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The Road to the Source

Horse riders along the highway cutting through Golok region, TIbet (Qinghai, China).

Horse riders along the highway cutting through Golok region, Tibet.

“Welcome to Tibet,” Tashi said as we walked out of the Xining airport after a 30-hour series of flights through mainland China. A former Buddhist monk turned Tibetan travel expert, Tashi would be our companion for the final leg of A River’s Tail as we made our final approach towards the source of the Mekong at the Lasagongma Springs.

Because of the difficulty of obtaining unrestricted travel permits for the Tibetan Autonomous Region, we’d had to abandon a portion of the Mekong and instead had decided on a more circuitous route to the river’s source. Beginning in the city of Xining, we would make a 4000km overland round trip through Qinghai province. And while the province fell under a Chinese name on the map, we quickly realized that this land was Tibet in all but official title.

A family walks through the snow in Darlag, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Darlag is one of the major cities of the Golok region.

A family walks through the snow in Darlag, Tibet. Darlag is one of the major cities of the Golok region.

Locals gather on the streets of Darlag, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Darlag is one of the captials of the Tibetan region of Golok.

Locals gather on the streets of Darlag, Tibet.

After spending a year and a half tracing the Mekong from its terminus at the South China Sea, Tibet was a special place to be ending our travels. Beyond being the literal geographical source of the Mekong, Tibet was also on the front lines of the biggest water-related threats facing the planet.

Tibet possess the largest supply of the world’s freshwater outside of the Arctic and Antarctica, earning it the nickname of The Third Pole. The waters that flow out of its plateau are the basis of all of Asia’s major rivers – the Mekong included – and sustain upwards of a billion lives.

Horses are transported in the back of a truck in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Horses are transported in the back of a truck in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Over the course of our time in Tibet we would learn about more than just the source of the Mekong. The powerful bonds between culture and the environment, the grave threats to regional water security, and the extreme selflessness exhibited by many Tibetans people in their mission to keep the plateau healthy for the benefit of those who lived downstream were all distinctly Tibetan characteristics.

The Black Tent

“A black tent, a black tent!” Tashi called excitedly as he pointed out the window of our car to a small settlement on the side of the highway. The solitary tent sat at the base of rolling foothills that stretched across the horizon, and apart from lines of prayer flags blowing in the cold wind, was the only feature on the barren winter landscape.

A family tent made from woven black yak hair in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

A family tent made from woven black yak hair in Golok region. Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

“This is really rare,” Tashi explained, “tent culture is dying out very fast in Tibet. Most of the nomadic families these days have Chinese-style buildings at their winter camps. Soon you won’t see this at all.”

As we approached the tent we were too distracted by the monstrous Tibetan mastiff guard dogs (that seemed as though they would gladly eat us for breakfast if not staked to the ground with heavy chains)  to notice what was unique about the black tent. While we were impressed by the toughness of any family who could live under a piece of cloth in the freezing temperatures of the Tibetan plateau in winter, from a distance the tent itself did not look like anything special. It was only when we got close enough to touch it that we realized that rather than a single piece of canvas, the walls were woven from thousands of individual strings of yak fur.

A mastiff fights against its restraints on a nomad winter camp in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Mastiffs are used throughout Tibet to protect the livestock of nomadic families from wolves and snow leopards.

A mastiff fights against its restraints on a nomad winter camp in Golok region, Tibet.

Hearing the frenzied barking of their dogs, two women emerged from the tent and surveyed us uninterestedly, exhibiting neither hostility or curiosity. Somewhat surprisingly, they made no effort to engage us in conversation or ask us what we wanted. Instead they mostly ignored us, and set to work weaving coarse tufts of yak hair into yet more threads, presumably to expand or repair the existing tent walls.

To be in such close proximity to other people, in their personal space nonetheless, and not interact with them in any meaningful was a strange experience and somewhat awkward for us after having speaking to so many people along the Mekong. Yet these nomadic women didn’t appear bothered in the least and simply continued with their task until we left, seeming neither annoyed or happy.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent.

We were on our way to the monastery town of Payul (Baiyuxiang in Mandarin), but first we had hundreds more kilometres of grassland to cross through landscapes that were both utterly hostile looking and stunningly beautiful in their vastness. Apart from the periodic groups of pilgrims trudging along the side of the road and an occasional pickup truck loaded with wild-looking racing horses, it was easy to feel like we were alone in the sheer hugeness of the place.

Occasionally we passed more winter camps of Nomad families, most of whom had built permanent structures rather than the black yak hair tents, shielded from the bitter winter winds by head-height walls made exclusively from yak dung. Small children, their cheeks almost artificially red from wind burn as if they had been interrupted while experimenting with their mother’s makeup, stood in the subzero temperatures wearing little more than thin wool sweaters.

It was hard country, and the people who lived on it had to work hard to make it work for them.

Culture on the Move

“Once these people start moving into [permanent] houses the group culture starts to fall apart,” Tashi said as we stood on a bluff overlooking a sprawling complex of uniform single story homes. “Traditionally they live together in tents that are bigger than a house and take years to build from yak pelts. But most of these ‘real’ nomads are already gone.”

Relocation camps meant to bring nomadic families into permanent residences are spread across an open plain in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China)

Relocation camps meant to bring nomadic families into permanent residences are spread across an open plain in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China)

A community of newly built houses meant to accommodate Tibetan Nomads in Golok region, Tibet. Such communities are part of an effort by the Chinese government to keep nomadic Tibetans stationary and contained, but as there are few opportunities for employment or livestock rearing, many of the homes sit empty.

A community of newly built houses meant to accommodate Tibetan Nomads in Golok region, Tibet. Such communities are part of an effort by the Chinese government to keep nomadic Tibetans stationary and contained, but as there are few opportunities for employment or livestock rearing, many of the homes sit empty.

For nomads, who typically move with their yak herds three times per year between summer, winter, and autumn locations, the residential compound spread across the valley below was essentially an internment camp, a place where culture would suffocate and eventually die.

“In the old days there was no concept of land ownership,” Tashi explained. “Nomad families and tribes used to move together and share land. This started to change in the 1980’s when the government started assigning land to families, and surrounding this land with fences.”

It was strange to think of the impact something so simple as a fence could have on an ancient way of life, but as nomadic families started to think of land as their personal property, disputes and violent conflicts began to increase. People who had defined their culture through the sharing of land and resources for thousands of years were becoming divided. And while it seemed, from a distance, that the vast majority of the government-built housing compound was empty, it nevertheless represented a grave threat to (and possibly even the slowly approaching end of) nomadic culture.

Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Golok region, Tibet.

A yak skull is mounted to a nomadic family's storage shed in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

A yak skull is mounted to a nomadic family’s storage shed in Golok region.

But as ominous as the camp was, for the time being most nomads were not yet abandoning their traditional lifestyle. They faced threats from many angles, including the growth of massive industrial mining operations in the region and the degradation of grasslands so essential to the survival of their herds. But for people living in such relative isolation there was little to be done apart from tend to their yaks and hope to be left alone.

In Tibet, as in countless other places along the Mekong, 21st century issues of climate change, environmental degradation, land development, and the over exploitation of resources were most affecting those people who had done the least to precipitate the problems.

As we would see over the coming weeks, however, Tibetans were not resigned to inaction. Perhaps more so than any other group of people we had encountered along the Mekong, Tibetans were fighting to preserve what they had.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Tibet, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , |

A Singular Purpose: Hydropower in Northern Yunnan

The village of Yamen, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. A hydropwer dam will innundate the village when completed, and most residents will be forcibly relocated.

The village of Yamen sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in northern Yunnan. A hydropwer dam will innundate the village when completed, and most residents will be forcibly relocated.

“If you were born somewhere, how would you feel about having to move to someone else’s place?” Chen Quiangguo asked rhetorically.

After leaving the Tibetan community of Cizhong, we had decided to follow up on some rumours locals had shared that the nearby village of Yanmen was set to be flooded by the reservoir of the soon-to-be completed Wunonglong hydropower dam. Relocating villagers to make way for dams was something we had encountered repeatedly throughout our journey, but in this case the residents of Yanmen were not to be given a new piece of land but rather they were to be absorbed into Cizhong.

Rays of sunlight fall on the mountains around Deqen, Yunnan, China.

Rays of sunlight fall on the mountains around Deqen.

Whereas the most common challenge faced by dam migrants was how to go about creating a new community from scratch – often in an undesirable location far from schools, hospitals, employment, and other important infrastructure – in this case the situation had been flipped. How could an entire village be joined with another without severely straining the available land of the host? Before continuing north towards the Tibetan plateau, we stopped in Yanmen to ask how residents planned to deal with the problem. It was there we met Chen Quiangguo, sitting on a plastic cooler along Yanmen’s main thoroughfare.

“I have lived here my whole life,” Chen said, “and now the whole village is going to be evicted. I am not sure where we will go when I lose my farmland.” His life was in a state of uncertainty, and with Wunonglong set to be operational in 2018, he did not have much time to make a decision.

A man walks along a mountain road near Deqen, Yunnan, China.

A man walks along a mountain road near Deqen.

Like the people we had spoken to in Xialuoga who too faced the prospect of abandoning much of their town to a dam’s reservoir, Chen directed most of his anger at local government more so than at the national level.

