CHIANG KHONG, Thailand: With a gentle drizzle drifting across a rich green landscape, the swamplands of Boon Reuang are alive.
Neck-deep in thick mud, it is hard to make out the busy locals at first, as their snaking paths in the marsh quickly disappeared behind them as they move.
There is food to be harvested from these waters, only open to residents for a few weeks each year.
As one man pulls up a giant catfish - the top prize hidden in the swamp - a small crowd gathers around. A benefit for one is a benefit for all in this small community surrounded by bamboo forests and rice fields.
“This forest is like our rice pot and kitchen. There is always food to eat, said Songphol Chantarueng, a local village leader.
In the nearby forests, steep bamboo trees reach up to the rain clouds and block out the sun when it breaks through. Women forage for bamboo shoots in the cool undergrowth, where mushrooms clamour out of enriched soil.
All of this activity - unfolding just like it has for generations - might have disappeared from this place altogether. A fight has been unfolding in the forests of northern Thailand.
In 2015, the Thai government announced plans to convert this forest and wetland area into a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The plan would involve land reclamation, laying of concrete and building of factories.
The locals campaigned against the plan, and it appears to have been shelved, at least for now.
Change has been coming fast to Thailand’s border areas, strategic satellites centres for international trade, investment and power development.
The development of SEZs has long been on the agenda of various governments - under the military rule of Prayut Chan-o-cha, the plot arrived in Boon Reuang.
The 483-hectare wetland forest is located downstream from the Ing watershed, flanked by the Doi Yao mountain range and the Mekong river in Chiang Rai province.
The water tributary sustains life here, for the several hundred residents and an abundance of wildlife. Crucially, it holds water during the wet season and is a crucial natural cog in flood management and climate change mitigation.
The notion of their land being irrevocably transformed and their livelihoods coming under threat was a surprising one. It left the community confounded, but they refused to be flat footed.
“Back then, I felt deep down inside that the issue was far from me. They wouldn’t come to our forest because, in my mind, as a villager, the area is low. If they wanted to fill it, where would they find the soil? This was the thought of a clueless villager,” said Songphol.
“I felt dismay. This is why we gathered together as a group, the forest conservation group. We tried to communicate and make them understand.”
With the assistance of various partners and advocacy groups, and the harnessing of social media, the community coordinated and formed the Boon Rueang Wetland Conservation Group.
They enlisted the help of long-time local environmental advocate Niwat Roikaew, the president of Rak Chiang Khong Group, to develop a strategy to save the wetland forest.
“If such an area was destroyed or changed into something else, the Ing river’s ecosystem would be annihilated. Nature would be gone. The way of living and the culture would be destroyed too,” Niwat said.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE, CONNECTION TO ENVIRONMENT KEY TO CONSERVATION EFFORTS
For the people of Boon Reuang, defending their patch of earth was a natural instinct. But it was not to be defined by violence or fierce protest, rather by knowledge and science and spurred by a deep connection to the environment.
“They have a historical foundation in their village and their community because this village has been here for a long time. Therefore, they have roots,” Niwat said.
“Humans have roots, background and culture that have been changing, but they adhere to something together. It’s a deep power that they have together.
“And they can stop this because they have love in their hearts, and they see that it will be beneficial to their children and grandchildren in the future.”
Being able to understand and explain why the forest was important to the community and the wider environment became a central thrust in their efforts.
Conservation and sustainability became more important than ever before. The land was identified as an important carbon sink and utilised as an educational tool.
Locals put banners on their homes and refused to take them down. And they flooded community meeting sessions, armed with information and an attitude of resilience and confidence.
Social inclusion and women voices were promoted. Local knowledge became a force and a bridge to global issues of resonance. Dialogue became a weapon. The protection of culture was regarded as sacrosanct in negotiations.
“They pointed out the forest’s benefits to the world. There’s knowledge here about how much carbon this forest can store. What is its benefit? What is its worth? What is its value? These are important things,” Niwatt recounted.
The efforts paid off. In 2018, the community was informed that the SEZ development had been abandoned in their area.
But it has not been a complete victory. They are yet to receive any formal confirmation that the land will be free from future developments.
“We have only heard a verbal promise,” said Songphol, who acts as the chairman of the local conversation group.
“Yes, I am proud, but I don’t remain actionless. I am proud that the forest is still here but there’s nothing guaranteed or to make me feel reassured.”
The community has since received global recognition. It was awarded the prestigious 2020 Equator Prize awarded by the United Nations Development Programme.
It was one of just 10 winners from hundreds of entries across the world and testament to the efforts to reduce poverty through conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, with a ceremony to be held in September.
This type of success for small agrarian communities is rare in a wider region where land grabbing is rife and local voices are often disempowered.
Southeast Asia is the region most prone to land disputes in the world, according to a 2017 report by the Rights and Resources Initiative, and UK consultancy group TMP Systems. The vast majority of such cases are unresolved.
Despite the apparent backdown in Boon Reuang, other parts of northern Thailand along the border with Laos, as well as other locations bordering Cambodia, remain under consideration for further SEZ development.
While investment and infrastructure promises prosperity and jobs for local populations, resistance remains among those impacted, particularly when it comes to the construction of factories or polluting industry.
“It has always been like this, in every generation and every era, that economics are seen as more important than environmental matters, way of living, culture or community,” Niwat said.
POTENTIAL BLUEPRINT FOR OTHER COMMUNITIES
Environment groups like The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), one of Boon Reuang’s supporting partners, want to take advantage of this success, and use the experience as a potential blueprint for other communities.
“There are lots of lessons that other communities could learn from Boon Rueang's experience, especially in their efforts to adapt to climate change and more recently, their resiliency to COVID-19 impacts,” said RECOFTC’s executive director, David Ganz.
Climate change, drought and disturbances on their rivers will pose risks in the years to come here. But for now, the most pressing challenge, the very survival of this land in its natural state, has been met.
As buffaloes graze undisturbed under building monsoon clouds, it is clear why locals hold this place dear. And they plan to keep the forest theirs for good.
“The protection and taking care of the forest is something we carry on from our parents,” said Songphol. “Now it’s the duty of my generation. Next, it will be the duty of the generations of children and grandchildren to come.”
Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat.