The area where Khampong Bordee grew up on the Songkhram River is famous in Thailand for its pla dek, a pungent, fermented fish paste. In late April and May, the river floods the surrounding forests and the fish gorge on rotting vegetation and insects.

As the waters recede at the end of September, the fishermen scoop up the fleeing fish. When Khampong was a girl, the forest provided all the fish the pla dek makers needed. 

Nowadays, though, the pla dek makers have to buy their fish from elsewhere in Thailand. Much of the forest has been cut down to make way for rice padi. The remaining forest has been stripped and the fish population decimated. “We just did things according to what our parents taught us,” said Khampong, “and took things out of the forest without knowing much about them.”

Anxious to document their disappearing forest heritage for future generations, Khampong and other villagers near the Songkhram’s flooded forests enlisted in a project supported by the IUCN called tai baan research to catalogue the area’s flora and fauna. Pioneered by Thai villagers in eastern Thailand to demonstrate the damage to ecosystems and local livelihoods caused by a dam, the tai baan (villager-led research) methodology is being adapted by IUCN partners elsewhere in the Mekong River basin as a way to raise awareness among rural communities about the value of their natural resources and give them skills to protect those resources from unwanted development and their own overexploitation. After a successful start on the Songkhram, similar projects have been launched along the Mekong by villagers in northern Thailand and in Cambodia.

Many argue that, in addition to overlooking fisheries, development often ignores the communities that depend on those fisheries and other aquatic resources. Tai baan research provides communities a way to rebuild their expertise on the local environment and articulate its value to authorities by converting their research into an illustrated catalogue. And while the original tai baan research was part of a grassroots, anti-dam protest, the newer tai baan research being supported by the IUCN has taken a more cooperative approach. “Songkhram tai baan has been very successful because we’ve involved government and local civil society at all stages,” said David Blake, Water and Wetlands Advisor at IUCN’s office in Sri Songkhram, Thailand. 

The tai baan project in the lower Songkhram basin was initiated by IUCN project co-manager Rattaphon Pitakthepsombut, who moved to the area in 2003 and witnessed villager’s dismay at their dwindling resources. “We felt powerless,” recalled Surachai Narongsin, a headman from the village of Ban Tha Bor who has been fishing for 30 years. “Villages didn’t have any conviction about conserving natural resources.”

With help from the Southeast Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN), Rattaphon introduced the tai baan concept and took a small group to visit the original tai baan researchers. When they returned, the villagers enlisted roughly 250 villagers to take part in a year of research. Organizers provided assistant researchers to take photographs of specimens, which were included in the final book that has been widely distributed and recognised by numerous stakeholders. 

The result was so successful that the villagers from Songkhram were taken to Stung Treng, Cambodia, to work with villagers there to launch their own research program. “This is a simple methodology the villagers feel comfortable with,” said Tep Bunnarith, Director of the Culture and Environment Preservation Association in Phnom Penh, which helped organize the Cambodian version of tai baan, called sala phoum. “We hope this will enable them to protect their natural resources.”

Back along the Songkhram, villagers talk about their tai baan experience with pride. Not only did it expand their knowledge of their area, they say, but the research sparked a local Others questioned the directions of development. Whatever their agenda, their points appear to have hit home: both The World Bank and ADB acknowledged after the Dialogue that they were incorporating much of the feedback received into their own assistance strategies for the Mekong region.  MRC is also now investigating how to have more structured and regular engagement with civil society and business actors to ensure their programs benefit from wider feedback during formulation and implementation.

The Dialogue also gave many regional participants rare exposure to the kind of open debate that more participatory and deliberative approaches entail. 

Thus, the meeting in Vientiane is being used to foster more such Dialogues, both nationally and regionally.
Written by Wayne Arnold