“I think the power company [Sinohydro] is more powerful than the local government. Whenever we disagree with the company we report it to the local government, but I don’t think they have much power over the company,” he explained. Considering that Sinohydro was a state-owned corporation – and one of the biggest companies of any kind in all of China – he was most likely right.

Engineering Might

20km away along a winding mountain highway, the build site of the Wunonglong dam was not the high security location that we’d expected it to be. Instead of guards and gates a special viewing platform had been build to accommodate tourists, complete with decorative gardens and informational diagrams showing the location of all present and future dam projects on the Lancang. China clearly saw its massive damming projects as a source of engineering pride, something to be marvelled at rather than hidden away.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company.

From the lookout perched above the deep river valley where Wunonglong was being built, it was hard not to be struck by the monumental scale of the construction. Hulking industrial dump trucks were reduced to moving yellow dots, and the workers were nothing more than specks identifiable only by their brightly coloured hardhats.

Where the Lancang should have flowed there was instead a plain of gravel and metal scaffolding that covered the valley walls like latticework. Even more impressive was the fact that the river had not been blocked, but rather diverted in its entirety through a tunnel that had been carved through the base of the surrounding mountains. Despite the environmental ramifications of such dams for China’s downstream neighbours and the human cost of flooding huge tracts of land, this manifestation of China’s engineering prowess was truly awesome to behold.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

Scaffolding is anchored into the rock walls of a Lancang river valley as workers carve the rock away.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunnan, China.

Back in Yanmen with a clearer visual picture of the source of the village’s destroyer, we spoke to shopkeeper Ge Dacheng about his future plans. Like Chen Quiangguo, he was uncertain as to his future: “I will be evicted next year I think. Because I rent my shop and do not own the land, I do not have as much to lose [as some others in Yanmen], but I do not know where I will go. I’ll have to see what housing is available and what it costs.”

As the current plan encouraged most of Yanmen’s residents (at least those who could not afford to move to bigger cities) to move to Cizhong, Ge and Chen were at least fortunate that people in Cizhong were not unanimously opposed to their arrival. The prospect of giving away inherited farmland to a community of incoming strangers could have sparked deep resentment in Cizhong and made assimilation all but impossible.

A grave or historical marker overlooks the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunan, China. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

A grave or historical marker overlooks the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen.

Graves overlooking the Lancang (Mekong) in northern Yunnan.

Graves overlooking the Lancang (Mekong) in northern Yunnan.

However, when we’d asked 64-year-old wine maker and Cizhong land-owner Zeng Tei how he felt about an influx of newcomers, he responded optimistically.

“I heard they are making this community bigger,” Zeng had said. “I don’t know why these people need to come here, but I don’t think it’s a danger to my family. In the past people here used to be starving, but now things are plentiful. I hope that when new people come I will have a bigger market for my crops – and that they will buy more of my wine!”

Towards the Plateau

While our first reaction to China’s network of dams might have been to rail and shout about the ecological damage being done to the Lancang (and later the Mekong) – as well as the hardships looming for those who had to be relocated to make way for their reservoirs – after spending upwards of a month following the river through Yunnan province, we realized that this would not be entirely fair.

Though the Mekong was a transnational waterway, directly supporting the livelihoods of more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia, international borders and the modern geopolitical system meant that governments were prone to put their own national development interests before those of their neighbours. Though after more than a year on the Mekong we had our own left-of-centre views regarding the future ramifications of such insular thinking, this was nevertheless the reality of modern politics.

A Tibetan walks along the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunan, China. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

A Tibetan walks along the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunnan. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

And time after time in China (with only a few rare exceptions), we had seen that the Lancang was not a particularly useful river for the people who lived along it. Whereas in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, millions of people fished in the muddy brown waters, irrigated their rice paddies, or transported their goods along the Mekong, the fast-moving Lancing and the hard to access topography it snaked through provided little in the way of direct benefits to Chinese people. We had seen very little in the way of fishing, a mere fraction of the agricultural activity that was present in Southeast Asia, and virtually no transportation was possible due to the river’s rocky bed, untamed speed, and indirect course.

In the largely Tibetan mountain town of Deqin, parts of which sit at nearly 4000 metres above sea level, the practical uselessness of the Lancang was reinforced repeatedly by the people we spoke to. Cili Dingzhu, a Tibetan resident of Deqin replied with an emphatic “no, no, no,” when we asked if the Lancang provided anything for his community.

A Tibetan man drives along the mountain roads near Deqen, Yunan, China.

Cili Dingzhu drives along the mountain roads near Deqen.

In fact Cili Dingzhu had been hard pressed to think of a place anywhere in the area where people lived within walking distance of the river. When he did eventually remember once such village, we had driven through the mountains for more than an hour to reach it and found it to be little more than a cluster of houses perched on the steep valley walls. There were no pipes feeding them Lancang water, and no boats tied to the shore. Almost unnaturally blue and capped with intermittent patches of whitewater, in Yunnan’s rugged north the Lancang was simply an obstacle to be crossed, not a boon to be enjoyed.

In this sense the Chinese government had made the best possible use of the river as a means of developing their country. Other nations around the world had made excellent use of hydropower dams to build their economies and build their energy industries, and it would not be fair to expect China not to do the same. Yet we knew that as practical as China’s treatment of the Lancang might be, there were millions of people living the south who had an altogether different relationship with the river.

The Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunnan, China. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

The Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen.

In an ideal world nations would cooperate to make sure that natural resources were managed with the collective good in mind, but that world did not yet exist.

As we left Yunnan for the final phase of our journey on the Tibetan plateau, we were acutely aware of how much the river had changed since we had begun to follow it in Vietnam, and how greatly its importance in people’s lives varied from north to south.

“Wow, you’ve been on this river for a long way!” Cili Dingzhu remarked when we explained the nature of our trip. “Does it flow through Beijing?”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Tibetan Wine, Tug of War, and a Church in Buddha’s Land

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament in Cizhong, Yunnan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Possibly the last thing we expected to see upon arriving in the predominately Tibetan village of Cizhong was a crowd of hundreds watching a full court basketball game. We had come to Cizhong because of its most famous landmark – a century old Catholic church. Built by French missionaries in 1911 after their previous church was destroyed during a Chinese crackdown on foreign religions, the church had become the de facto centre of Catholicism in Yunnan. With a church in the heart of a largely Buddhist region, we had imagined Cizhong as some sort of spiritual enclave where the intermingling of religions was manifested in the streets by solemn monk-priests and billowing clouds of incense.

Whatever we expected, it was not basketball.

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament.

It was the middle of losar the 15-day Tibetan lunar New Year holiday – and we had unwittingly stumbled upon the annual inter-village multi-day sports tournament. The women’s teams played first, and despite their general good sportsmanship and respect for the rules of the game, the competition was fierce. Even though it was barely 5º Celsius, sweat poured from the player’s and the spectators screamed encouragement from the sidelines.

At half time it was the middle-aged women of the area that took the stage, not to play basketball, but for a surprisingly intense tug of war competition. Strong and sturdy from their agricultural mountainous lifestyle, they were possessed of formidable stamina and they spared no energy in pulling for the pride of their village. The men in the audience were whipped into a frenzy, many of whom rushed onto the court to spur their women to victory. With multiple switching of sides and several back-to-back rounds, we lost track of which team was which and ultimately had no idea who had won. Judging from the laughter and general good cheer of the crowd, it didn’t seem to matter.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday.

After the girls finished their basketball game (the home team lost, some of the players visibly upset), the men’s games began. They clearly took the sport seriously, with some of the teams even wearing customized NBA jerseys with their own names printed on the back.

Only when the tournament ended did we understand that there was more at stake than just hometown bragging rights. Numerous cash prizes of increasing value were handed out at the closing ceremony, honouring the winning teams, coaches, and best individual players – the most prestigious of which were paid out at 2000 Yuan (more than $300 USD), more than double the provincial minimum monthly wage.

An inter-village basketball tournament during the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

An inter-village basketball tournament during the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong.

The majority of villagers gather to watch lunar new years events in the public square of Cizhong, Yunan, China.

The majority of villagers gather to watch lunar new years events in the public square of Cizhong.

The event was brought to a close with dance performances, an alternating fusion of traditional styles and modern pop ballads. There was something surreal about watching a group of children shake their bodies to Gangnam Style immediately after the well-choreographed rhythms of women dressed extravagantly in ceremonial silks, but such was the nature of the globalized 21st Century.

Grapes From God

When we met with Yao Fei, Cizhong’s resident priest who had been sent from Inner Mongolia to be the village’s spiritual leader, we learned that documenting the influence of Catholicism over 70% of the town’s population would not be as straightforward as we’d imagined as no photography was allowed inside the church. But there was another byproduct of the arrival of the French missionaries that was nearly as important economically to Cizhong as the church was spiritually: wine.

A Catholic priest from inner Mongolia is the resident father at a Cathilic church in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Yao Fei, A Catholic priest from inner Mongolia is the resident father at a Cathilic church in Cizhong.

“The grapes were initially brought here by French missionaries,” Yao said. “At church, we need [wine] for mass. It represents Jesus’ blood. The wine culture started in the church…and now in the village many people make wine themselves.”

