Looking back, moving forward: Reflecting on the Mekong Commons after six years

Save pagePDF pagePrint page

It is now six years since we started the Mekong Commons website and the writing workshops for young writers in the Mekong Region.

In December 2013, we started the website to create “a multi-media web-based forum aimed at addressing the need in the Mekong region for sharing of in-depth debates and critical perspectives on contemporary issues of environment, ecology, development, and society in the Mekong region.”

In the words of our first editorial, we wanted “to explore answers to … 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.”

How have we done so far? Just in terms of numbers, it has been extremely productive.

During this period, we organized five writing workshops – or “writeshops” – which together have trained a total of 70 young writers from across the Mekong Region.

The core activity that feeds articles to the website is these writeshops. Held twice every year, the writeshops have always drawn a huge number of applications placing us in the unfortunate situation of having to leave out many individuals for lack of space. On our part, it has been an extremely fulfilling experience to engage for two days with a range of young people interested in, and passionate about, writing on environmental issues in the Mekong Region. The stories for the website came from these young writers as well as many others who freely contributed their stories.

We have now published around 120 articles on the website. This is an average of about 20 articles every year, or 1-2 articles every month.

There are always, of course, more stories that could (and should!) be written. Yet, we’re still very satisfied with this number of stories given that the Mekong Commons was not intended to be a continuous news reporting site, but rather a space that presents stories that are more deliberative with in-depth and critical analysis.

Providing a space for critical issues

We have always attempted to provide a space for those not often seen or heard in mainstream media or in the internet realm. Young farmers trying to build an organic farming community as an alternative to intensive chemical farming, women fighting to not be displaced from their homes by dams or tree plantations, migrant or health workers who want to express their views within the urban commons, peri-urban communities driven to the margins by commercial developers. All of them have found a space in the website to voice their perspectives, and through the Mekong Commons website, talk about their struggles and aspirations so that they could find solidarity and a sense of larger community.

If nothing else, our aim was always this: to build a sense of larger community who can get to know more about the many people who daily face the real costs of policies that pay too much attention to continued economic growth and not enough to societal impacts and ecological health. As we wrote in our first editorial, “development for many is at best a burden, at worst a delusion, and is very often an injustice.”

Over the last six years, the Mekong Commons has continued as much as possible to give voice to these stories of development’s burdens, delusions and injustices. The Mekong Commons has sought to recount how people have dealt with injustices in both conventional and innovative ways ranging from protests from inside flooded farmlands to using lawsuits and environmental regulations in national capitals and strategic use of online media.

Often, it is this very sharing of stories across borders to similarly affected communities and others that has enhanced people’s efforts to secure recognition and access to justice.

Across borders

Our work has always cut across borders and identities. For us, the Mekong is not just a river or a basin, it is not just a “resource” to be “developed”, but a “commons” of communities and ecosystems, ideas and innovation, democratic debates and deliberation.

Now when we look back at the last six years, this is the source of the greatest pride: that the articles produced and the process producing them has been successful in helping to build and strengthen the Mekong Commons. Far from working in isolation, we have sought ways and links to support the numerous other people and groups engaged in similar efforts. Our articles in the past reflect the diversity and strength of this growing network.

For example, one of the most active presence on the website are members of youth from the region, ranging from a high school student in Vietnam to a Shan activist in Myanmar. Mekong Commons has also taken great care to ensure women’s issues are represented strongly on the website. Highlights include an article on the Cambodian women’s rock group “Messenger Band” fighting to defend labor rights, another article on women fishers, and a third article on a public interest woman lawyer.

Small group discussions during the first Writeshop that brought together 20 young people from across the Mekong Region. (Photo by Mekong Commons.)

The website also sought to seek inspiration from stories of positive change, of people striving to put into practice alternative visions of development often using innovative ideas. These have included Lao farmers using “photovoice” to talk about climate change, the “Soul of Vietnam” about a young organic rice farmer, Vietnam’s first “clean energy commune” built through local community planning, and Thailand’s “freedom seeds” network for small-scale farmers to break the monopoly of giant seed corporations.

Our website presence has also expanded through social media especially Twitter and Facebook. More importantly, Mekong Commons has often become a source of timely news for media outlets; on at least two occasions, Thailand’s Bangkok Post newspaper has quoted our articles.

As we look back and reflect on all of this, it provides us further motivation. We are looking back so that we can move ahead.

Multiple threats to the Mekong

In the last six years, there are more threats to the Mekong’s ecosystems and biological diversity as well as to the local livelihoods that depend on these ecosystems. Climate change is posing a range of challenges to both rural and urban areas and livelihoods. Meanwhile, despite the many options for renewable energy, the region’s governments continue to base their economic development on large hydropower, with at least a dozen more dams coming into operation in the last six years.

But questions remain about whether the dams bring prosperity or, in reality, poverty to millions of people in the basin. A study by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) released in 2018 stated that Mekong fish stocks could fall by up to 40 percent due to the dam projects. The same study also predicted a 97 percent reduction in the amount of sediment flowing downstream, which would lower soil fertility and hamper agriculture.

On 26 July, the collapse of the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam in Attapeu province in Laos showed that country the risks inherent in its economic strategy of becoming the “battery” of Asia. Recently, the UNHCHR called on Laos to reform its “poverty-driving policies.”

Moving into new directions

In our first editorial, we wrote: “we seek 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.”

This is still true now more than ever before. The work of Mekong Commons is definitely not over, we are planning for some exciting developments in the coming years.

We recognize that the website “MekongCommons.org” is our core strength and the unique feature that distinguishes Mekong Commons from a range of other environmental activist groups. The website is now based on writeshops for mentoring and producing well written (and audio-visual) material on key environmental topics.

After the last six years of the website and writeshops, the Mekong Commons team has now decided to expand to become more active in creating spaces for dialogues and forums across the region while maintaining our focus on our core work on the website. These dialogues and forums are aimed to complement the writeshops and the production of articles and audio-visual products in the website. For example, we plan to hold “Local Forums” that will be thematic workshops held at the community level across the countries of the region. These forums will be designed to engage in-depth with environmental issues at the local level.

Small group reflection in the third writeshop. (Photo by Mekong Commons.)

While the Mekong Commons website and the writeshops for young Mekong writers continue to be core activities, we hope that these added dialogues and local activities can mutually complement the writeshops and the website, to strengthen the reach and exposure of our work. We are working on these areas during 2019, and will keep our readership updated on developments.

Over these last years, the website’s themes have offered topical and critical perspectives on environmental issues in the Mekong region. This would not have been possible without the sustained interest and enthusiasm of our readers and contributors. We express our deep gratitude to all of you for your continued support, creativity and encouragement.

We look forward to continuing our work in the coming years making Mekong Commons a critical source of information, inspiring activism, and building democratic space in the Mekong Region.

A special note of thanks for our web manager Saiaew Tipakson, and our writeshop coordinator, Paw Siriluk Sriprasit, without whose untiring efforts, the work of Mekong Commons would not have materialized. We also welcome Sabrina Gyorvary to the Mekong Commons team to help strengthen our work in the coming years.

Related posts