Life goes on

Tying up his fishing boat to a bamboo pole, Somsak Singtong glanced at the plastic basket containing five tiny kod fish and sighed with relief.

"Today is my lucky day," said Somsak, after a two-hour-long quest for fish in the Mekong River ("Mother of Rivers"). As he talked, blazing sunlight played on his leathery skin and a drop of sweat found its way into his eye. "At least my family will have enough fish to eat for dinner."

It looked like a typical day for him _ setting sail upstream for a few kilometres in search of fish. Unlike in days gone by, however, the 49-year-old stopped full-time fishing after four decades, due to the decline of fish in the river. Instead, for three years, he has spent his time on his 4.8 hectare farm growing corn, beans and tobacco to earn a living.

"Food from 'Mother' [the Mekong] has become rare. There are not many fish to catch," said the former fisherman, adding that, in the good old days fishing brought in at least 100,000 baht a year. "I can't make any profit from fishing _ and I've lost that income now. Fishing is just a pastime."

For the past five years, Somsak's slow, easy-going life has seen a dramatic transformation in terms of food security and income. The erratic fluctuation in the river's level, dominated by the upstream discharges from a series of dams, has washed away the community's major food supply and the financial assets of more than 200 fishermen in Ban Pak Ing, which lies at the intersection of the Mekong and Ing rivers in northern Thailand.

In line with the Mother's abrupt mood swings, the members of the communities living along the 84km stretch of the Mekong in northern Thailand have adjusted to the environmental changes. Local people have harnessed their knowledge of natural resource conservation to preserve the lives of the Mekong, her tributaries, as well as her natural inhabitants, said Boonkong Boonward, 57, headman of Ban Pak Ing.

"Fish have been gone for years. Some younger people have turned their backs on fishing and fled their homeland for the big cities to work as labourers in search of a better life," said the headman of Lao origin. "However, for many local villagers, community bonds remain strong. We share the same goals _ to protect our own assets, and revitalise depleted food sources in the community."

In 2001, Ban Pak Ing established a 200-metre fishery conservation zone along the river with the agreement of villagers. Initially, many fishermen disagreed with the project, afraid they might have to stop fishing altogether. After five years, the fish population has gradually made a comeback in the once-rich area. The fishing sanctuary, the headman said, has been a "satisfactory achievement" for many of the villagers in the community.

"Now villagers have adapted themselves to the 'new' environment. They can catch more fish outside the boundaries of the protected area," he said. "It doesn't mean that those who have quit fishing as a profession want their jobs back. Rather, they basically want to ensure that there is adequate food available for the younger generation."

For Ban Pak Ing, the no-fishing zone is a fertile home for breeding fish. During the rainy season, there are only 24 to 48 hours of the year _ one or two days _ when the water from both the Mekong and Ing rivers meet at the same level.

"At this juncture, the warmth of the Ing and the cold of the Mekong creates a safe, perfect ground for fish to lay their eggs. At least we can allow baby fish to escape from predators and grow in a peaceful home," said Boonkong, who has caught fish for more than three decades.

Since its initiation, two outsiders pleaded guilty to fishing in the area and were fined 4,000 baht each, said the headman.

Like to Ban Pak Ing, Ban Muang Choom reserved its 400 metre long fishing grounds further upstream on the Ing for fishery conservation in the same year. The "daughter" tributary embraces 80 hectares of wetlands and provides a rich habitat for more than 100 species of fish during the annual floods in July and August.

In addition to the fishery conservation zone, Ban Muang Choom's committee of villagers has safeguarded natural resources by setting up a forest sanctuary to prevent logging and the operation of charcoal kilns. In the past two years, 200 trees in the lush and shady forest of mixed hardwoods, shrubs and young trees were "ordained" and wrapped with orange saffron robes to encourage protection of endangered trees and to raise awareness among villagers.

" 'Ordained' trees and plants are considered holy. It's a great sin to cut them down," explained Suan Hongsachum, chairman of forest conservation.

