The government’s push to reclaim forest land from encroachers in Ubon Ratchathani’s Khong Chiam district has threatened members of two communities who now face arrest and eviction from their land. To make things worse, construction of Chinese dams in the upper Mekong River in the past decade has severely impacted fish stocks and local livelihoods that depend on fishing.
Guest contribution by Panumas Sanguanwong
Sot Chansuk, a 66-year-old resident of Huay Pai in Ubon Ratchathani’s Khong Chiam district, looks out onto the Mekong River. From this vantage point, he sees the point where the forest reserve meets the land used by residents of Ta Mui village.
Ever since officials from the Pha Taem National Park started reclaiming forest land from people deemed encroachers by the government in 2015, many families in Ta Mui and Ta Long villages in Huay Pai subdistrict have been prosecuted and driven from their land.
Although some were not charged, they were made to sign agreements to return parts of their land to the government. Using satellite images, officials claim that additional land encroachment occurred in the area after 2014.
Although residents of Ta Mui village are still farming in the area, they are concerned that they will soon be driven from the land that feeds them.
Locals who forage for food, such as mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and vegetables in the nearby forests are afraid of being arrested by officials.
The villagers have responded by demanding that the government set clear land boundaries and respect their traditional way of life, which depends heavily on the forest. They are happy to follow the government’s policy of conserving forest areas in cooperation with local communities.
Sot Chansuk, a local resident of Huay Pai, said that after Pha Taem was declared a national park, the park chief at the time surveyed the area to place signs and discuss boundaries together with locals. He promised to designate part of the land for villagers to use for farming.
“Because there was no written agreement, I had to stop using the land for a time because I didn’t want to risk arrest,” Sot says.
When officials conducted another survey in early 2019, Sot decided to sign a document to acknowledge the survey of the land he was occupying. But he didn’t completely understand what the document said and how it would affect his use of the land.
Sot recalls the armed conflict in Laos 40 years ago. Back then, Ta Mui locals feared for their lives because the village was near the banks of the Mekong River on the border with Laos. They moved inland to farm in the mountains. They surveyed the land and built fences to prevent animals from eating their produce, such as tamarind and cashew nuts, which were once a source of income for families.
Rit Chansuk, a 50-year-old Ta Mui resident, looks over his cassava plantation. He never thought he would be charged with encroaching on national park land. He insists that he inherited his land from his parents before the area was declared a national park in 1991.
A sign placed by Pha Taem National Park authorities in front of Ta Mui village in May. It urges locals to declare their land ownership within the national park to officials.
Every morning, Ta Mui residents gather to make merit by offering monks sticky rice, vegetables from their land, and dried food before going to work.
A typical meal for people of Ta Mui consists of small fish and locally-sourced vegetables.
Small fish and shrimp caught in the Mekong River have helped feed locals who have been unable to farm.
Chula Chansuk, or “Ko,” is another Ta Mui resident who still catches fish in the Mekong River. Although the catch has dwindled of late, he still fishes every morning and evening, hoping at least to feed his family if the catch is too small to sell at the market.
The construction of Chinese dam has been life-changing for this Mekong River fisherman. No longer able to depend on fishing, he has had to switch to farming, only to find that the land he inherited from his parents overlaps with Pha Taem National Park.
Fishing boats moored by the river banks in the morning. A local is scooping water out of the boat after a heavy rainfall that almost submerged some of them. Locals say that when the fish were plentiful, it was rare to see so many boats moored up in the mornings. Nowadays many boats go unused as less people go out fishing in the Mekong River because of the depleted fish stocks. Instead, they work as laborers or farm in order to put food on the table for their families.
Ko cares for several grandchildren as their parents work away from home. Although they send money back each month, fishing in the Mekong River and farming are still the family’s main source of income.
Signs displaying a few tourist attractions close to Ta Mui village are placed before a wooden bridge. The bridge receives some attention from tourists during boat races and the Naga fireball festival at the end of the Buddhist Lent.
A mother carries her child while walking along the riverbank before the sun sets. Locals of Ta Mui and other nearby villages have been badly affected by the government’s forest reclamation policies and the depletion of fish stocks. Residents are concerned that the forest reclamation policy will affect their traditional way of life.
This story was first published in Thai on August 20, 2019. Translated by The Isaan Record.