In the dry season, the rocks at Khon Pi Luang north of Chiang Khong, Thailand, jut up from the Mekong like the incisors of some great riverine beast. This is the gullet that after the rains forms one of the upper Mekong’s last big rapids, the sort that in the 19th century led French explorers to conclude that the Mekong would never be navigable.

Where the French yielded, modern engineers have applied explosives. Eager to open the river’s upper reaches to shipping from Yunnan province south to Luang Prabang in Laos, China and its southern neighbors agreed in 2001 to start blasting some of the rocky outcrops in the Mekong. 

The rapids at Khon Pi Luang would be gone by now if concerned locals hadn’t taken action. Concerned that authorities were underestimating the impact on their environment and livelihoods, residents and area environmentalists sought support from the IUCN to conduct their own assessment. They were able to use their findings to challenge the proposed blasting and ultimately block it. 

The model for this kind of community action was the Tai Baan research originated by villagers to protest the impact of the Pak Mun dam in eastern Thailand on their traditional fisheries. In Chiang Khong as elsewhere, the hope was that Tai Baan research could be used not only as a way to oppose unpopular development, but as a way to get local communities more directly involved in decisions about how their natural resources are used. 

“Decision-making needs to be participatory,” said Somkiat Khuenchiangsa, coordinator of the Mekong-Lanna Natural Resource and Cultural Conservation Network in Chiang Khong, which led the movement against the blasting. “We’re trying to encourage the community to stand up for the environment and conserve these natural resources for everyone.”

In 2001, a China-led environmental impact assessment concluded that blasting of the rapids along the upper Mekong would take an acceptable toll on the area’s ecosystem. The IUCN and other groups questioned that conclusion, criticizing the EIA’s quality. Nevertheless, in 2002, Thailand and Laos dropped reservations on the EIA and blasting of the rapids began along the Mekong that serves as the border between Myanmar and Laos.

Locals were concerned that the blasting would have an impact on their lives that wasn’t being taken into account. So as the rapids upstream were being dynamited, Somkiat’s group joined with others in the area to campaign against the blasting and document the effect it would have.

“They depend on these natural products,” said Tawatchai Rattanasorn, National Program Coordinator at IUCN in Bangkok. “Any change that might happen because of a lack of understanding would affect them and destroy the diversity of their resources.”

Time was essential: even as the groups conducted their research, engineers were blasting nine more rapids upstream. Pulling 100 researchers from 10 villages, the group explored the fish and plants in the area, as well as what role they played in the cultural lives of the nine tribal groups that lived nearby. 

What they found was exhaustive: not only did they identify 100 species of fish in the area, they were able to single out 16 species found in the rapids and 24 in riverside whirlpools. They were also able to chronicle the impact of the blasting already conducted, finding that it was worsening erosion along the river, eliminating habitats for more fish. 

Faced with mounting controversy over the impact of the blasting, the Thai government in 2003 halted the project, citing unresolved border issues with Laos. Plans still exist to enlarge the Mekong’s ability to handle shipping, but for the time being, at least, the rapids at Khon Pi Luang appear to be safe.

In 2005, the Tai Baan researchers in Chiang Khong published a book on their findings, funded by the IUCN and a number of other donors. The effort, Somkiat said, succeeded not only in stopping the blasting, but also in establishing local communities as recognized authorities on their own environment. “Normally research is conducted by academics,” he said, “so the community was proud to have been able to do it on their own.”

Written by Wayne Arnold