By Carl Middleton, Kanokwan Manorom, Nguyen Van Kien and Outhai Soukkhy
Across the Mekong Region, a great diversity of wetlands and the agro-ecological farming that they support are central to many rural communities’ livelihoods, and contribute to local and national economies. Unfortunately, many areas have been degraded or lost due as a consequence of large-scale infrastructure development, including for irrigation and hydroelectricity. In October 2014, our SUMERNET Phase 3 project got underway in three locations in the Mekong Region in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam aiming to contribute towards the recovery of such wetlands, their agro-ecological farming systems, and local ‘situational’ knowledge associated with both.
Our overall approach in the project is to build partnerships between local communities, government agencies, civil society groups, academics and others through joint participatory action research projects to contribute towards solving legacy impacts from large water infrastructure. Our belief is that through catalysing joint research projects directly amongst the local stakeholders themselves, a shared understanding can be found both on the problems faced and how to solve them, especially the problems faced by local communities, some of which are derived from the large water infrastructure. Crucially, by agreeing to work together to co-design and co-undertake the small research project, trust will be built and solutions identified together to meet challenges based on the evidence gathered. Each participant is encouraged to understand the problem from the perspective of others, and to explore - and where necessary challenge - their own beliefs about the causes of problems and its solution.
Since starting our project, in each location we first undertook scoping surveys to explore the diverse values associated with wetlands and their agro-ecological farming systems from the perspective of each stakeholder individually. We did this to understand the areas of agreement and divergence amongst those involved, and to initiate discussion on our project and its approach. This led to inception workshops in each location in February and March 2015 that bought all stakeholders together to share perspectives and then also to explore the potential for a participatory action research amongst them, and to decide what the research topic might be.
The areas where we are working each have their own unique histories and challenges. In Thailand, we are working in the Northeastern region in Sisaket province at the Rasi Salai and Hua Na Irrigation projects. These projects, built in the early 1990s, whilst irrigating some areas, failed to achieve their fully anticipated benefits. Meanwhile, nearby communities experienced the loss of a wetland area locally called “Pa Boong Pa Taam” that was important for rice and fishery production, vegetables and herbs, and cattle grazing, with impacts on their livelihoods. Emerging from the inception workshop was a shared interest to explore how a “community wetland utilization and conservation” system could be established through researching and designing such an arrangement together. The project has already set up a Facebook page, Wetland Recovery Project Thailand, to share updates amongst the participating partners.
In Vietnam, we are working in the Mekong River Delta with communities who are growing traditional varieties of floating rice. Before 1975, the total area of floating rice was estimated to be greater than 500,000 hectares in the Delta, but has been greatly reduced due to the extensive building of dykes and the introduction of high yielding rice varieties. Now only pockets of tens of hectares remain. A recent article by Nguyen Van Kien documents some of the benefits of conserving floating rice in Vietnam. Potential themes for a joint research project emerging from the workshops held so far include: research on how to control water under flooding conditions; land use planning to recovery fisheries; and how to increase the market price of floating rice.
In Laos, we are working in Xaybouly district of Savannakhet province in several villages along the Xe Bang Fai River. Here, challenges arising from changes in river flow linked to the trans-basin operation of the Nam Theun 2 dam are explored, including the impacts of flooding on rice production and reduced wild fish catch. At the inception workshop, joined by local government agencies, farmer groups and the Nam Theun 2 Resettlement Management Unit, it was agreed that a joint research on the benefits and challenges to organic rice production in one village along the Xe Bang Fai River would be undertaken. This builds on recent efforts by the farmers themselves to plant organic rice aiming towards higher market prices, safer production, and healthier final products.
Agro-ecological farming has long been practiced in the Mekong Region’s productive and bio-diverse wetlands. The contemporary challenge faced both by policy and on-the-ground practices is how to support wetlands and associated agro-ecological farming practices as an important foundation for regional resilience. Through our initial activities, we have been reassured by very positive responses from our partners across the three project locations. There has been a great interest in “knowledge co-production” as an approach towards resolution of resource conflict, in which we also hope to constructively engage scientific with situational forms of knowledge.