Thursday, October 29, 2009

-- We grow these rice fields on top of the backs of our fish --

Yesterday I had lunch with Ian Baird, the expert on Khone Falls, the guy who really knows everything there is to know about this location, and the guy who has written so many of these reports that I am using to base my article.

He is from Canada but has been living in Laos for the better part of the last 15 years. He left the Khone Falls area when it got too touristy and moved to Pakse (the biggest town in the area) to continue his research of the fish and ecology of the region.

His latest report that I use can be found here:

We talked for a long time about the one thing in the research that cannot be found: the total number of fish that pass through Hou Sahong and migrate in general... not just the number of fish caught, but the number of fish that are not caught. It doesn't only matter what's caught at the falls itself, but the numbers caught all along the Mekong. The fish that pass through the falls area migrate all the way up to Vientiane (Laos)," Baird explained to me.

This number would tell us not just the amount of fish caught at the Khone Falls area but how many could be possibly caught all up and down the Mekong. After all, that is the issue at hand - fisheries 1000 km north and south of the Khone Falls rely on fish that migrate through the Khone Falls area.

This number will also tell us the actual whole monetary value of the fisheries in the Mekong that rely on the migrating fish (most of them), which will inherently tell us the monetary loss that will be experienced if the dam is built. Some countries have tried to record things like this with lasers and cameras. It's very expensive to keep a laser or a camera on something like the Hou Sahong, a 100 meter-wide channel.

Baird also explained to me that he didn't think I had the right interview and the right impression that reflects most the people of the the area in terms of damming Hou Sahong. The policeman I talked to is a border cop and therefore very much in a position to need to say things pro-government. (The policeman said he wanted a dam and that fishermen could easily use other channels). "The people there understand the importance of the Hou Sahong channel and do not want to dam it and lose their fishing income. They are water people. That's what they know, is fish. They actually own parts of the river as if it was land. You can't just move these people inland and expect them to eat lizards and things, their lives are on the river. It's like making a fish into a pigeon," Baird said.

"We grow these rice fields on top of the backs of our fish," is a Lao saying that shows how dependent the people of the Mekong really are on their fish.

Baird said that people are still very afraid of the government since the early 80s when the communist Pathet Lao party took over the monarchy and aligned Lao with Vietnam. He said people were imprisoned in the 80s....and trailed off, but now there is no violence, there is only the memory of it. And so if people see you with a notebook or a camera, they will no say anything anti-government.

Anyway, it was good to clear up on what exactly needs to be known - total # fish - and meet the person behind all of these studies.

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