Community engaged approaches to sustainable living along the Mekong River

Mongkon Cida, Emily Huff, Mai Xiong, Claire Kurschner

As American students from the University of Minnesota, it is important for us to understand the effects of global change in regions of the world besides our own. While in Thailand, we have been learning not only from our professors but also from local villagers, students, and organization leaders. This experiential learning has helped us to draw connections between the decisions of superpowers, the environment, and the impacts on local people.


The fish in a river depend on the biodiversity and stability of the ecosystem in which they live. The people that live along the river depend on the fish and vegetation for survival, and individuals depend on their communities for living fulfilling lives. A nation, in turn, depends on its communities to grow into a strong and unified country. All hangs in the delicate balance of sustainable interactions – the interaction of humans with their environment, and the interactions of individual people within both small and large communities.

Importance of the Mekong River
By Mongkon Cida

The Mekong River is a friendship boundary river in Southeast Asia that flows through six countries including China, Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. The river is a central ecosystem consisting of rich food resources and fish habitats that connect people with the river. 50 years ago, the Mekong River used to have everything that people needed such as food and income resources. The Mekong villagers fished for food and sold them to their country neighbors for business exchanging. In the past, Thai villagers lived their lives working hard simply and happily until they were introduced to the new age of industrial era. A number of changes have had negative impacts on the lives of local people and their food resources in the Mekong River. One of the most notable sources of change is China’s creation of large-scale hydroelectric dams along the Mekong, with plans for many more. While China has reaped the benefits of the dams, the impact south of the dams has been extremely negative.  For example, the water levels used to change with the seasons – high in the rainy season and low in the dry season.  Now they are unpredictable and can occur without any warning.  The rapid water level changes also cause erosion of the Mekong River banks. The dams have also caused flooding and damaged fish habitats, which decreased the population many fish species that live in Mekong River. The changes in Mekong have negative impacts directly to local villagers whose lives depend on the Mekong and the food resources. It has become a huge issue to Mekong local people, but the Thai government is either unaware or simply does not pay attention to this dam building project that is slowly destroying their peoples lives and environment. Therefore, several Mekong local villagers took the initiative to stand up for their people to fight the Dam project in order to preserve and sustain their community resources.
        The Mekong School worked with several other organizations to build a network, to preserve and protect the Mekong River and revitalize local history, culture and the arts. By doing this, they create hope and pride among community members. 

Kru Tee is the organization’s founder who is extremely passionate and connected with the Mekong River. Kru Tee works to protect the Mekong River by helping local villagers

understand the history, culture, and ecosystem of the river that has such a big impact on their lives and the environment they live in. To do this, Kru Tee’s strategy is to visit villages along the Mekong River to interact and exchange conversation with the villagers in order to understand each other and find the solutions to preserve their food resources. One of the organization’s successes has been their protection of the Ing River, which is one of the Mekong River’s tributary. Their solution to the disruption of balance in the ecosystem is to sustain the water and forest along the Ing River. Since trees are the main source of water retention, the organization helps the villagers understand the importance of the forest to the river. This in turn reduces the rate of cutting trees along the Ing River. In addition to preserving the forest, the organization preserves trees that have been affected by the flooding and allows them to re-grow naturally. By collaborating with local volunteers and villages, as one community, they re-plant trees that have been destroyed. To help maintain water levels, they built small restoration dams along creeks in the forest to store water during the dry season. All this work to protect the Mekong and its surrounding environment is being done at a grassroots, community level, which is part of its success.

The Effects of Globalization on Community Living
By Emily Huff

In a world that is becoming restructured by globalization, both practices and values, it is easy to look past the strengths of communities. Being in Thailand has been a reminder of how strong communities can prosper, but also of the threats they face by industrialization and globalization. What I have observed frequently in Thailand is community efforts taking place, and the value placed on communities thriving as a whole. Living in the US, where we value individualism, it is easy to forget the importance of community. I have always been interested in how communities can be more independent and sustainable. The Hmong village in the Chiang Dao District, the Mekong School, and especially our home stay at Mae Kampong were influential examples of how communities are staying intact despite the pressures of globalization.
        The Mae Kampong village had three main sources of income: tea, coffee, and the homestay program. The homestay program was generating the most money. I believe by creating this eco-tourist attraction, it is allowing them to remain more of an independent community because they do not need to seek government support. Having two specialized products, coffee and tea, generates jobs within the community allowing them to work close to home; this is important because when you work within your community you value the space in which you work in. Mae Kampong also collected, filtered, and bottled their own water, which allowed them to be self-sustaining and not rely on outside sources for water. The three meals that were prepared for us were (most likely) primarily made from produce grown within the area as well.
        Besides environmental sustainability, Mae Kampong also focuses on sustaining an educated community. By offering monetary incentives and community celebrations for each degree obtained, students strive to do better and are encouraged to continue their education. They see the benefit in educating younger generations to better the community as a whole. What is important about living in a strong community, is people are less likely to take on the values globalization creates, such as consumerism, because they find value in sustainable living.

Hill Area Development Foundation
By Claire Kurschner

The Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF) is a community-based organization in Northern Thailand. One of the main objectives of HADF is to educate and encourage hill tribe people to take pride in their environment and value sustainable living. This nonprofit group works to build and maintain the heritage of the Hill people and ensure their involvement in community decisions, which is even more important in such a quickly-changing society. Their mission is to include people “…in all stages of a development process leading towards the goal of idea exchange, experience and potential to create our committed society. (HADF)” They do this by going to the different villages and talking with villagers, educating them on the events happening outside of their small community and how the actions of others impact them. In this way, small, separate communities can be connected in one larger, stronger network where all can understand and create shared goals.

Physical Use of the Environment
By Mai Xiong

        While sustainable living can be viewed in the context of community initiatives and interactions, it is also important to examine the seemingly small everyday ways that people interact with the environment around them. In the United States, we lack the use of our physical environment since the convenience of using readily available materials such as ceramic cups, plastic containers and roof tiles manufactured by big companies makes our lives more comfortable and easier.  Sometimes our habits of only using items manufactured from big manufacturers causes us to live unsustainable lifestyles that may potentially harm our earth in the long run as we constantly deplete natural resources to make those items. In Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, I’ve observed that the hill tribe people and local Thais make efforts to utilize the physical things in their natural environment for everyday life as an initiative to being more sustainable. Even though we do see people becoming more modernized in Thailand and using manufactured goods for everyday use, there are still people who still make use of materials from their environment.
                 To be sustainable, the hill tribes and Thais use various natural resources in everyday use. Banana leaves are one example of a natural resource that they utilize very well. They are very versatile and sustainable, serving as packagings for food, much the same way that we use plastic containers, wraps and aluminum foil in the U.S. At almost all food vendors that I have seen thus far, I’ve been amazed to see the various ways that banana leaves have been used for food packaging and serving! In addition to banana leaves, bamboos are used in various ways too. Two such things include its use as small cups and food packaging. I have also seen empty coconut shells used as flower and plant pots at homes along the Mekong River and as ladles for water. At the Mekong School, the roofing tiles were also made out of large dried tree leaves, a very fascinating use of the natural environment which makes me wonder how rain proof it is. In the Hmong village, we saw hemp used to make clothing, strings for bows and arrows used for hunting and various tools. Elephant poop is another natural thing that is used to make paper. Furthermore, the natural vegetation in the community such as in the wetlands that we visited provided various food opportunities for the locals such as fiddle heads and roots of plants that naturally grow in the area. While the use of these natural things in the environment may be small, they are sustainable to the local people and promotes the idea of using what is available versus buying things.


        The pressures of globalization have encouraged industrialization and commoditization of natural resources throughout the world. This can be seen in Southeast Asia, in particular through the interaction of those in power with the Mekong River. The building of hydroelectric dams by China, Laos, and Thailand negatively affects all the life in and along the river south of the dams, altering ecosystems and harming communities. Organizations like the Mekong River School and the Hill Area Development Foundation are working to educate and collaborate with communities in the area to create a strong voice – a voice that can stand up to those who are damaging the balance of sustainable living, and one that can encourage others to come together and do the same.

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