Development and the Mekong Commons

Fishers at Chong Kneas village, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.

In the Mekong Region, after decades of governments, donors, corporations, experts and other adherents pursuing development, winners and losers – both in an absolute and relative sense – have emerged.

For the winners, more of the same development is a requirement for continued economic growth, to the point where economic growth appears to matter above all else. For countless others who daily face its very real costs, however, development is at best a burden, at worst a delusion, and is very often an injustice.

The physical manifestations of the region’s development remain as controversial and contested as ever. Proponents of economic growth argue that large hydropower dams and power stations, mining projects, land concessions, industrial zones and so forth provide jobs, enable material consumption, and fund access to health and education services. They also typically argue, albeit more controversially, that these projects help those displaced or otherwise affected by them, for example by providing roads, electricity, and health centers where before they had little, and by incorporating into ever-expanding markets those previously excluded from them.

One thing, however, that has proven certain about the pursuit of development is that its human and ecological costs keep rising in both subtle and less subtle ways. We are witnessing an increasing number of people who lose their small-scale farm holdings or wild capture fisheries, give up their traditional homes to make way for development’s infrastructure losing their culture in the process, deal with toxic pollution from mining and industrial areas, or live in cramped and unhealthy houses in urban areas whilst struggling with the cost of rising basic amenities. All this while being constantly told that their futures are getting better because of development.

We hear and see stories of how this same development brings social unrest and internal conflict. It can happen at the end of a gun with police brutality and dispossession of land used by farmers (see article on Myanmar’s land laws in this website). It seems to wilfully ignore its own mistakes. For example, after building a dam that has proved to be destructive of communities and their river ecosystems, development goes on building another one downstream on the same river, bringing on even greater impacts (see article on Lower Sesan 2 on this website) and repeating the problems of lack of scientific assessments and public participation. For those at the failed side of development, conditions like poverty are exacerbated rather than improved. Even the jobs it brings are for many not of high quality; they are low wage labour for hard long hours at construction sites or in manufacturing, food processing or the services sector that provide no sense of security, career or fulfilment.

Development in the Mekong Region is entering a new phase compared to twenty years ago.

Economies have shifted from various forms of state-directed development towards market liberalization thus allowing a more influential role for national and transnational private sectors. This has also reconfigured the philosophy of the state, most profoundly in socialist Laos and Vietnam. The governments have also sought to integrate national economies both regionally and globally. Meanwhile, the economic (and political) rise of Asia is redefining relationships within the region and with the countries of the North. The economic growth of Asian powers – not only China and Japan, but also others such as South Korea and Taiwan – significantly shape the region’s geopolitics.

The way people live their lives is going to dramatically change. By 2030, it is expected that over half of people will live in urban areas, compared with only 14% in 1950 and 32% at present and an anticipated 40% by 2025.[1.  UNDESA (2012). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision, CD-ROM Edition, United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), Population Division.] Accompanying this shift, even as farming remains important as a source of employment, it has undergone profound transformations in terms of the technologies used and from a subsistence towards a more market orientation.

From physical connectivity via roads to the telecommunications and internet connections, the lives of people are more linked than before. Migration – always a fact of life for many – remains a politically vexing issue: even as poorly paid and weakly protected migrants become the central workforce for these economies, and their remittances provide cash for their family and relatives, people who cross borders are also vilified as illegal workers or readily dumped aside when the political attitudes towards migrant workers shift or their labor is no longer needed.

There is no lack of documentation and research on all of these links between current development policies and growing social and ecological impoverishment for so many. We are not lacking in stories from the people who face present-day development and struggle with it.

Meanwhile, the juggernaut of development grinds on. The governments and agencies charged with addressing these difficulties continue to propose solutions that often intensify this destruction of ecosystems and reproduce widening and entrenched economic, social and political inequalities.

There are many questions that people in society have been asking about these development choices and solutions. Are rights protected, voices heard? Is information accessible to make informed choices, and freedom of expression without fear ensured? Can the justice system be readily accessed when needed? Is health improving? Is decent and satisfying work available? Do people feel secure in their present and the future? What does development hold for women and children or for upland and ethnic communities? This list of questions could go on … sometimes answered, sometimes not.

One of the most fundamental questions, in our view, is about choices and decisions. How much influence do the region’s people have on development choices? How much are they involved in decisions that affect their well-being and that of their children? How can they deal with changes that take place that are often well beyond their immediate individual control? How can they imagine and bring into reality better futures than this model of economy-centric development that is constantly thrust on them, and that many are asked to take as a matter of blind faith with the hope that their needs and aspirations will be taken care of?

The Commons of the Mekong

Intending to explore answers to these difficult questions, share stories, experiences and analysis of the choices and changes, and to build a community that can together imagine and seek alternative and better futures of development, we have initiated the Mekong Commons website.

Why call it the Mekong Commons? There exists in the Mekong Region a long tradition of sharing – and contesting – various “commons”[2. A working definition of the commons that we like is: “… for the vast majority of humanity today, the commons is an everyday reality which provides sustenance, security and independence. The commons is neither private nor public: neither business firm nor state utility, neither jealously guarded private plot nor national or city park. But it is not usually open to all: the relevant local community typically decides who uses it and how. Indeed, commons regimes can be defined more through their social and cultural organization than their physical location.” “Reclaiming the Commons” by Nicholas Hildyard, Larry Lohmann, Sarah Sexton and Simon Fairlie, 31 May 1995, p.1.] between people, communities, and countries. The commons have been traditionally understood as natural resources – fish, rivers, streams and wetlands, forests and fields, and the crops and plants – that are shared and communally managed and protected. Enclosure of the commons for individual gains at the cost of shared access and responsibility has been a principle battle ground in the development process.

The commons are not limited to only resources like forests and fishing streams, however. Cities and towns also have their commons. The streets and markets in the city of Bangkok, for instance, function as a commons where informal boundaries are well marked and shared among communities of people who know each other.

The commons more broadly span the realm of the physical as well as the normative, including the economy, the social and societal, nature and natural resources, culture and knowledge, and the digital domain.

The commons is not just about physical or geographical resources, but about decisions. It’s about the cultural and social relationships that mediate these decisions. And its about who makes decisions, on whose behalf and in whose interests? In this sense, the commons is about democracy and peoples’ voice in decisions that affect their lives.

How do we also prevent our minds coming under enclosure as well? We know the ways in which our desires are being influenced, through advertising and marketing, propaganda and bad science, and in the ways that we are subtly made to think about consumption – for example of our food, everyday commodities, and even lifestyle and culture, – and our relationships to nature and societies.

This then is the continuing challenge. Not only how to analyse and think about these commons and their enclosure but also how to resist; not only to protest but also to empower ourselves to seek new ways to reclaim and recreate our commons. In this sense, the commons is also about our own imagination.

There are new efforts and initiatives, new stories and narratives that are not just stories of enclosure and resistance to it, but also of reclaiming the commons.

This is why the Mekong Commons website was initiated. We hope that by sharing all our stories not only about development and its impacts but also the many alternatives, the Mekong Region’s people and communities can be inspired to imagine new and better futures upon which to act.

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One Comment;

  1. Bobbie Sta. Maria said:

    Excellent project. I’m hooked. Will spread the word.

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