It didn’t take long to find locals engaged in the wine industry. 10 minutes into a walk along Cizhong’s main road, a sign mounted to the exterior wall of a house read (in both Mandarin and English), “French style wine available here”.

“My family started to grow grapes and make wine about 10 years ago,” Zeng Alan said. “10 years ago it was very poor here and the government encouraged us to grow grapes as part of a poverty alleviation program. The grapes helped my family to get out of poverty and now we use all our land to grow them. We are much better off.”

The moon rises over the Catholic church in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

The moon rises over the Catholic church in Cizhong.

In her early 60’s, Zeng Alan moved around her home with the speed of a much younger woman as she poured out small glasses of the bright red liquid for us to sample. Though not completely undrinkable, the wine bore semblance to French vintages only in that it was red and alcoholic. The sugar content was shockingly high, and it seemed certain that even a small quantity of the stuff would bring about an excessive hangover.

Zeng Alan pours homemade wine into plastic containers for sale in Cizhong, Yunan, China. First introduced by French missionaries, introduction of wine making has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

Zeng Alan pours homemade wine into plastic containers for sale in Cizhong, Yunnan. First introduced by French missionaries, introduction of wine making has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

Zeng Alan told us that while her speciality was the fermentation and transformation of the grapes into wine, it was her husband, Zeng Tei, who oversaw the vineyards themselves.

We found Tei on a mountainside above the village wandering through his rows of grape vines, stopping here and there to uproot a weed or pull off wilting leaves. The 64-year-old had married Alan and moved to Cizhong in 1983, he told us, but had only started growing grapes in 2002.

“Growing grapes is just great,” he said cheerfully, “Before I had to do very hard labor with no days off. My burdens are much less now and I have enough money to educate my three sons.”

Zeng Tei, 64, tends to his small vinyard in Cizhong, Yunan, China. First introduced by French missionaries, the grapes are used for making wine. The widespread introduction of grape cultivation has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

Zeng Tei, 64, tends to his small vinyard in Cizhong, Yunnan. First introduced by French missionaries, the grapes are used for making wine. The widespread introduction of grape cultivation has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

But growing grapes in Yunnan was not always easy. Just a few years after planting his first vines, Tei said, disaster struck. “At first we were very happy with the grapes, but in 2006 they got sick and most of them died. Only one tree survived well and actually produced 2.5kg of grapes.” Without much in the way of formal training, Tei nevertheless guessed that there was something special about that vine. The following season he grafted branches from it onto 10 other sickly vines and to his relief, most of them flourished.

“These new grapes are resistant to disease and have better yields than the original French variety,” Tei said, clearly proud of his accomplishment. “I started with just 10 of these and now I have over two mu (1333 square meters) of vines that give me more than five tonnes of grapes each year.”

This netted the family almost 2500 litres of wine each season, and with a value of roughly $5 USD per litre, this gave them an income well above the average small scale Yunnan farmer.

A woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes plays with her son over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

A woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes plays with her son over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong.

A boy walks the streets of Cizhong, Yunan, China during the lunar new year holidays holding a toy AK-47.

A boy walks the streets of Cizhong during the lunar new year holidays holding a toy AK-47.

Though by this time of our travels in China we were used to hearing about how little the Lancang provided the people who lived along its banks, we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was a connection between the river and the Zeng’s prosperity. “The valley created by the river gives us a very good climate for growing grapes,” Tei said. “Even though grapes don’t need much water, the water we use comes from [a small tributary of] the Lancang.” He was quick to point out, however, that like everywhere else we had visited on the river, the water was not suitable for human consumption.

After buying a token bottle of the Zeng’s wine, we asked Tei if he felt anything towards the missionaries and their God for the gift of grapes.

“I don’t like religion. I only like grapes and chess.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Drowning the Valley

Residents of Gongle village, Yunan, China, lay the foundations for a new house high up in the mountains to avoid the projected rising water level. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

Residents of Gongle village lay the foundations for a new house high up in the mountains to avoid the projected rising water level.

“They keep offering us more and more money, but it’s not about money,” the dump truck driver said. He was hauling loads of sand up the narrow mountain roads of the tiny village of Xialuoga to a construction site where he and his family were building a new house. They weren’t doing this because of an increase in fortune or fate, but rather because of the coming flood. Xialuoga’s farmlands were slated for inundation once the Tuoba hydropower dam on the Lancang was completed and residents had little choice but to prepare to move to higher ground, abandoning whatever low-lying assets they had built up over generations.

“Money comes and goes but our families need to be fed everyday,” the driver continued. “Without land, how can we be sure of their basic needs?”

A woman carries a load of canola to feed to her pigs in the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A woman carries a load of canola to feed to her pigs.

The forced relocation of people living along the banks of the Mekong was a story we had encountered repeatedly throughout our journey. From the cheaply-built relocation camps of Laos (needs link) to the Bunong ethnic minority groups fighting to save their land in northeastern Cambodia, the human cost of energy development was high throughout the region.

A father plays with his daughter in a small restaurant in the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A father plays with his daughter in a small restaurant.

But whereas in Laos and Cambodia we had been well aware of the situation in advance and had sought out the affected communities to purposely document their struggle, we had come to Xialuoga with the intention of capturing a portrait of peaceful agrarian life in China. It wasn’t until we had arrived and started speaking to locals that we learned the daily life we had come to photograph was soon to be under water.

A Pastoral Postcard

Located across the Lancang from the town of Baijixunxiang and connected to the outside world only by a steel-cabled suspension bridge, Xialuoga was so small as to not appear on Google Maps. Where searching for Baijixunxiang – itself tiny by Chinese standards – revealed a post office, several restaurants, a hotel, and a few parallel roads, the place where Xialuoga should have appeared was represented by only by name and a blank expanse of beige pixels. Only by switching to the photographic satellite view did the village appear, as if to indicate that, although Xialuoga may be physically there at the moment, it was probably best to forget about it.

The village of Gongle, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

The village of Gongle, Yunnan.

On the ground, however, Xialuoga was very much real and the picture postcard of simple pastoral life. While Yunnan had been beautiful in its entirety, the further north we moved, the more dramatic the landscape became. The mountains were rising ever higher as we approached the Himalayas and the snaking valley that held the Lancang correspondingly deepened.

Goats, donkeys, cows, and horses – all manner of domesticated animals grazed on the dry grasses that covered the hillsides, cautious but accepting of our company in the cold, fresh winds that gusted over the mountaintops. Bright yellow canola flowers, used to produce cooking oil and as fattening fodder for pigs, added striking patches of colour to the winter landscape. It was quiet, and incredibly beautiful.

A man walks through the canola fields surrounding the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A man walks through the canola fields surrounding Gongle

Goats line the mountainside overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

Goats line the mountainside overlooking the village.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” Chao Yunsheng said. A weathered 78-year-old, Chao had lived through turbulent times. “Life is much better now. When I was a boy we often did not have any food to eat. Things are much easier now.”

Over the course of his life Chao had expanded his family’s land holdings to a respectable 20 mu (a mu is an old Chinese system of measurement still used in conjunction with the metric system. One mu equals 666.7 square meters). Though lack of irrigation systems and decreasing annual rainfall meant that he had long since quit growing rice, he nevertheless used his land to good effect by growing corn and grazing a herd of 90 goats.

“I have a lot of land now, and I have given it to my three sons,” Chao said. “My youngest son went to another province to work so I help [the other two] with the farming and animals.” Yet when the 900 megawatt Tuoba dam goes on line, much of his sons inheritance would be lost.

A goat herder cuts tree branches so the smaller goats can reach them in the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A goat herder cuts tree branches so the smaller goats can reach them.

A family tends to their farm animals in the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A family tends to their farm animals in the village of Gongle.

“The whole village will flood and we will have to move higher up the mountain. Out of the 20 mu we have, all but two will be lost. We will be able to keep grazing our goats, but there will only be a small area left for farming,” Chao told us. Considering that his crops account for roughly half the family’s income, the loss of 90% of his cultivatable land would be a serious financial blow.

Compensation, Contemplation, and Corruption

“I don’t know what’s happening,” 75-year-old Li Ruqi said as he sat in front of his small shop overlooking the Lancang. “This dam has been talked about for a long time, but there have been many delays and I have no idea when it will be finished. But if the government says I have to move, then I will have to move.”

Throughout Xialuoga and across the river in Baijixunxiang (the low-lying areas of which will also be flooded by Tuoba’s reservoir), locals shared the same uncertainty as to the timing of their relocation. Referring to the compensation package to be offered for evictees by the government, a hotel owner in Baijixunxiang said “We haven’t signed the deal, and many others haven’t either. We don’t know when it’s going to happen. If we don’t sign, they will probably force us to demolish the hotel anyways.”

The village of Yamen, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. A hydropwer dam will innundate the village when completed, and most residents will be forcibly relocated.

The village of Yamen, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunnan, China.

The hotelier, who was hesitant to share his name, directed the majority of his anger towards local officials, who he accused of corruption. “Even if we get good compensation packages, much will be lost to corruption. [The dam builders] Sinohydro pay the money to local government officials and by the time it gets to us a lot of it will be gone. There have been many anti-corruption campaigns [across China], but this is a very remote place and they can do what they want here.”

