Local Knowledge, Culture and Heritage: Collateral Damage of Mekong Dams

Siphandone, in southern Laos, is the first place that I travelled to along the Mekong River. It was not only the breathtaking beauty of the landscape that left a lasting impression, but the first glimpse of life along the river, witnessing the relationship between the Mekong River and her people.

I have written before about this area and the way in which it seems to encapsulate the interconnection – found throughout the Mekong River Basin – between communities, the river and the natural resources that it supports. Local knowledge about the river and people’s interactions with it have grown and developed through generations. Communities along the river hold a deep-rooted understanding of and familiarity with it: knowledge of the river’s flow and seasonal fluctuations, and of the rich and varied biodiversity within the river, including the many species of Mekong fish and their behavior and migration patterns.

In Siphandone, an area of the Mekong River known for its vast waterfalls and fast-moving rapids, boat drivers deftly navigate the strong currents. In some areas, fishermen can still be seen climbing across waterfalls, holding onto lines cast between the rocks to swim through rapids, in order to check on their fishing nets.

Communities along the Mekong River hold an incredible amount of local knowledge, which is visible through the evolution of traditional fishing practices: local people have created different types of nets and traps for certain areas of the river and different times of the year. These tools too have been developed and adapted over generations.

This knowledge and tradition is encapsulated in the use of Li traps, which are unique to this one area of the Mekong River (and the world). Li traps have been used in Siphandone for decades in the rainy season to catch large amounts of fish. The traps are built and owned by individual families. For fisher families who own a Li trap, it is often their main source of annual income.

The traps are placed within the rapids and along the channels in Siphandone. They work by catching large amounts of fish migrating upstream, as the fish grow tired swimming into the strong current and are swept back downstream, into the traps. The traps can be up to three to five meters in length and have fences to guide fish onto chutes that filter them from the water.

Li trap along the channels in Siphandone
Li trap along the channels in Siphandone
International Rivers

In 2006, studies by fisheries experts found there were about 600 Li traps of various sizes throughout Siphandone. However, since plans for construction of the Don Sahong Dam in Siphandone began, Li traps have been banned from the area. Enforcement of this ban took effect following Songkran (Lao new year), in April of this year. Officials reportedly removed and in some cases destroyed any Li traps that were found in the river after this time.

The ban of Li traps is directly tied to the construction of the Don Sahong Dam. The 260 MW hydropower project blocks the Hou Sahong channel, previously a critical channel through the Siphandone area for year round fish migration within the Mekong Basin. In order to mitigate the severe impacts of the project on Mekong fisheries, the developers have widened neighbouring channels to provide an alternative route for fisheries and the government banned the use of Li traps within the area.

Li traps were banned under the premise that they are unsustainable and lead to overfishing in the area. Local people do not agree with this assessment: “Li traps are part of our heritage,” said one fisherman. “My father passed it to me and we are using it for our family, to support my daughters and in-laws. To me it is not destructive. We only catch fish for just a few weeks out of the whole year.”

Overfishing is a heavily contested term, in this case implying a need for centralized management over traditionally community-managed resources. While ‘overfishing’ calls for punitive action, the term is poorly defined, and there is a lack of evidence to support its use in Siphandone. Importantly, emphasis on overfishing shifts focus from the impacts of large-scale hydropower developments such as the Don Sahong Dam to the activities of small-scale fisherfolk who lack a voice in national policy.

Li traps are part of a tradition among families in Siphandone, passed down through generations. The design and use of these traps themselves contain generations of knowledge about the Mekong River and are symbolic of the connection that these communities have with river. The traps have also been used to demarcate fishing grounds within the river that belong to each family; these areas too are passed down through generations. While there is no official documentation or agreement, the community recognizes a family’s right to their Li trap and fishing ground. The loss of these fishing grounds and of the traps themselves have not been considered in either the planning or construction of the Don Sahong Dam.

Fisherfolk have not received any form of compensation for their lost Li traps. Nor have families in the area surrounding the dam site received compensation for the loss of their fishing areas, found along Hou Sahong and the neighboring channels of Hou Xangphuek and Hou Sadam. During a visit to Siphandone in June, a year and a half after the start to construction of the Don Sahong Dam, fish vendors noted that the there is a dramatic drop in fish catch compared to previous years, probably by more than half, due to the ban of Li traps. As a result, the price of fish has been rising.

Instead of acknowledging the value of this history and the richness of local knowledge in fishing practices and livelihoods, dam developers use criticism of traditional practices to deflect attention from the real issue: the profound impact of the Don Sahong Dam on Mekong fisheries. For just 260MW of power, the Don Sahong Dam threatens irreversible impacts on fish migration pathways ,with far-reaching consequences for regional food security. Since construction began, the developer has shared little information publicly on monitoring of the impacts, despite requests from the Mekong River Commission, development partners, civil society and communities downstream in Cambodia. 

The government of Laos and the project developers are putting forward a narrative that ignores the risks associated with construction of the project, and the inevitable changes that it has already brought to Siphandone and the Mekong River, focusing instead on the livelihood practices of local people. The ban on Li traps has led to the further destruction of the communities’ heritage, history and traditional fishing practices. It also symbolizes the threat to their futures, through the erosion of people’s connection to and interdependence with the river.

The destruction and loss of Li traps in Siphandone is emblematic of the larger-scale loss of local knowledge, culture and history as a result of hydropower development and other large-scale infrastructure projects in the Mekong River Basin. Together with a potentially devastating impact on Mekong fisheries, this loss of traditional knowledge will be irretrievable.

Raising alarm over traditional practices such as the use of Li traps effectively silences debate around large-scale hydropower development and the impacts of the Don Sahong Dam on the region’s fisheries. The role of the dam in profoundly altering the region’s future and the way of life of local people must be subjected to greater scrutiny. Priority should be given to development projects that build upon the rich history, traditions, and knowledge that are integral to the identity of the Mekong Region.

Kate Ross is former Mekong Program Coordinator at International Rivers

Monday, October 23, 2017