Mekong Connections program works with civil society on forests, rivers, wildlife and health

March 3, 2022
Mekong Connections partner Mekong Community Institute visits Thailand’s Ban Hat Bai in February. Credit: Mekong Community Institute

The women came proudly dressed to Ban Hat Bai village that cool January morning. In their handwoven pha sin skirts and their cotton tops, some indigo-dyed, they were ready for the first day of a women’s empowerment project for Mekong ecosystem restoration.

The project, initiated by the Mekong Community Institute (MCI), is supported through Pact’s Mekong Connections program with funding from the U.S. Department of State, under its Mekong-U.S. Partnership. Launched in January, MCI is focusing on Thailand’s northeastern Chiang Rai province, and over the next 12 months, will engage with 50 women from 10 villages to document traditional knowledge and livelihood strategies. They will also build women’s capacity to use common internet tools for communication, and develop community-owned plans for civil society to manage three main areas: protecting water-related river ecosystems; combating the illegal trade in wildlife; and learning how changes in biodiversity and ecosystems are affecting human health.

Bottom-up community action

For the Mekong Connections team at Pact, the last quarter of 2021 was an exciting time as many civil society groups in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam pitched to receive one of these grants for community work.

“We were impressed by the quality of the proposals,” said Dr. Pinida Leelapanang Kampaengthong, Mekong Programs Manager at Pact. “The eight that were finally selected show the range of community action taking place across the region, including citizen science projects and building of people-to-people networks across borders.”

The eight chosen projects are taking place at diverse locations: the hill country of Laos in Xiengkhoung province near the Lao-Vietnam border, riverside villages in Thailand and Cambodia, and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. In total, there are three Mekong Connections projects in Thailand, one in Laos, one in Cambodia, one in Vietnam, and two that span more than one of these countries.

Several of the projects focus on enabling local communities to use digital technologies, research and document their own realities, advocate to governments and take part in public decision-making. A Vietnam-based project, for example, is developing an app—dubbed the Rural Women Vulnerability Tracker—to measure and compare women’s exposure to a range of climate-related and health risks stemming from changes in the environment. A Cambodian project in Stung Treng province on the Mekong is teaching local youth to use online tools for action research, and to present their findings to help develop local bylaws on natural resources.

In general, the projects are working with communities that can benefit most from such capacity development: rural women, young people and local communities that are dependent on fishing and forest resources.

Learning from the past

While the eight Mekong Connections projects support innovation, the winning proposals also build on a history of community action around rivers and ecosystems.

One such proposal came from the Freeland Foundation, for a transboundary project near the historic archaeological site of Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia, and the Ta Phraya national park, Thailand. The project builds on previous conservation and forest rehabilitation efforts by the foundation, which have successfully brought back some wildlife populations—elephants and tigers are being recorded in this remote region for the first time in 20 years. The Pact grant will support awareness raising and community activities to reduce the illegal trade in wildlife.

During its visit to Ban Hat Bai, Mekong Community Institute collected information on women’s roles. The activity is a part of strengthening the Mekong Women Network in northern Thailand. Credit: Mekong Community Institute

The Chiang Rai project by MCI is using the Thai Baan research approach, developed by community activists in Thailand over the last three decades. Thai Baan research is a way for rural people to take control over the research process, rather than always being “informants” to research led by others. By working with local communities on a participatory research and networking process, the MCI is supporting community rights to water resources, local management of watersheds and adaptation to climate change.

As the eight projects launch activities, the team at Pact is already anticipating the next grant cycle. “We will be learning as we go,” Dr. Kampaengthong said. “And what we learn will help shape the next round of Mekong Connections.”