Chao Yunsheng expressed similar frustrations, but was quick to point out that this was a problem at the local level and he placed no blame on the larger government apparatus. “The new president [Xi Jinping] is very good!” Chao said emphatically. “He gave out bags of rice to people with disabilities, which is very nice and the old presidents did not do. I have problems with my eyes, so I should have got two bags of rice but I only got one. This is proof of the corruption.”

Li Ruqi expressed even more faith in the national government, telling us that “I have no concerns for the future of my six children. The government will look after them.”

A woman stands on the hillside overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A woman stands on the hillside overlooking the village of Gongle.

A horse grazes on the mountain sides overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A horse grazes on the mountain sides overlooking the village of Gongle.

Though almost everyone we spoke to in Baijixunxiang and Xialuoga said they had been visited by surveyors who took measurements of their property, none had a clear picture of how much they would be compensated. Chao Yunsheng, however, said he thought he knew the value of at least one thing – his family’s ancestral graves. “I heard that we will be paid 1200 Yuan (roughly $185 USD) per grave.”

While Chao’s prediction about the value of his ancestor’s remains were unconfirmed, one thing was certain: when Tuoba’s 60m deep reservoir arrived, life in Xialuoga would change forever.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Entering the Year of the Monkey

An abandoned school in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

An abandoned school in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

The bus passed through an endless series of bleak frontier towns, grey and featureless and devoid of all character. The dead-brown of winter rice fields filled the gaps between industrial yards and tenement apartment blocks, which were the only types of buildings we had seen in some time.

“This is where I would come if I wanted to write a book about loneliness,” I commented to Gareth.

In the days leading up to the Lunar New Year – also known as Spring Festival from the literal Chinese translation – making travel plans had become increasingly difficult. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were leaving the cities for their home provinces in the largest human migration on earth. Even in Yunnan, far from China’s urban super-metropolises, busses had been sold out and the prices for hiring private cars had risen to extortionate highs. We knew that mobility would become even harder once the holidays began, so we had held an emergency brainstorming session with our Mandarin-speaking travel companion, Yan.

We wanted to avoid getting stuck in a big city where the soaring cost of accommodation would wipe out our budget in short order, and likewise we feared getting trapped for a week or more in the tiny villages that lined the Lancang as we had been told that most local bus services would be suspended.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

Ultimately we decided that it was best to veer away from the river for a short time and headed for Mt. Jizu, famed in Buddhism as a holy mountain and topped with richly decorated pagodas. But before we could see it for ourselves, we had to pass through some of the least inspiring scenery imaginable.

“Life would have been very different if you were born here,” Yan commented.

Offerings for the Gods

The rooster clucked nervously from inside a wooden crate that was piled in the van under the passenger’s luggage, and considering that animal sacrifices were a traditional part of Lunar New Year celebrations, his apprehension was justified.

A woman carries a chicken to temple on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A woman carries a chicken to temple on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

When we finally drove into Shazhi, an ancient market town at the base of Mt. Jizu, the cloud-topped mountain backdrop provided a welcome change from the sub-urban dreariness we had passed through for the best part of the day. With a population of just 700 people, Shazhi was the perfect place to get an intimate look at how the New Year was celebrated in Yunnan, but because of Mt. Jizu’s spiritual significance, it was a popular enough destination so as to stay connected to the outside world.

“This place is very popular for New Years celebrations because we have so many temples on the mountain,” Li Zhangqing said. An elderly incense vendor who had lived at the base of the mountain his entire life, the customers looking over the massive quantities of fireworks on display in his shop foreshadowed the nature of the festivities to come. “This was one of the first places Buddha’s disciple visited when he came to China from India, and [where] he founded the first temple.”

Families gather at a local temple in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, to make offerings for the lunar New Year.

Families gather at a local temple in Mt. Jizu.

Though the most famous of Mt. Jizu’s temples were located high on the surrounding mountainsides, after the long trip we had just completed we didn’t have the energy to begin the trek. Luckily Shazhi had its own temples at a mercifully lower elevation, and the locals were putting them to use.

At the town’s central temple, families were arriving and departing steadily to make offerings, and nearly all of them came with a rooster or two tucked under their arm. The birds, heads on a constant twitching swivel, took in their surroundings with great suspicion – and for good reason. Feathers covered the walls of two small shrines near the temple’s main gate and the concrete beneath was splattered with blood.

A child stands over a pool of chicken blood during preparations for lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, Tibet.

A child stands over a pool of chicken blood during preparations for lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

After stepping into the temple itself to offer prayers, the families returned to these shrines to light incense and offer envelopes stuffed with (mostly fake) cash to the gods.  The roosters, seeming to sense their mortal danger, shifted uneasily under the firm grip of the hands that held them.

With practiced surety, each rooster’s neck was twisted to the breaking point before their throats were slit with cleavers or long knives. As their blood drained and they convulsed in the throws of death, their sacrifice was acknowledged solemnly by the families, who knelt around the shrines in prayer. No one, not even the smallest children, looked away from the gore, which added a layer of respect to the ceremony and demonstrated an understanding of the connection between death and food that has been largely lost throughout the world’s most developed countries.

A family prays before sacrificing chickens for lunar New Year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A family prays before sacrificing chickens for lunar New Year.

A man sticks the feather of a sacrificed chicken to a temple wall as part of a lunar new year ceremony in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A man sticks the feather of a sacrificed chicken to a temple wall as part of a lunar new year ceremony.

Though it is never pleasant to witness the killing of a living creature, the process was humane; far less cruel than the horrendous conditions endured by animals in the battery farms of the modern world as they make their way to supermarket shelves.

Explosions Under the Holy Mountain

When the fireworks started to go off along Shazhi’s main street the sun was still high in the sky and we knew it would be a long night. The children started first, beside themselves with excitement at the prospect of an entire evening dedicated to blowing things up. There were even special children’s edition fireworks on hand, bearing brightly coloured designs from DreamWorks’ animated movie How to Train Your Dragon and other Hollywood hits.

A family gathers around a fire on lunar new year in Mt Jizu, Yunan, China.

A family gathers around a fire on lunar new year in Mt Jizu.

Boys toss firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A family plays with sparklers and firecrackers on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

As soon as evening fell, the momentum began to build. It seemed as though every child in Shazhi was on the streets, flinging m-80 crackers into drainage ditches and firing bottle rockets haphazardly in every direction over the roofs of the town. From time to time one would emerge with a chain of 1000 or so firecrackers joined by a single fuse which, once detonated, choked the streets with acrid smoke. But the adults had yet to join in the fracas and were gathered calmly around small fires in front of their homes. From the way they doled out huge quantities of fireworks to the children, we knew that they were sitting on massive stockpiles and were almost certainly saving the best for last.

Starting at 10 p.m., an odd calm settled over the town. We stopped for tea at a small restaurant owned by 26-year-old Yang Zhong and asked tentatively if the celebrations were over for the night. “No,” he laughed, “they are just watching the Spring Festival Gala on TV. At midnight it will start.”

Boys toss firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

Boys toss firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu.

Customers shop for firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

Customers shop for firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu.

 

Ostensibly a variety comedy program, the annual TV special was sprinkled with factual educational messages from the state. One particularly long skit featured a People’s Liberation Army officer being reprimanded repeatedly for not marching with his legs at regulation height, meant to reassure citizens that even generals were expected to work hard.

But as we checked some Chinese social media sites, it was clear that not everyone was sold on the show’s realism. “This is not a spring festival gala, this is an annual conference for the party!” commented one user on WeChat.

At a quarter to midnight we found the most dedicated celebrators gathered in Shazhi’s public square, and between them they had amassed a formidable arsenal of explosives. From five kilogram coils of crackers to one metre long cardboard tubes that spewed flaming balls high into the night sky, once they started lighting things our ears didn’t stop ringing until well after the new year had passed.

Revelers light sparklers and firecrackers on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

Revelers light sparklers and firecrackers on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

A street is littered with the exploded remains of firecrackers after lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A street is littered with the exploded remains of firecrackers after lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

As we walked back towards our guest house, the red husks of thousands of explosives crunched under our feet.

Early the next morning the town had reverted to some semblance of normalcy. The streets were still littered with debris and there were black scorch marks burned into the pavement that would likely not disappear until the next rainfall, but in all other respects the place was calm.

With the year of the monkey having begun in style, we left Shazhi and headed back to the Lancang to push further north, towards the great river’s source.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Lancang River Fishing

A view of  the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan Province, China.

A view of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan Province, China.

The first thing that grabbed our attention as we stepped off the bus in the tiny roadside community of Jinglin River Bridge was the richness of the Lancang’s surreal blue colour. Though we had noted the changing characteristics of the river since entering China, the narrow and swift flowing aquamarine channel at the bottom of a deep mountain valley was so utterly different to the lazy brown Mekong that we had known for the last year as to be nearly unrecognizable.

Later we would learn that the unnatural colour of the river was largely due to the loss of sediment because of China’s hydropower dams along the Lancang. But in our initial ignorance we did little but stand and stare down at the alien waterway, speechless as we took in the vast landscape.

A boat floats on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, CHina

A boat floats on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China

The naming of Jinglin River Bridge was both literal and appropriate. Derived from the blending of Jinggu, the name of the county the town was located in, and Lancang, the community was visually defined by the impressively stark concrete bridges that spanned the river in several places. Though utilitarian and without ornament, the bridges were a reminder of the scope and scale of China’s infrastructural engineering projects. In Laos or Cambodia, with their aging and potholed highways, such roadworks would have been among the best in the country; but in China, even in an out of the way backwater, they were unremarkable.

We had stopped in Jinglin for two reasons. The first was geographical: this was the only major crossing point over the Lancang between the larger cities of Pu’er and Lincang, and the only route to access Yunnan’s mountainous north without suffering a lengthy detour to the east. The second reason was less practical and more hypothetical. Since arriving in China, we had yet to meet anyone intimately or directly engaging with the Lancang on a daily basis.

We had encountered tourists and retirees who enjoyed the river as a source of relaxation, farmers who irrigated their crops with its waters, and sand dredgers who plied its currents on immense metal hulks to bring its sandy bed to the surface, but none of the artisanal fishermen that had been so prevalent in the lower Mekong basin. If we were going to find such people in Yunnan, we reasoned, what better place to start looking than in a small village that had incorporated the river into its name?

A Revolutionary Welcome

“This revolutionary area welcomes you!” the Mandarin characters carved into the side of a large stone monument proclaimed in a historic reminder of the town’s political past.

Once the site of an important salt refinery, the area had been ground zero for the rising wave of discontentment among China’s lower classes over the inequality of wealth between themselves and their Kuomintang rulers. When the prices of salt rose to unaffordable levels, the rural poor formed themselves into small Communist militant groups which would later coalesce under Mao and take part in the Cultural Revolution that changed China’s political system forever.

Now, however, there were no signs of insurrection or rebellion, and the memories of those turbulent times were evidenced only in stone. It was the smell of fish, not class warfare, that permeated the morning air as we searched for a path down the steep mountain valley to the Lancang below.

A small market was spread out along the highway, offering travellers an opportunity to pick up fresh seafood before reaching their ultimate destinations, and the gathering of their parked cars gave the false impression of bustle to the town that was only transitory. The fish were live, splashing feebly in a few centimetres of water at the bottom of plastic buckets, and so we knew that fishermen could not be too far away.

Customers stop at a road side fish market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Customers stop at a road side fish market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fish vendors sort their catch at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish vendors sort their catch at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish hang to dry at a local market near the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fish hang to dry at a local market near the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

When we eventually found our way down to the river’s edge, however, the fishing boats that lined the banks were devoid of crew or cargo. Instead we found a family of local tourists who had stopped to enjoy a picnic and some recreational fishing on the Lancang.

“I don’t really catch anything,” the father of the family said when we asked about his fishing rod, “it’s just for fun. If you want to see real fishermen, you could try coming back in the morning.” His teenage son, seemingly embarrassed by his father’s repeated attempts to offer us cigarettes and food, hurried away down the beach so as to not be drawn into the conversation. Having both survived the terrible awkwardness of being teenage boys, we empathized with his unease and left the family to their lunch.

Fish vendors spread their catch out to dry at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish vendors spread their catch out to dry at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

A driver prepares to deliver fishermen's morning catch to local market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A driver prepares to deliver fishermen’s morning catch to local market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

“The fishermen leave early in the morning,” 52-year-old Zhang Yun said in front of his hotel. We had left the river banks and returned to the town to see if someone could introduce us to an active commercial fisherman, and had gotten lucky when we met Zhang.

“They only started fishing here three years ago,” he continued. “Before the dam [near Simaogangzhen] was built the river moved too fast. 20 years ago if you jumped in here the currents would carry you away. It has changed a lot.” With that he pulled a cell phone from his pocket and made a call to a friend.

“Go to the river early tomorrow morning and he will meet you there,” Zhang said. “He can take you fishing.”

Unnatural Stilness

Though the sky was still dark and the rising sun obscured by the high valley walls, the banks of the Lancang were a hive of activity compared to the previous afternoon. Boats were already returning from the day’s fishing and the small crews worked together to weigh and sort their catch.

Fishermen weigh their morning's catch before delivering it to market on a Lancang (Mekong) tributary in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen weigh their morning’s catch before delivering it to market on a Lancang (Mekong) tributary in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen haul their catch ashore on a Lancang (Mekong) river tributary in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fishermen haul their catch ashore on a Lancang (Mekong) river tributary in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

“This has only been possible since the dam,” a husband-and-wife fishing team told us as they hefted baskets of tiny shrimp and whitefish onto a set of digital scales, confirming what Zhang had said the previous day. “Before [the dam] you couldn’t catch anything. We worked as sugar cane famers, but this is better money. We work for two or three hours and can get 30kg of shrimp a day and sell them for 24 Yuan per kilo.”

If what they said was accurate, a morning’s fishing could earn the couple more than $100 USD – vastly more than the small scale river fishermen we had encountered earlier in our journey who often survived on just a few dollars a day.

A fishermen checks his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen checks his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen pulls in his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen pulls in his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

When Su Youdong, the fisherman Zhang Yun had called for us the day before, arrived at the river’s edge, the sun had not yet risen high enough to lessen the bite of the morning chill. As we boarded his boat to set out on the Lancang, the cold metal benches stung our legs through the fabric of our pants. An ethereal mist blanketed the water, and the mountains rose on both sides of the river valley to create a sense of place that felt prehistoric. Only the sound of the boat engine and the presence of the concrete bridges far overhead reminded us of the modern world.

“I’ve been fishing since the dam was built,” Su said as he worked the outboard motor to manoeuvre around unseen nets submerged just under the river’s surface. “I’ve got ten nets in the river, and I still catch plenty of fish. But the rare and expensive species are gone – now I catch mainly common species, like tilapia and carp. There are more and more people fishing here, so we catch less.”

As Su’s boat navigated the Lancang, there seemed to be fishing vessels around every bend. But if there was any animosity between fishermen over the dwindling species diversity, they did not express it. Instead they called out to each other cheerfully and chatted in passing about the quality and quantity of their catches.

Fishermen take a break to smoke tobacco through a water pipe near Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen take a break to smoke tobacco through a water pipe near Jinglin, Yunan, China.

This was not a traditional source of livelihood, passed down through the generations as was the case for families on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake or near the Khone waterfalls and 4000 Islands of southern Laos. This was a recent and unnatural boom made possible by the taming of the river’s currents by hydroelectric dams, and local residents were taking advantage of the bonanza while it lasted. We knew from previous conversations with biologists that dams almost always disrupted the migration of river fish and that once depleted it was unlikely that stocks in the area would rebound. But for now, Su and his friends were enjoying the unexpected boon and not dwelling on thoughts of the future.

This would be the first and only time we encountered Lancang river fishing in China on any sort of scale, and we knew that if we returned in ten years it was unlikely that this pop-up industry would still be thriving. In China, we were continually learning, the Lancang was not a source of primary livelihood for individual families, but rather a force to be tamed for the development of the nation.

But from where we sat, watching the fishermen pull their nets from the piercing blue water, that knowledge didn’t make the landscape any less beautiful.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , |

Dredging the Lancang

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang.

In the golden light of dawn the rusted bolts and gears of the ship’s aging crane screamed in protest as load after load of wet Lancang sand was lifted into the hold of the dredging barges. All along the waterfront of the small town of Simaogang dredgers of differing sizes worked the river’s banks. From atop a concrete wall high above the thrum, the company’s owner, Mr. Shen, watched his fleet begin another day.

Sand dredgers line the shore of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Mr Shen (left) surveys his dredging fleet.

The decision to visit Simaogang, like so many we had made during the production of A River’s Tail, was made more or less at random. We had left the major city of Jinghong so we could follow the Lancang north towards the border of the Tibetan autonomous region, but among the many towns that lined the banks of the river in Yunnan province we had been at a loss for where to go. Online searches had given us little insight into which would be the most suitable places to learn about contemporary issues facing the river, and so we had settled on Simaogang simply because a decision had to be made.

After a day of travel on a series of local busses, we reached the small town and headed to the river to see if our decision had been a good one.

We’d already seen the potential effects that sand dredging could have on riparian communities when we’d visited a Cambodian village that was literally dropping into the Mekong one meter at a time, so when we saw the dredgers arrayed before us in Simaogang, we knew we had found a story.

Sunup to Sundown

As the sun rose at 8 a.m. (all of China operates under the same time zone as Beijing, resulting in especially late mornings in the country’s western provinces), workers gathered at the river’s edge to sip tea and chat before taking to their boats. Many had their hoods drawn tightly around their faces to ward off the morning chill, most chain smoking and not yet fully awake.

Sand dredgers try to keep warm before the day's work begins in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Sand dredgers try to keep warm before the day’s work begins in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

The captain of a sand dredging vessel mans the cockpit in the early morning in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.  The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

The captain of a sand dredging vessel mans the cockpit in the early morning.

The process of dredging the Lancang’s sand was a relatively simple one. Whether by sucking the sand from the river bottom through snaking lengths of piping or simply lifting it up between the teeth of metal buckets, the methods employed by the crew of Mr. Shen’s boats to get sand out of the water and onto land were little more than the industrial manifestation of a playing child’s imagination.

