Many years ago, Sorn and the people of her village could catch large amounts of fish from the Mekong river, especially in April and May. When she was young, she saw her parents catch 1-2 tons of fish per day. She said her family could not eat all of it, they had so many and freed the remaining fish in their rice field not far from the river.
Sorn said her entire life is connected to the river and is essential for growing food, washing, bathing, drinking and fishing.
Concern over fish drop
Sorns is happy when she talks about fishing in her youth, but her smile quickly vanishes when she talks about the Mekong fish today, that has been dramatically decreasing in recent years.
“I am very concerned about the fall of the Mekong fish. We catch less fish, even during the peak season in April and May. In the whole village of Don Sahong we can catch only 50kg to 100kg for the period of four to five days,” Sorn said.
Fishery resources are extremely important to Sorn and villagers living in Khong district, Champasak province. Apart from semi-subsistence farming, fishing is the most important job in her village.
Khamphao, Sorn’s husband and deputy village chief of Don Sahong, said the decline in fish intensely affects the incomes of the whole Don Sahong villagers. They used to earn 10-15 million Kip ($1250-$1875) per year, now it’s less than 5millions KIP ($625) per year, with no alternative source of income to supplement the loss caused by declining fish stocks.
He said one of the causes might be from the hydropower project in Don Sahong that is very close to his home, generating 260 megawatts.
“The fishing zones we used to fish are closed because of the dam project, this is very challenging,” he said.
“Even though the hydropower company has tried to support our community with some alternative livelihood activities, their support cannot compensate us compared to the amount we earned from fishing. It destroyed our way of living and traditional fishing culture. It is hard for my villagers to adapt the new environment, in particularly the fishers. It is very hard for them to catch fish now.”
Khamphao said the presence of the hydropower project has caused many changes to the fish and the ecosystems of the Mekong River.
“The decrease of fish in the river has caused villagers to start competing with each other to fish and as a result some of the fishermen have used illegal and modern equipment to fish including electrocuting them,” he said.
Building confidence to negotiate
Oxfam’s local partner, CLICK, has worked in Don Sahong village for more than three years to help motivate the villagers to learn new things to support them and improve their living conditions and their quality of life as well as building knowledge and confidence to protect and manage their water resources in the Mekong.
CLICK works well with the local authorities to encourage villagers, especially women to join training sessions on women’s leadership, community water resource management, and basic social research (Thai Bann research) including some critical thinking skills to analyze environmental issues and other agriculture techniques such as rice farming, and animal raising.
Since the training sessions Khamphao noticed the villagers, especially women, are eager and motivated to learn new things and the number of numbers of women in leading community roles have increased.
He said in the past, women were very afraid and shy to speak during the village meeting. His wife, Sorn did not dare to speak even a single word but now, she is strong and has even more confidence than some of the men.
Sorn is an engaged and active participant in the training sessions provided by CLICK. She said she has noticed the change in her behavior and feels able to join in many social events. She actively raises her concerns over the decline in fish in every meeting she attends.
“I had a chance to meet with the hydropower company representatives in the monthly meeting. In the meeting, I always expressed my and other villagers’ concerns over the fish decline and proposed the company to provide extra livelihood activities,” said Sorn, “I observed that the company representatives also listened to my concerns. It’s a good opportunity to ask them for a fair compensation and extra support.”
In the future, Sorn will continue to encourage more women to participate in Thai bann research and community’s activities. She will try to be a role mole for other women in her village and train them to be confident and better commination in presenting issues and solutions.