"Actually, however, every tree is sacred. They are the best home to insects, birds, mushrooms and mammals. If we cut them down, I'm afraid our children won't even know what red ants are like," he said.

The power of community participation has gone against the current of "over-development" along the Mekong river, said Somkiat Keungchiangsa, network coordinator for the Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network.

"In the past decade, pressures on the communities' natural resources have increased with a range of biological resources being exploited more intensively," said Somkiat, an environmental activist of Ing origin.

"Over the same period, concerns among villagers about the environment and over-use of natural resources have also increased. Local people have begun to call for sustainable types of development that are socially, culturally and environmentally beneficial to the community."

"Over-development" schemes along the river can "devour" a community, said Somkiat. "A series of rapids being blasted and dam construction farther upstream were the main causes of the decline in the fish species and the community's livelihood," he said.

Over the past decade, the home of more than 200 species of fish, including shellfish, aquatic insects, water snakes and other Mekong populations, have been threatened, said Chavalit Witayanon, senior freshwater biologist of WWF Thailand.

"A series of dams has severely disrupted the flow of water and destroyed essential habitats," said Chavalit. "Many fish species migrate up and down the river for breeding, spawning and nursing. Their natural migration has been affected by the abnormal fluctuations. The water level changes every day and surely that has had a great impact on the fish migratory behaviour.

"Fish might be confused," he said.

More than a hundred species cannot survive without rapids, especially those with high oxygen requirements, he said.

"Rapids are not just 'rocks' but are the best home for the fish and plants _ a place where they can eat, sleep and lay eggs. If you keep blasting rapids and building dams, many fish species will eventually be lost," he said.

The endangered Mekong giant catfish, or pla buek, for example, migrates from the Mekong Delta to Luang Prabang and northern Thailand. The dam that blocks the catfish's migratory path might threaten the extinction of the species, said Chavalit. "Our fish might be gone forever. And how will we live without them?"

Ban Had Krai fishermen in northern Thailand have encountered this crisis. The ban on hunting and fishing of pla buek from this year onward _ to give the fish time to replenish its numbers _ has had a great impact on the community's fishing way of life. Over 80 local fishermen have been waiting for the 20,000 baht compensation promised for each fishing net, expected since June 9 and promised by several conservation groups, to anyone who stopped fishing for pla buek. Many fishermen have been encouraged to look for new careers. However, for them, adapting to changing conditions has not been easy.

"Initially, I was speechless," said Chaiya Jinarat, a 39-year-old fisherman who has caught 15 giant catfish since the age of 20. "I can still remember the most exciting moment of my life when a 250kg fish hit the deck [of my boat]. Now I catch only small fish. I really miss that feeling."

Many fishermen like Chaiya have lost income _ about 20,000 baht per year. Many villagers changed their fishing gear to target different species. Some spend time working on the farm for long periods, while the rest have shifted to offering fishing demonstrations to tourists. To conserve the cultural heritage of the pla buek community, the villagers agreed to perform a sacred liang luang ritual, a traditional merit-making ceremony normally held in April to mark the start of the annual giant catfish hunting season.

"Fishing is not a job, but a way of life. And we have to preserve our way of life. What is different now is that traditional flexibility is being restrained," said Chaiya, now earning his living by growing corn and beans, and occasionally catching small fish. "We can't simply go out and come home with a basket full of fish. Things have changed."

Like the lives of the villagers, everything about the river keeps changing, from moment to moment. At the end of the Ing tributary, the Mother has always been there, at Ban Pak Ing, relishing the glittering vista as the late afternoon sunlight touches the surface of the water.

After six hours of farm work, Somsak ambled down to the rich intersection of the waters with an old fishing net on his shoulder. Looking at the slowly moving muddy water, Somsak stepped into the boat, closed his eyes, then unhurriedly laid down.

"I think I need a nap," he said. "Petrol prices increase every single day, so it would be better not to start the engine today."

The article was written while Krittiya Wongtavavimarn was a participant in a four-week print journalism training course on Mekong issues, organised by the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation (IMMF). The course was conducted in Thailand; 16 journalists from Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam participated.