At a signal from Mr. Shen, the day’s work began. Those standing on the river banks climbed aboard their vessels and moved below decks to start diesel engines that rumbled to life, shattering the morning quiet. The largest of the dredgers slipped their mooring lines and reversed slowly into deeper water while smaller boats stayed close to land, their cranes swinging in and out of the water with practiced speed.

Sand dredgers line the shore of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A supervisor shouts instructions to boat crews from the shore.

Sand dredgers line the shore of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Workers move across their boats.

Huge conveyor belts mounted on steel dollies were shifted into position until they overlapped perfectly, creating a continuous moving pathway from ship to shore. Teams of two used long metal shovels to feed the sand accumulating in the open air holds onto the first belt in the chain. The belts were angled upwards at roughly 40 degrees, and along them the sand travelled into the air until reaching the terminus and falling 10 meters below to the next belt.

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying.

At the end of the chain the sand was piled in great mounds, cascading down the sides in a series of endless avalanches. A steady stream of motley vehicles – from full sized dump trucks to small tractors with homemade buckets welded to their chassis – queued along the wharf awaiting their turn to be filled with sand by the single ceaselessly working bulldozer.

Mr. Shen paced along the waterfront throughout the day, supervising the operation and ordering adjustments to the position of the conveyor belts when necessary. Apart from a short break for noodles and tea at midday, the work continued uninterrupted until the sun set at 7p.m.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying.

A man shovels spilled sand onto a conveyor belts which moves sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A man shovels spilled sand onto a conveyor belts which moves sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying.

Trucks are loaded with dredged sand in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Trucks are loaded with dredged sand.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand.

The workers were not locals. Most were, like Mr. Shen, from Kunming – 500km to the northeast – and so had no close friends or family in Simaogang apart from their fellow labourers. The small rooms they lived in, while fairly well built and tidy, were not exactly homely and so the men (the operation employed no women save a single cook) spent most of their free time in the communal dining area drinking tea or clustered around a shared mahjong table.

At night most ventured into the town to play pool or drink a few beers, but the tiny town did not offer much in the way of nightlife. When we asked the men how they felt about living and working away from their families, the company’s accountant spoke for the group: “It’s a good job and it is only 6 hours back to Kunming. I used to work in Laos, and that was much further.”

The crew of a sand dredging vessel relax by playing pool at the end of their workday in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.

The crew of a sand dredging vessel relax by playing pool at the end of their workday.

We left the men to their pool and smoking, knowing that we would see them all again the next morning when the dredging began anew.

Outpacing Demand

Sand, one of the planets most unglamorous resources, is something most people pay little attention to. It is unremarkable to look at and seemingly everywhere in great quantities and so its importance is often overlooked. But without sand, there can be no concrete, and without concrete, there are no new apartment buildings for the world’s increasingly urbanized population to live in. And contrary to to how it may seem while sitting on the a beach, it is not available in limitless supply. It is a finite resource like any other and it must be collected from somewhere before it reaches the world’s construction sites.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand on the banks of the Lancang.

“Sometimes the river moves very fast, and it is harder to collect the sand,” Mr. Shen said as he watched his ships perform the monotonous act of bringing the Lancang’s sand to the surface. The 53-year-old had worked in a wire factory in Kunming for most of his life before starting the dredging business several years earlier, seeing an opportunity to supply the building material so essential in a nation that has some of the highest rates of urban construction in the world.

With around a dozen vessels of varying sizes under his command, his company seemed to have grown incredibly quickly in its few years of existence. But Mr. Shen seemed reluctant to reveal how he had built such a substantial enterprise in such a short time on the savings of a factory worker, so we did not press him too heavily for this information. However he had done it, his ships were extracting more than 1500 tonnes of river sand each day, year round.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

While some of this sand was needed for local construction purposes, most of it was transported to the regional capital, Jinghong, to fuel China’s massive housing and infrastructure building industries. However, Mr. Shen said, these sectors were slowing, and bringing his profits down with them.

Construction workers use sand dredged from the Lancang (Mekong) river to make concrete, which will be used to build a new road near Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.

Construction workers use sand dredged from the Lancang (Mekong) river to make concrete, which will be used to build a new road.

“Two years ago a ton of sand used to sell for 40 Yuan (roughly $6 US), but now the price is just 24 Yuan. We used to ship it all by boat [along the Lancang] to Jinghong, but now there is no demand. I hope it will go back up after the new year.”

With ghost towns of hundreds of thousands of empty apartments sitting on the outskirts of many major cities, it was difficult to know when China’s construction market might rebound, but for the time being, Mr. Shen and his fleet would continue to bring the Lancang’s sand to market.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , |

Damming the Nam Khan

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

We had been driving for an hour on the dusty mountain road when we hit the military checkpoint. As the lone passengers in the back of the songthaew (a flatbed truck fitted with benches) we figured it would be impossible to avoid scrutiny and we certain that this would be turned back at any moment. With the media’s widespread – and overwhelmingly negative – coverage of Laos’ Thai-financed Xayaburi dam, we thought that we, as camera toting foreigners, would be less than welcome at the dam construction sites along the Nam Khan river.

To our surprise, however, the soldiers on duty barely gave us a second glance, and looked more bored than suspicious as they waved us through.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

We had come to the Nam Khan to further investigate the human impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams after visiting the nation’s first ever damming project on the Nam Ngum river. The people we’d spoken to there had mixed opinions about the dam’s enormous reservoir (known locally as the Laos Sea) that had flooded much of the area when it was finished in the 1980’s. But it had been more than 30 years since the project had been completed and people had had decades to adjust to the change. We wanted to speak to people who were on the front lines of the nation’s current damming rush.

Voices of the Displaced

A day before our drive into the mountainous valley surrounding the Nam Khan, we had visited one of the main relocation camps for those displaced by the series of dams on the river. Before we saw the dams themselves and spoke to those who were facing eviction from there homes because of them, we wanted to have a clear idea of where these people were being asked to go.

The Samaky Sai, or "United Village", relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

The Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams.

The Samaky Sai camp, located just outside the village of Pak Hanh, looked artificial in every way. The houses were carbon copies of each other, and clearly built as cheaply as possible; cracks sliced through many of the concrete walls and the roads were uneven and dusty.

“The old place was better,” a 28-year-old mother of 5 named Pich told us when we stopped to speak to her on the front steps of the cookie cutter home she had been issued by Sinohydro, the Chinese state-owned firm overseeing the dams construction.  “But we didn’t have a choice.”

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Pich, like many of the other occupants of Samaky Sai, had come from a small and remote mountain village further up the Nam Khan where her family had farmed rice. While life in the village was far from easy, Pich told us, and lacked access to modern amenities like electricity and plumbing, essential items such as food and firewood had been abundant and cheap. A barter economy allowed her to trade rice for whatever her family couldn’t grow on their own, and a walk into the jungle would usually provide fresh coconuts or bananas. Cash was used rarely, and typically only for speciality items that had to be brought in from the city.

That all changed when her family moved to Samaky Sai, Pich said: “Over there [in the village] we didn’t need money. But now we need it for everything.” When her family was compelled to leave the village it never occurred to them that they would need cash for nearly everything, and they had no way to earn it. Samaky Sai was too small to provide each family enough space to farm commercially, and virtually nothing would have grown in the hard shale anyways.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.  The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.

Each person we spoke to throughout the day shared similar stories. Their transition into a cash-based economy meant that their traditional communal farming practices were no longer able to meet their basic needs. They needed jobs. And around Samaky Sai, there was only one real employer.

“I work as a construction worker on the dam, earning 60 000 kip ($7.25 US) per day,” a young man named Muoi told us. Dressed in a set of blue coveralls and a hardhat, Muoi, like the majority of men in the camp, was preparing to head to work where he would help build the dam that would eventually destroy his childhood home.

As outsiders the idea seemed perverse, but Muoi was quick to point out that he actually preferred life in Samaky Sai in some ways. “It is more comfortable here because we have a big house and electricity,” he said, but then continued “but it is different. We have to work every day and food is very expensive. Either way I can’t go back because the authorities say that we have to stay here.”

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village - a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village – a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Chanh, a 35-year-old resident of Samaky Sai also employed as a labourer on the dam site, shared Muoi’s preference for the modern conveniences their new home provided, but lamented the loss of free time: “The Chinese never stop working, sometimes we start at 7 a.m. and don’t stop until 7 p.m.”

While working a 12 hour shift was by no means uncommon in the world, Chanh explained that the disappearance of their cultural traditions was more damaging than the loss of leisure time. “Every year in the village we used to have a feast to celebrate the new year,” Chanh remembered, “but we had to cancel it last year [after we moved to the camp] because no one could afford the cost of the food. That’s the first time we have ever done this since I was a boy.”

Residents of Samaky Sai, or "United Village", walk along on e of the camp's main roads. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, walk along on e of the camp’s main roads.

After walking through the camp and talking with Samaky Sai residents for several hours, the stories were essentially all the same. 62-year-old broom maker Chan Souk told us how her initial excitement at the prospect of living in a modern house quickly gave way to the realization that their life was forever altered. “When they first showed us the new houses, we all said ‘wow’, but after a few months we realized there was no food. Here we need money for everything, but in the village we could get whatever we needed from the jungle. It is easier here in some ways because of the electricity, but if we could get power in the village, I would go back.”

