Mediator on the Mekong: Notes from the Field

This is the first in a series of posts from Resologics' Senior Practitioner Scott Martin. Offering an inside glimpse into the wide-reaching impact that mediators can have in the world...not to mention the adventures!

kruti on the Mekong River 

kruti on the Mekong River 

It’s my third day in Yangon (Myanmar), and I’ve been doing my best to fit in.  I’ve got a longyi tied around my waist just right, a tucked-in collared shirt, and sandals just like the locals.  Maybe it’s the bright papier-mache giraffe sticking out of my pack or the handlebar mustache, but as I stroll through the park, locals freely point, giggle and some stop to take a picture with me.  Clearly blending in will take some time.

I crossed into Myanmar through the land border in Tachileik on the northern boundary with Thailand.  I was in Chiang Rai province to study the on-going environmental conflict over the Mekong River, along with 23 of my colleagues from 22nd class of Rotary Peace Fellows. Most of the other Fellows headed south back to Bangkok or Chiang Mai, but I decided instead to hire a car and go west.

These last two days of meandering through parks and sketching golden pagodas have been a welcome retreat from five long days of meetings with local villagers, community leaders, and government officials.  Working through a translator can be especially taxing and my mediator brain is constantly active parsing together sentiment, vocabulary and context while searching for common points and agreement in messaging.  I realized this past week that I’ve reached a point in my career where it is nearly impossible to sit and listen without hearing.

Notes! Literally...

Notes! Literally...

We were first introduced to Kruuti, whose name comes from the Thai ‘guru,’ in a video documentary about the Mekong in class, so it felt familiar to meet him in person. He is the type of jovial man who beckons more of hug than a handshake. Kruuti was the first speaker and he laid out the Friends of the Mekong River Association’s agenda as six-fold: 1. Opposing dams upstream in China and Laos, 2. Curbing development of economic centers along the river, 3. Opposing the destruction of rapids, 4. Stopping use of large cargo shipping corridors, 5. Wetlands preservation, 6. Fighting chemically driven agricultural practices, 7. Steering sustainable fisheries.  

Their approach has three major fronts: 1. Partner with multinational NGO’s to leverage financing banks and governmental officials in Bangkok. 2. Connect villages along the Mekong effected by development to create a united front. 3. Enlist villagers as researchers and to quantify the biodiversity of the river, its tributaries, and adjoining wetlands.

One phrase that struck me was his comment that “villagers are not ignorant, they are just not well informed” enough about what is going on and the impact the development of the river will have on them.  Why I keyed into this phrase is because I have heard similar language used by governments and corporations.  They too would say the villagers are miss informed and if they were more knowledgeable about the facts, they would see why development benefits them in the long term.

There is an irony to BOTH sides claiming the environmental high ground.  Hydroelectric power generation is one of the cleanest and most renewable forms of energy production – depending, of course, on how you measure the costs.  The slick presentation from the regional government official, Mr. Tassanai, boasted bold words like Sustainability, Friendship, Innovation. He continued to repeat that the program proposals are the way to ensure the long-term sustainability in the region. He lamented the lack of cooperation in the past and was encouraged that the villagers were now getting on board.  It was clear that, while he definitely holds to message, he also sincerely believes that these plans will benefit the local communities and provide prosperity for all concerned.

To his point, we were sitting in a well-lit room with AC running on full blast.  The power comes from somewhere and the bags of concrete to build the walls most likely were carried on barges down the Mekong.  He cited that even the most remote villages are using imported goods and conveniences that they don't and couldn't produce themselves. I will note, however, the proposed designs were ostentatious, far-reaching, and looked more Chinese in scale than local Thai vernacular.

Gender Roles

We had the chance to go out to see the villages along a Mekong tributary, the Ing River, and meet with the Headman and the elders.  The meetings showcased significant roles for women and a value towards gender equality. One meeting was led by a particularly inspiring woman, Dr. Sahattaya, who is working with the Paang Dang village to help collect research, documentation and conservation efforts.

Chiang Rai River House

Chiang Rai River House

Fascinating was the role of social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook.  Traditionally, news comes through the Headman and is disseminated throughout the village.  Social media has made the villages more egalitarian.  Now, not only can information be digested directly by the stakeholders, but women are able to communicate with each other directly and play a more informed, integral role in the fight.  It was quickly clear, however, that these key roles are still secondary to their domestic roles.  As we prepared for a forest walk, the women disappeared from the meeting to prepare the lunches.

Forest Walking

Long, bright red reed mats were laid out between the trees on the forest floor where the underbrush and vines had been cleared.  The trees in this area all wore saffron and goldenrod fabric at eye level around their trunks symbolizing a designation as sacred and not to be cut down.  We were handed plastic bags containing our food neatly wrapped into banana leaf triangles. Sitting together with the locals, we ate with our hands pinching together bites of sticky rice, fried chicken, egg omelette, and some dark, red paste of Thai spices.  The men offered repeated shots of a locally brewed rice wine which added a little levity and feelings of camaraderie.

The forest was stunning.  Long air roots and vines called to be swung on and birds mocked us from the canopies.  While meandering on the foot path, we were shown what was edible and what was used for different purposes.  There were a few fairytale moments when we came upon an area covered in oversized, bright orange-red flowers that carpeted the ground. A couple of the locals made brilliant headdresses and leis for the women.  We circled back to the original location and ended with a closing ceremony of gratitude, well wishes and, of course, more rice wine.

Looking around at the amount of labor that was required to maintain the forest and the surrounding fields, it was clear to me that villagers also faced demographic challenges.   Will the customs and culture of an aging village of 500 continue to exist if their youth move to the cities to find work and there is no one left to tend the farms? Could there be a solution that promotes some measured, regenerative development that could provide diversity of opportunity and still preserve the integrity of the river?

The River School

On the final day, we were treated to a cruise along the Mekong in a speed boat.  Lush green trees and grass were only interrupted by the occasional local home perched on the banks with their rows of adjacent gardens.  The noise of the gas motor of the boat rattled so loudly that conversation was nearly impossible, so all I could do was sit and enjoy the expanse of water and greenery.

Scott Martin in Bangkok

Scott Martin in Bangkok

As we came around a bend, my heart sank to see where the once green hillsides were now being graded to create roads.  The uncompacted soil spilled into the river ensuring massive erosion with the next rains. Where the banks were retained was even more depressing. Rather than creating rolling patterns that mimic the natural flow of the river, these banks were in one, long, straight shot. It was clear that development had already started in full throttle and the train was coming.

The boats let us off at a simple school built of local materials and taped together with love and passion.  They called it the Chiang Khong School of Local Knowledge, and it was created to teach the wisdom of field learning. Its motto was “respect for nature, faith in humanity justice.” It was the hub of the coordinating efforts to combat the destruction of the river and to connect the people who depend on it.  We learned more about the research they are doing to quantify the river’s biodiversity and to keep the information public knowledge.

Later that evening we returned to the school for a celebration of life and friendship.  We played music and sang American and local folk songs.  We told stories, ate BBQ skewers of veggies and chicken, and drank enough BeerLaos (brought across the river) to ensure that the following day I would sleep for the entire ride to border of Myanmar.

Scott Martin is a Los Angeles, USA based peacemaker, landscape designer, and explorer. He is currently involved with Rotary International as a Peace Fellow, deepening his knowledge of people and how they interact in conflict.