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Story of Change: Coming Together to Restore the Environment and Protect Aquatic Life in Mae Chan River

Thursday, December 8, 2016 - 18:17

ForumPong Khom, Pong Pa Khaem Communities join forces to restore the environment and protect aquatic life of Mae Chan River in Tambon Pa Tueng, Mae Chan District, Chiang Rai Province

From small drops of water on Saen Mai Mountain and 20 rivulets descending from Doi Mae Salong and Doi Mae Yao mountain ranges, Mae Chan River is formed.  Mae Chan River is an integral part of the communities it flows by.  It has been a source of food and water for consumption and agriculture for many generations.  It is also a source of livelihood for many villagers, especially in Pong Pa Khaem and Pong Khom Communities.  Each generation has passed down the ways and means that these communities interact with the river.  However, in recent years, the delicate balance between human activity and the river’s ecosystem has begun to erode.  One source of the problem is the expansion of human settlements and activity on both sides of the river and at its headwaters.  Another factor is the adverse effects of global warming which is reducing the volume of water flowing into the Mae Chan River.  The both sides of the river have periods of excessive dryness.  Community residents and outsiders go to the river banks to catch small aquatic life.  However, some are starting to use illegal and harmful fishing methods such as electric shocks, explosives, poisoning, and damming.  The increased size of the surrounding population is also resulting in increased exploitation of Mae Chan River for food.

The local Tambon administrative organization (TAO) recognized the seriousness of the problem and has funded various projects to restore and conserve the river ecosystem and natural resource base.  The TAO has declared a 10-km stretch along the river passing through Pong Pa Khaem and Pong Khom Communities as a protected waterway.  However, some people in the area initially ignored this declaration – even some members of Pong Pa Khaem and Pong Khom Communities themselves.  The lack of local cooperation for the TAO project is partly due to the perception that the project is a government effort and does not concern the local residents.   Besides, the community was not consulted or involved in the planning and implementation of the TAO conservation project.

Ultimately, ActionAid (Thailand) became involved in 2013 through its subsidiary organization, “The Ethnic Volunteers Project.”  The first action was to convene a public forum to give community residents the opportunity to offer their opinion about the challenges of the degrading river ecosystem, and to air their ideas and recommendations to respond to the challenge.   They reflected on how the declining aquatic life was impacting on their life and livelihood.  The first recommendation to emerge was the proposal to post signs along the river declaring it a protected waterway preserve to conserve the river ecosystem.  The budget for this activity was 5,000 baht.    The sign posting activity was conducted on March 6, 2016 and there was excellent participation and teamwork by community residents, staff of the TAO, the village headmen, volunteers and project field staff.

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Even though the sign posting campaign was completed in a single day, the impact did not end there.  The participants were able to observe closely how the riverbank was becoming desiccated.  Thus, they decided to convene a second public forum to consider guidelines and strategies to return the riverbank to its natural moistness.  The solution they agreed on was drawn from the traditional wisdom of the locality.  This involved planting banana trees along the banks of the river, and the villagers did this on their own without any outside financial support.  They found banana saplings and mobilized the planning by themselves.

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What is more, these two communities wanted to share their concern and action with other communities along Mae Chan River.  To support this, the project staff and volunteers contacted other community leaders, forestry officials, and the Chief District Officer of Mae Chan District and encouraged them to help replicate the action of Pong Pa Khaem and Pong Khom Communities.  These other communities expressed interest in this idea and, on March 24, 2015, a larger forum was convened with representatives of all the interested communities and relevant officials.  These forums are higher quality than events convened by the TAO since the motivation and team effort comes from the grassroots.  The officials of the forestry department, local leaders and the Chief District Officer were quite impressed with the initiative and empowerment of these communities.   The headmen of Pong Pa Khaem and Pong Khom Communities emphasized the importance of community-based restoration and conservation of Mae Chan River ecosystem and aquatic life so that it returns to a balanced and sustainable relationship between humans and the natural resource base.

This renewed interest and collaboration is forging positive change in Pong Pa Khaem and Pong Khom Communities to reverse the damage of the preceding decades.  The local residents are continuing to monitor the health of the river, the riverbank and the water wildlife.  The declaration of the river as a protected waterway has become accepted by all, and encroachment has all but disappeared.  In the words of a participant:  “Every season I would go to the part of Mae Chan River above the protected portionThat way, I could observe and compare how we were returning the river to its natural bountiful state. It is a blessing to behold.” (Ms. Ja Ka Ner Mer, Pong Khom Village)

From a small start, just a single community forum to engage local residents in discussing problems and solution has grown into a rural movement, cascading among other communities and villagesIt is like the process of sharing a single candle flame until the entire valley is illuminatedThe future now looks bright for the Mae Chan River as a source of sustained life and livelihoods throughout its path.

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Background of the project:

ActionAid (Thailand) collaborated with the Hill Areas and Community Development Foundation to implement a project to address problems of the Upper Basin of the Ping River.  The Rural Thai Association implemented a project called “Ethnic Volunteers for Community Development and the Environment” with the objective to empower villagers to use their rights and their voice in managing local development to address local problems – for and by themselves.  This grassroots ethnic volunteer effort coincided with national decentralization policy and administration, community empowerment, and Civil Society involvement (Empowerment is a Process: De-marginalization of Hill Communities in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Provinces).  That effort is a four-year project which was launched on July 1, 2013 and is scheduled to end in June 30, 2017.

The project is funded by the European Union

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