But with the Nam Khan dam nearly completed, Chan Souk knew she would never go back.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Just a few hundred metres behind Samaky Sai was the village of Don Mo, and before leaving the relocation site we wandered over to ask villagers how they felt about the camp. In contrast to Samaky Sai, Don Mo was not a planned camp but a village that had grown organically over generations. There we met 60-year-old pig farmer Phanh Boun Na Phon, and asked if he would be willing to leave his 50-odd piglets for one of the newer houses. He answered with a laugh, but also with decisiveness: “The space there is not enough. The houses are so close together I wouldn’t even have space to park my bike, never mind my pigs,” he said. “I don’t want to live like those people. I have everything I need here.”

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 50, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.  While just a few hundred metres away from the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp, Don Mo has abundant farmland and the quality of life is vastly superior to that in the camp. Samaky Sai is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 60, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.

 

Only the Goats Remain

Back in the mountains, our songthaew bounced along the mountain road as we passed the build sites for the Nam Kham 1 and 2 dams. The scale of the projects was immense, and it was hard not be impressed by the feat of engineering such massive structures in so remote a location despite knowing the human costs involved.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam.

 

 

 

Workers scurried along scaffolding, looking more like insects than people from so far away, and concussions thudded into our chests as pieces of the mountains were blown away with explosives. Trucks full of workers, presumably being shuttled between their base camp and the construction zones for a shift change, passed us periodically and waved enthusiastically as they called out in greeting. Visitors were not common, we supposed.

After nearly two hours, we arrived at the third and final dam on the Nam Khan river. Still unsure of whether or not we were allowed to be in the area, we jumped out of the truck and made our way towards the top of the structure. A lone security post overlooked the area, and the guard watched us carefully as we approached. With each step closer to the top, we were sure he would start shouting for us to leave, but as soon as we set foot on the expanse of concrete stretching across the valley he stepped out of his hut and yelled “Hello!” in cheerful if heavily accented English.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we only loitered for a few minutes to take in the sheer scope of the project before heading back towards Pak Hanh. On the way we stopped at the tiny village of Khone Wai after catching a glimpse of movement in what looked to be an otherwise abandoned community.

Perched on a small mountain side shelf, Khone Wai was situated between dams 2 and 3 on the Nam Khan – placing it squarely in the path of the future reservoir. The majority of houses were empty and looked long-since abandoned, apart from a few that still had laundry hanging from the front porches. At first we seemed alone apart from a few small herds of goats, but eventually a middle-aged man appeared to greet us.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam's resevoir. Once completed, the area will be submerged in water. Most of the villagers have already abandoned their homes, with a few returning each day to tend to the livestock left behind.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam’s resevoir.

“Everyone is gone,” he told us, “they have all been moved for when the dam is finished [in a few months]. Only the animals are left, and we come to look after them.” 50-years-old and weathered from decades of farming, he politely declined to tell us his name but explained that he would soon be selling the goats and moving permanently to Samaky Sai.

“Yes we are sad to leave, but we have no choice,” he said. “But I am excited to have a new house.”

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam's resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam’s resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Coffee, Kingdoms, and the Peace of Southern Laos

A statue of Buddha sits overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

A statue of Buddha sits overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

As soon as the heavy cargo truck pulled onto the shoulder of the highway we were immediately swarmed by vendors. They shoved bananas, plastic bags of sticky rice, and barbecued skewers of chicken gizzard through the wooden slats of the truck walls, sometimes receiving a few thousand kip (the name of the Laos currency) in exchange from the hungry commuters.  5 minutes later the truck’s aging ancient engine roared back to life and we were off again, blasting the vendors with exhaust fumes and gravel dust as they turned to meet the next arriving vehicle.

We were on our way to the riverside city of Pakse, the third largest in the country and the capital of the former Kingdom of Champasak. Straddling the confluence of the Mekong and Xe Don rivers, it seemed like a logical destination after leaving the un-tameable rapids of the Khone waterfalls, but as had so often been the case during the making of this journey, we had no real idea of what we would find when we got there.

With a population nearly 100 000, it was a big city by Laos standards and it drew nearly half a million tourists per year; we figured there had to be something there. Yet every time we’d asked a local what we should see or do in Pakse they would think for a moment and then shrug: “It’s pretty, but a little bit boring.”

People pray to a large statue of Buddha overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

People pray to a large statue of Buddha overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

Boring, we figured, was an opinion based on circumstance; what might be boring for a local could be fascinating for us.

Caffeine Plateau

Eager to see what Pakse had to offer we arranged for a small truck to meet us at the unfortunate time of 4:30 a.m. to drive us the 100 kms from the city to the Bolaven plateau. A 1300 metre tall edifice of rock that dominated the surrounding landscape, the plateau was once a place of immense suffering as one of the most heavily bombed theatres of the Vietnam War, but now was better known for coffee than explosives. Being seriously dedicated coffee drinkers, both Gareth and I were looking forward to pursuing anything that gave us an excuse to drink more of it.

As our vehicle ascended the long, gently graded road that lead to the plateau, our ears popped periodically and we rose further and further into the misty cloud layer that hung over the summit. For the first time that either of us could remember since starting this journey we were not within walking distance of the Mekong or one of its tributaries, and the distance felt strangely unsettling after so many days by the water.

A worker removes weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

A worker removes weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

Originally cultivated by French farmers during the colonial period from late in the 19th century and running into the middle of the 20th, coffee plantations began to appear on both sides of the road once we reached the plateau’s flat top. More or less at random we stopped at one, passing under tall gates made of an expensive looking hardwood before parking in the visitors area. Polished wood surfaces and metal appliances gleamed in the various reception facilities and it was clear that these plantations were not casual subsistence operations.

Workers remove weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

Workers remove weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau.

A young girl sits in a coffee tree on the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing coffee, and it has become the biggest industry in the area.

A young girl sits in a coffee tree on the Bolaven plateau.

As we walked slowly through the plantation grounds, surrounded by coffee trees and squat tea bushes, it seemed odd to find very few people physically working save for a scattering of labourers cleaning debris from between the crop rows. A little confused by the lack of activity, we continued further into the compound until we eventually arrived at a rest area, much smaller and more rustic looking than the modern structures we had seen earlier. A distinguished looking man was the sole patron, sitting alone at a wooden table sipping green tea and smoking a long black cigarette.

Bonjour,” he said in way of greeting as we approached and I scrambled to switch into French, which I hadn’t meaningfully used since leaving university. Pablo, a native French speaker, had returned to Phnom Penh before reaching the Cambodia-Laos border to sort through dozens of hours of video he’d recorded and Gareth, though fluent in multiple languages, spoke barely a word. My rusty language skills would have to suffice.

Inpong Sananikone stands in front of a one hundred year old coffee tree on his organic plantation on the Bolaven plateau. A Laos-born French citizen, his plantation produces high quality tea and coffee for export around the world.

Inpong Sananikone stands in front of a one hundred year old coffee tree on his organic plantation on the Bolaven plateau. A Laos-born French citizen, his plantation produces high quality tea and coffee for export around the world.

“Welcome to my plantation, please join me.” His French was smooth and his accent non-existent. “Would you like a coffee?” He waived to a waiter when we accepted, and he gestured for us to sit down.

His name was Inpong Sananikone, a Laos native who had emigrated to France as a young man before returning to Laos in retirement to buy an existing plantation and reform it according to his own principles. “When I started this business I decided on three rules: It has to be welcoming, clean, and organic,” he said, using simple French vocabulary thankfully within my ability to understand.

As the drinks arrived, we asked about the absence of workers in the fields. “It’s not the season,” he said, “Come back in a few months and you can see the work.” Sliding the small cups of steaming coffee towards and after taking an appreciative sip of his own, he stared thoughtfully at his glass before musing “I had coffee with the French Prime Minister last year. It cost 15 euros and it was not as good as this.”

Coffee beans on a tree on the Bolaven plateau outside Pakse.

Coffee beans on a tree on the Bolaven plateau outside Pakse.

Uncertain of how to respond to such an unusual statement, we said nothing and instead sat quietly sipping our drinks. Obviously he had accomplished a great deal during his decades in France if he was meeting with the Prime Minster, but my language skills had already been stretched to the breaking point and I didn’t have the words to question him much further.

It wasn’t until the glasses were nearly empty that we noticed something was off. First my hands began to shake, first only a little, but shortly afterwards degenerating into an uncontrollable vibration. Sweat formed on my forehead and I could feel my heart pumping at close to twice its normal speed. Fearing that I could be on the verge of a heart attack, I looked over at Gareth for reassurance. His face was drained of colour.

“Strong coffee is the secret to staying young,” Inpong said, possibly noticing our jitters. “I put 7 grams of coffee into every cup of water.” Even as habitually heavy coffee drinkers, we were both shocked by the power of the drink. As we stared at him in disbelief, he asked rhetorically “Well, did you want to drink water, or did you want to drink coffee?”

A waterfall on the Bolaven plateau.

A waterfall on the Bolaven plateau.

The Ghosts of Empire

After the extremely unpleasant caffeine high of the Bolaven plateau, we resolved to stay closer to the water for our remaining time in Pakse. After several days we saw what the locals had been talking about when they said that the city was “pretty, but a little bit boring,” – though for us boring was the wrong choice of word. There was nothing boring about the area; it was both beautiful and welcoming, but things around Pakse just moved at a slower pace.

