I still remember one of the lessons I learned while I was at the EarthRights School Mekong, called The River of Life. “Image your life was a river,” said my teacher, “you could use any color you like and mark any significant memories with any symbol.” That was how the student was asked to draw their life in shape of a running flow. The flow can run fast, free and, enlarged when people have so much happiness and joy in their lives. However, in some part, the river has to run through rock, got stuck, and be a waterfall. Each river is unique. None of that look like the others. And if my life was river, somehow, it had changed the day I joined in the EarthRights School Mekong.
Eventually, in the same year and years after that, there are many issues that happen to the Mekong River. It makes me feel like I’m connected by what I have been doing to the change of the mighty river in our Region.
I went to EarthRights School Mekong in 2011. It was the first time I learned about how important the Mekong River is to my country. I am quite sure that it was the first time I acknowledged the existence of so-called “development projects”.
Also in 2011, the Laos Government started to announce the first dam on mainstream Mekong River – the Xayaburi dam. At the end of that year, its construction went ahead, causing frustration around the debate on the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) process under the 1995 Mekong Agreement. In 2013, when the second hydropower project Don Sahong officially started, I helped Vietnamese civil society organizations conduct public consultations for six provinces in the Mekong Delta by the end of 2014 on the Don Sahong dam. The community and civil society concerns around the Don Sahong project were then presented in the meeting with Mekong River Commission and other stakeholders in Pakse, Laos. However, these concerns remain unaddressed to this day.
So far, I have been working on hydropower issues for almost four years. The more research/field trips I have done on the Mekong River and other river basins, the more inspiration I got for my work. The more community I have met during workshops and meetings, the more committed I feel to the Mekong River. I started my work with communities because I think it should be important to let the people know about the dams’ impacts, especially the community in the Mekong Delta. Therefore, I help hold workshops and public hearings on the dam issues, raising awareness about hydropower development impacts and rights of public participation to the local youth and communities. People now know more about their rights and have capacity to voice up their ideas about dams. In the meantime, I’m working on my news website with other Mekong School Alumni in order to create a channel to inform the public about impacts from development projects in remote areas.
Working in environment sector is never an easy job. The work, at first, seems “useless” because it does not make tangible profit. The dam is always located in remote areas and the affected communities are usually the ethnic group so that their voice are never reach to higher level than their local authorities. Moreover, promoting information to the communities is somehow considered as “sensitive” work. There are many activists I know who get questioned and followed by police. But each time I go to the communities, when the people trust me and share with me their stories, I always find motivation to continue. “Thanks to your work, we got to know all of this information,” is the most common words they say. “No one but you and your organization come here and tell us about this. We don’t know who else would mind coming all way to this remote area”. When I hear them say that, I know that I am doing the right thing.
Together with local NGOs in Vietnam, I’m still pursuing my work to support the hydropower affected communities. The timing is ripe to connect all of them and let them share their cases. By so doing, the villagers can find motivation and develop together. They don’t have to feel as they are fighting alone. It’s quite hard and it is a huge problem because large scale development projects are still pushed as a priority in order to meet increasing demands of economic advancement. However, similarly to a river, after falls and obstacles, is the strongest water flow. Thus, I strongly believe that difficulties and obstacles can make the civil society more open and developed.
The author of this blog is a Vietnamese graduate of the EarthRights School Mekong.
The image above of the Salween River was taken by EarthRights School Mekong student Mick Tanakrit Thongfa.