar picnic bench, I chat with my colleagues and the Director of the Mekong School, Naideerat Roykaew, who we refer to as Khruu Ti, or "Teacher Ti" ("Ti" is his nickname).
I came to learn about environmental research here in Thailand's far north, just after spending several hours driving to Chiang Khong from Chiang Mai, passing clouded forests and rice paddies spotted with limestone monoliths. The plan is to shoot a documentary centered around grassroots organizing and environmental justice, especially surrounding river resources, an obvious example being those of the Mekong, the largest river system in Southeast Asia.
Khruu Ti is wearing baggy linen pants and a homely t-shirt while he shares his past projects and experiences. He tells us about the local history of Chiang Khong, that it was within both of the kingdoms of Lan Xang and Lan Na prior to the expansion of Bangkok's political power and the later establishment of the nation of Thailand as known today. Hearing that he has met with heads of Chinese energy corporations and European construction firms may initially take one aback.
"If you are aware of your own local history, you can choose which innovations and development to bring. If you lack this knowledge, you can only wait for others to determine your future."
As Bangkok grew in power, cities and communities like Chiang Khong began to be considered peripheral both geopolitically and socially. School curricula and government programs increasingly dealt with environmental conditions and foreign investment more pertinent to Bangkok (and Central Thailand, by extension). But with the incursion of Chinese transnational corporations in the far north, wishing to build dams and blast fish breeding sites for shipping purposes, the local Northern Thai and Lao people are often left in the dark. Khruu Ti has now founded the Mekong School (โรงเรียนแม่น้ำโขง) to educate local inhabitants. By partnering with the Living River Association and Mekong Community Institute, which runs community advocacy and research programs, Khruu Ti is one agent in the enlargement of the Taibaan (ไทบ้าน) movement, which empowers rural communities in their own self-development. This happens by documenting traditional knowledge and creating new forms of community organizing, especially in opposition to foreign corporations. and privatization of land & water.
The people of Chiang Khong district have been researching on...
all sorts of relevant content. These projects include the 30+ ethnic groups present in Chiang Rai province, the decline and change in native fish species associated with rock blasting in the Upper Mekong, gender-based change in traditional livelihoods, and other topics within the realms of sustainability, development, and ecological degradation. Many of these researchers, primarily just local people, working as fishers or similar occupations, were interviewed with the clean and organized data that they sought to collect for the sake of their own communities. Khruu Ti, upon reviewing the places and people interviewed for this project, reflects and states, "If you are aware of your own local history, you can choose which innovation and development to bring. If you lack this knowledge, you can only wait for others to determine your future."
Pictured above, clockwise from top left: (1) The stretch of the Mekong slightly upstream from Chiang Khong, Thailand, and Houayxay, Laos. This rocky area is a site for fish breeding. (2) Published research by 'Joi' and 'Un' Thammavong, the title of the blue book reads "The 30 Ethnicities in Chiang Rai". (3) Myself, Sebastian Ong-Osmond, at the entrance of Naideerat "Ti" Roykaew's Mekong School in Chiang Khong, Thailand.
After ~4 days travelling throughout Chiang Khong district, myself, along with Benedikte Krogsgaard and Naimah Talib, and our wonderful supervisor at Mekong Community Institute, Teerapong 'A' Pomun, a documentary was produced. Titled Her Name is Khong / เธอชื่อโขง, it serves to not only describe a history to the Taibaan movement, but also community science and advocacy for the Mekong.
This documentary is part of Mekong Community Institute's media program, which is under Living River Association, both headquartered in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They work closely with the Mekong River Commission, an organization under ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), to ensure the wellbeing and development of the Mekong watershed, and the communities that live and depend on it.
Special thanks to Khruu Ti, the staff and associated community organizers of the Mekong School, Teerapong Pomun, Professors Andreas Egelund Christensen and Khatharya Um, and my fellow research assistants, Benedikte Krogsgaard and Naimah Talib.
Sebastian Ong-Osmond is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and is an advocate of environmental justice and citizen science. He enjoys learning new languages, and eco-friendly packaging.
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