Rather than fight against the area’s nature, trying to force interesting river-related stories to present themselves to us, we surrendered to the casual rhythm of life in southern Laos and spent several days taking in the area.

We visited the ancient temples of Wat Phu, constructed by the same Khmer Empire that  built the world-famous Angkor Wat complex in the jungles outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. The aesthetic similarities were striking, and compared to the constant crowds and inflated prices of the far more heavily touristed temples in Cambodia, we had Wat Phu entirely to ourselves for several hours.

The entrance pathway to Wat Phu, an abandoned Angkorian temple that predates Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

The entrance pathway to Wat Phu, an abandoned Angkorian temple that predates Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Later we chartered a boat to the silk producing island of Don Kho, getting back on the the Mekong for the first time in several days. Again, rather than aggressively hunt for river-related social stories to tell we simply walked across the island, talking to people we met from small families digging for edible grubs to young men and women working silk looms under the shade of stilted houses.

Villagers dig under piles of buffalo feces for small edible insects on the island of Don Kho.

Villagers dig under piles of buffalo feces for small edible insects on the island of Don Kho.

Peah, 25, is a silk weaver on the island of Don Kho. The island, near the city of Pakse, is home to a cottage silk weaving industry that supplements the income of residents. Peah has been weaving silk for 10 years.

Peah, 25, is a silk weaver on the island of Don Kho. The island, near the city of Pakse, is home to a cottage silk weaving industry that supplements the income of residents. Peah has been weaving silk for 10 years.

Silk weavers on the island of Don Kho, near Pakse.

Silk weavers on the island of Don Kho, near Pakse.

In many ways our time in Pakse was like a holiday within the larger journey. Initially we felt frustrated by the lack of activity, having placed a huge amount of pressure on ourselves thought the trip to find and visually document the Mekong’s stories. Yet once we accepted Pakse for what it was, we were able to step back and enjoy the beauty and history of Laos’ sparsely populated south.

Monks make their morning round to collect alms from the villagers on the island of Don Kho.

Monks make their morning round to collect alms from the villagers on the island of Don Kho.

But all vacations must come to an end, and both Gareth and I were eager to get back to work. Most people we’d talked to in Pakse said that the rest of southern Laos would be much the same as what we’d seen in the last days, so we boarded a torturous 18 hour overnight bus and headed north to start investigating what is arguably the most controversial form development on the Mekong – Laos’ hydropower dams.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Culture, Infighting, and an Uncertain Future

Bunong farmers drive their tractor through a herd of cows in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

Bunong farmers drive their tractor through a herd of cows in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community.

Since visiting Koh Sralay, a community located downstream of the dam that faced reduced fishing prospects which would quite possibly derail their family livelihoods, we wanted to learn about the challenges ahead for people living upstream, on the site of the dam’s future reservoir. With the addition of Meach Mean, our crew size had grown to six (including a driver and translator), and we packed ourselves into the back seat of an aging Toyota Camry for a two hour drive to the remote village of Kbal Romeas.

As we neared the village, the roads became increasingly treacherous and were dotted with deep mud holes from recent rains. Eventually the two-wheel drive car could go no further with such a heavy load of passengers and the driver ordered us out. Meach called ahead to the village and arranged for a small fleet of motorcycles to drive out and shuttle us the last few kilometres.

Kbal Romeas was home to 136 families of Bunong, an ethnic minority tribe who have inhabited the area northeast of Steung Treng for around 2000 years. Though Buddhism was making inroads in Bunong communities, they were predominately animists who believed in living in harmony with nature, and who fed themselves almost entirely from natural resources. The only road leading to the village was unpaved, and the locals owned no cars. Bunong do not believe in fencing in their domesticated animals, instead trusting that their herds will make their way home each night. Piglets ran openly through the community, competing with chickens for mangos that fall from the trees above. Some Bunong do not speak fluent Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. These were the people who had the most to lose if Sesan II was built.

A Bunong woman harvests vegetables from her garden. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong woman harvests vegetables from her garden.

“This whole area will be 10 metres underwater,” Meach told us upon entering the village. “36 000 hectares will disappear during the first rainy season after the dam is finished.” As the proposed date of completion for Sesan II is 2017, there was not much time left.

The Red-Blue Divide

“There are three reasons I am against the dam,” 29-year-old Dam Samnang told us (he spoke no English and so was thankfully spared from the unfortunate irony presented by his name). “It provides no direct benefits to people in this community, it will destroy all our houses, and it will ruin the river system so that we can never come back.” Though he spoke simply, his words were loaded with emotion.

Samnang went on to describe his feelings of frustration over the community’s lack of power to protect their own lands, something he attributed partially to a national ambivalence towards minority tribes like the Bunong. “Some Cambodians don’t understand our beliefs,” he explained. “Our ancestors are buried here and if they flood the area we will not be able to come back and visit them. I can’t put a [monetary] value on graves, but if the Prime Minister’s family graves have value, then why don’t ours?”

A Bunong family sits in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family sits in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas.

A Bunong family in Kbla Romeas village, northeastern Cambodia. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family in Kbal Romeas village, northeastern Cambodia.

With so much history and culture at stake, it seemed to be a forgone conclusion that the Bunong  would unanimously oppose the dam. But as we learned over the course of our visit, the community had been the target of a systematic divide-and-conquer campaign. Samnang told us how even his most basic attempts at mobilizing his community had been met with fierce opposition, culminating with a visit from the local authorities who formally banned them from signing petitions or hosting environmentally related gatherings. What legal basis they had for doing so were unclear to Samnang, and he suspected that they had no way of enforcing what they said. More likely, he thought, it was a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate the villagers and sew divisions within the community.

Perhaps the most important factor in splitting the community was the resettlement package on offer from the company that owned Sesan II – Sinohydro Resources. A wide variety of factors decided the amount on offer for those willing to relocate, but the basic premise was simple: go away and receive money, land, or a new house – in some cases all three.

A Bunong family stands in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The blue paint indicates that the family has rejected the resettlement package offered by the Chinese dam builders. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family stands in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas.

For many, including Samnang and his family, no amount of money would cause them to peaceably abandon their home, but for those in the village whose economic situation was desperate, the package was harder to turn down.

Widows and the extremely impoverished were some the most susceptible to Sinohydro’s offers, Meach Mean told us, and more than a third of the community had already agreed to be relocated. “A few years ago everyone rejected the deal,” Meach explained, “but when [the authorities and company representatives] kept coming back, more and more accepted. Poverty forces them to accept.”

Once a family had accepted, a sign was spray painted in red on the front of their house, proclaiming their decision publicly. In response, those who remained adamantly opposed painted “NOLS2DAM” (No Lower Sesan II Dam) on their own homes, making it possible to walk along the village’s central road and know at a glance who was staying and who was going. A handful of families, including Samnang’s, had gone one step further, using green paint to write “we will fight until we die, we will not leave” in Khmer script.

A Bunong family in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The red markings on their house indicate the family has agreed to the compensation package offered by Sino Hydro - the Chinese firm building the Sesan II dam - and will vacate their property. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The red markings on their house indicate the family has agreed to the compensation package offered by Sino Hydro – the Chinese firm building the Sesan II dam – and will vacate their property.

Progress at What Cost?

As we prepared to leave Kbal Romeas, our last destination on the Cambodian leg of A River’s Tail, we couldn’t help but fear the worst. Despite strong voices of opposition from people like Samnang and Meach Mean, the wheels of development seemed to be inexorably turning in Cambodia, regardless of the impacts on those living from nature in traditional ways.

Being outsiders, it was not our place to decide what developmental policies are best suited to improving the quality of life for Cambodians, but it was difficult to stomach the thought that a cheaper electricity bill was worth destroying a two thousand-year-old culture.

A Bunong man checks his fishing nets for holes before fishing on the Sesan river. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community.

A Bunong man checks his fishing nets for holes before fishing on the Sesan river.

“I’m worried for my parents and I’m worried for my kids,” Samnang had said in one of our last conversations. “This dam will be a disaster for us; our destiny is in trouble. They say they want to develop Cambodia, so why do they destroy our homes?”

Our time with the Bunong brought the realities of modern progress to the forefront of our consciousness. Most people living in modern urban environments have come to expect a certain level of comfort, and life in major cities would indeed be difficult without the conveniences electricity brings – air conditioning, refrigeration, and cell phones, for example. In all but the most extreme cases, even those living below the poverty line make use of power in one way or the other, and you would be hard pressed to find a city-dweller anywhere on earth who would not gladly welcome a cheaper electricity bill. But the sources of those luxuries often remain out of sight, far away from the bright lights of the cities in places like the one we had just come from; someone or something, whether an entire Bunong village or an uncommon species of fish, would usually suffer to keep those lights running affordably.

A Bunong fisherman prepares to fish on the Sesan river near the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong fisherman prepares to fish on the Sesan river near the village of Kbal Romeas.

When would the cost become too high, we wondered? At what point would the social or environmental costs become too great to justify the benefits? And who would be responsible for making those decisions?

These were the questions in our minds as we prepared to say goodby to Cambodia for the time being and head towards the border of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to begin the third leg of A River’s Tail.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , |