Course:FRST370/Projects/The participation of the Khong Indigenous People in the management of the Mekong River, Laos and suggestions for meaningful improvement
The Khong district in southern Laos has been an area of prospering aquatic resources from the beginning. However, with the increase in population, followed by the evident decline in fish stocks over the years, villages in the Khong district in southern Laos began to worry. As a result, in hopes to help villages in the co-management of declining aquatic resources, the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) government created “The Lao Community Fisheries and Dolphin Protection Project" (LCFDPP).  Soon, the program became a valuable model for other co-management practices due to its encouragement for independent management from the communities that use the water source. This case study will deliver an in-depth analysis of the management of the Mekong River provide by the residents of the Khong Villages. Firstly, the case study will begin with an introduction of characteristics of the geographical area of interest, followed by the historical progression of co-management regulations in the Khong district. As the case study progresses, the research will explain tenure and administrative arrangements while providing insight on what parties are affected or are interested. Furthermore, the findings from the case study will be assessed and be used to suggest recommendations that could improve the Khong communities’ practice of management, as well as key, successful points from this case study that future co-management regimes could consider.
- 1 Description
- 2 Examples of Regulations Determined by Khong Villagers
- 3 Tenure Arrangements
- 4 Administrative arrangements
- 5 Affected Stakeholders
- 6 Interested Stakeholders
- 7 Recommendations Taken From the Khong District
- 8 Recommendations for the Khong District
- 9 Discussion
- 10 References
Located in Champasak Province, southern Lao PDR, Khong is a well-known rural district in Laos that covers most of the Siphandone, also known as the “four thousand islands”.  This area is nestled in the Mekong River whose split into a series of perennial and seasonal islands and forested wetlands.  Similarly, the area is also a hub of high biodiversity and productivity.  Within the district are 136 villages, 84 of which are positioned in the middle of the mainstream of the Mekong River, while the other 52 are situated on the banks. In 1995, the total population equated to 65 212 people. 
Generally, fishing practices in the Khong district were traditional up until the 1950's and 1960's.  This meant that fishing was practiced solely for food and a lot of the tools that were used in the process were locally crafted and small scale.  Thus, there was no unsustainable practice as the villagers only harvested what they needed and so numbers in aquatic resource populations were relatively stable. However, this lasted until the influx of unsustainable harvest practices due to an increase in the population in the Khong district.  Likewise, fish prices began to increase, so the villagers used this opportunity to sell more fish to gain income to satisfy their desire to buy consumer goods from markets that were evidently expanding.  As a result, the demand for fish increased for both sustenance and economic purposes, pressuring villagers to use methods to mass-harvest fish stocks. This brought upon the increased use nylon nets instead of natural fibers to catch fish.  Not only did the fishing equipment change, there was also an increased use of motorized boats that allowed for convenient travel on the water, and as a result, the fishermen required more fish stocks in order to cover the costs of operating the boat.  Thus, the combination of motorized and unsustainable methods caused a sharp decline in fish stocks, to the extent where some species were on the brink of extinction in the Mekong River. 
Understandably, something had to be done to prevent continued degradation. Thus, the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) government established an non-governmental (NGO) and government-supported program, “The Lao Community Fisheries and Dolphin Protection Project” or LCFDPP for short, to “manage and conserve inland aquatic resources” within streams, wetlands, and rice paddy fields that are mostly sourced from the Mekong River.  The task was overtaken by the Environmental Protection and Community Development in Siphandone Wetland Project (EPCDSWP) for two years between 1997 and 1999.  The program generally focused on a co-management regime to combine state and local efforts to manage a resource. However, in this case study, the government agreed on taking a more passive stance on the issue, merely to enforce the regulations, while management decisions and strategies are ultimately up to the Khong villagers to use their ecological knowledge and community agreement.  From 1993 to 1998, 63 villages in the Khong District participated in this program. 
Culture and Lifestyle
A large portion of the population is of the lowland Lao ethnic group and many of them have lived in the area for hundreds of years. A majority of the population are Buddhists, though much of the lifestyle in the Khong district is also attributed to animism. Thus, much of the population practice rituals to please spirits that are also known as "phi".  Overall, The lifestyle of the Khong people is very simple. Without electricity or mechanized water systems, many use the water from the Mekong River for cooking and drinking purposes. Similarly, there is no plumbing system so very few villagers have toilets. In the agricultural aspect, a lot of the work involves only manual hand labour. 
As fish has always been an important source of protein for the Mekong people, the livelihoods of people from the Khong district depend heavily on aquatic resources which came mainly from the Mekong River. For instance, in addition to food, fishing also provided a source of income, as many up to 56% of villagers sold wild-caught fish.  Thus in the recent years, each family caught approximately 355 kg of fish annually on average and consumed 249 kg of that amount. While men are the main fishers in the villages, children often start fishing from an early age to gain experience in the market. Additionally, though some women participate in the fish harvesting, a more common role among them would be fish processing.  Despite the popular fishing practices, Khong peoples consider rice paddy farming as the main occupation and a main form of sustenance. 
Examples of Regulations Determined by Khong Villagers
In this case study, regulations set in place are all suggested and derived from the knowledge of the local villagers. Villagers recognize the life cycles of fish and the conditions that promote optimal harvest while ensuring that they are also sustainable practices. As such, the following regulations are some examples that are based on TEK that demonstrate the importance of involvement of Indigenous peoples and how heavily regulations in this case study depend on it.
Fish Conservation Zones (FCZ)
Fish conservation zones are areas that do not permit any form of fishing all-year-round.  In the Khong villages, fishers have the knowledge that many fish species reside in the deeper waters of the Mekong River during the dry season.  During this time, the stress on fish populations are the highest, and by protecting such areas as FCZ’s, the fishers believe that these areas can act as refuge for some fish species and can also serve as a place for them to spawn.  Similarly, by reserving these spaces, over-harvesting of fish can be prevented because a number of the fish can be protected from being harvested. A report had shown that up to 51 species were reported to have benefited from this protection. 
Bans on Stream Blocking
This regulation inhibits the use of basket traps to block stream heads in order to allow the aquatic species to migrate upstream during the wet season.  Traditionally, using basket traps were not necessary as villagers caught fish for sustenance purposes.  However, with the increasing demand for fish, many fishermen have begun to use basket traps to harvest fish in large numbers. This prevents the fish to migrate and spawn that leads to a sharp decrease in fish numbers.  With this regulation set in place, villagers believe that fish stocks will increase and villages will have more fish to harvest during the dry season when fish migrate back into the Mekong River.  The ecological knowledge tied to this involves the fact that many villagers recognize the optimal time when fish are ready to spawn and when they are ready to be harvested. 
Bans on Using Lights for Nighttime Spearfishing
Spearfishing during the dry season is a condemned way of fish harvest due to it being a modern invention and those who use this method often get a high yield.  However, another reason why many villagers do not like this method because it is an overly effective way to harvest fish and this can be detrimental to the large fish species that are ready to spawn.  This would mean that without the regulation, local villagers and outsiders could easily abuse the opportunity and cause an unnecessary decline of important fish stocks. Moreover, villagers agree that those who participate in spearfishing are often outsiders who engage in stealing livestock and fishing equipment and banning this practice may discourage any outsiders from entering villages to steal in the first place. 
Sustainable Management and Conservation of Frog Populations
Frogs have become an important part of many villagers diets due to the increase in human population in the district and decrease in fish stocks.  The amphibians have become high demand as many markets are buying the frogs by the kilogram, regardless of size in which encourages the harvest of younger frogs.  The disregard for size could bring detrimental effects to frog stocks because harvesting the amphibian at a young age would prevent the possibility of spawning offspring to balance the population.
Generally, harvesting is banned during the frog spawning season at the beginning of the rainy period.  However, harvest is allowed during the middle to end of the rainy period when frogs have finished spawning and their offspring have had time to grow.  This regulation would guarantee that the offspring have a solid chance at spawning in the next season. Though, in a more specific scope, regulations can vary depending on the village. For instance, some villages have banned harvesting frogs at night with a light during the dry season because of how easy it is to catch the frogs when they have retreated onto the banks of the river at that time.  Other villages ban specific frog catching gear such as basket traps or frog hooks, as they are often used to catch large amounts and can easily deplete frog populations.  These regulations are set into place by village consensus to encourage sustainable harvest of frogs and to prevent the extinction of these amphibians due to the recent high demands.
Pond Management Regulations
As a longstanding practice, the villagers of Khong have always managed the aquatic species in ponds.  The most common practice of pond management is the restriction of harvest at the start and middle of the rainy season.  Generally, the village chief, elder, or guardian of the pond declares the day that harvest is allowed based on animist traditions and the lunar calendar.  However, the pond management is again a case-by-case regulation as different villages have set different rules. For instance, there is a prevalence of privately owned ponds, whereby some villagers fence off their ponds to inhibit anyone else from harvesting. 
The main tenure arrangement in the case study is communal tenure and customary tenure. Though the program is run as a government monitored project, the responsibilities and the decisions lie within the jurisdiction of the villages.  In this case study, the duration of tenure is not specified, which may be attributed to the fact that the government does not strictly enforce a legal tenure on the district. Additionally, co-management regimes are only viable only upon request of the villages who believe they need intervention in management.  Thus, the co-management case of Khong district revolves under a regime that focuses on the benefits of the local villagers.
Communal tenure describes the rights of which each member of the community can use a resource on the common land.  In the case of Khong district, the village chiefs get to make the decision on land management and use on behalf of his villagers.  However, this is often after he has gained community consensus on the matter. The village chief would first draft a request to participate in a co-management regime after the community has come to a realization that they need assistance in resource management. Then, a meeting with LCFDPP is set with the village chief, whereby they discuss the expectations and requirements of the village. As results are drafted from the LCFDPP, village chief would then discuss with his villagers and draft their own regulations.  As use rights to the resources would only be for the villagers, the community consensus on restrictions of use is an important factor in defining the tenure system and how the community resource management would function. The importance of this process is that local peoples rights and needs are respected and listened to. In the Khong district, governmental intervention is limited and only happens upon request, thereby respecting the practices of local peoples as well as making sure that there is no forceful implementation of what the state believes is the best for the village.
Customary land tenure states that the community users have the right to “operate to express and order ownership, possession, and access, and to regulate use and transfer.”  The local peoples can use their resources as they deem fit, without the need to consult or ask permission from the state. This case study demonstrates this land tenure due to its heavy reliance on involving ecological knowledge in the co-management regime. Much of the practices involve ecological knowledge with help from scientific research and data collection, and thus, the regulations demonstrate this relationship. Similarly, consultation with the government is only to enforce legal regulations to make sure that fishermen and farmers do not abuse the rights to harvest what they need. Overall, the villages ultimately have the jurisdiction to harvest however they would like as long as they are under the regulations that they have set for themselves
Lao PDR Government and LCFDPP
This group are the higher point of contact. Respectively, they have the authority to legally enforce regulations as written on paper. Additionally, they provide passive assistance to villagers only upon request,  as they have more resources to implement and possibly fund the regime if necessary. However, funding often not necessary as the villages only request help to enforce regulations that are based most off of TEK. Another responsibility of this group is monitoring of the the practices and the progress of the programs within the respective villages.
The role of the village chief is to collect concerns and input from his village and present it to the Lao PDR Government and LCFDPP. Many discussions about regulations are set between the two groups. However, the village chief would also cooperate with the LCFDPP to arrange discussion groups occasionally to allow open discussion with the villagers to ensure that their voices are heard and accounted for.
The villagers generally have limited contact to the government and other social groups.  Thus, much of their concerns are directed to the village chief. This group consists of all fishers, sellers, and farmers, and are the ones who have the TEK that the regulations are built upon. Without direct contact to the government, the villagers often form a strong sense of equality and social cohesion because there is no economic or social disparity in the community. 
The affected stakeholders in this case study all have an intrinsic and cultural connection to the Mekong River, as the condition of the water body greatly affects their livelihoods. It is important to consider affected stakeholders in co-management because it allows the traditional and local knowledge of the villagers to be implemented with the power and resources of the state. Research from the state can bring upon new solutions to local peoples’ knowledge, but some viable management practices for the Mekong River can only be derived from the local, ecological knowledge passed down for many centuries. For those affected stakeholders, it is important to acknowledge their responsibilities and roles in this co-management regime. In this case study, the affected stakeholders have a high power to make decisions because regulations heavily rely on the input of the villagers.
Fishermen are affected stakeholders because their livelihoods depend on the aquatic resources in the Mekong River as one of their main sources of protein come from eating fish. Additionally, the fishermen have an intrinsic and cultural attachment to the land after being there for hundreds of years.  Depletion of fish stocks could heavily affect livelihoods because their families would have no food to consume. As all fishers in the villages have a deep, traditional understanding of fish biology and behavior,  they have a high influence on management decisions because the regulations are based on their knowledge as well as scientific research.
Aquatic Resource Sellers
As a subgroup of fishers, the aquatic resource sellers are considered affected because their livelihoods also depend on the fish stocks and the health of the Mekong River. Though selling fish may seem like an extrinsic action as they are treating fish as a commodity to be sold for their economic gain, the sellers still have a great understanding of how the water systems work and contribute to the setting the local regulations. Many of these sellers live in the villages and originally harvested fish solely for sustenance but have begun to sell them for extra income to provide for their families.  Thus, the sellers still have a deep connection and understanding about the aquatic resources and are not only part of the program for economic gain. This stakeholder group, like the fishers, have high influence on management decisions due to their TEK.
Rice Paddy Farmers
As rice paddy fields are the main occupation of many villagers in the Khong district, the quality of water from the Mekong River would greatly affect the health of the rice harvests. As such, there would be a direct effect on the livelihoods of the farmers. For instance, if there was an abundance of parasites in the water due to unregulated technological harvest practices that pollute the water in the Mekong River, this would greatly affect the quality of water that is washed inland into the rice paddy fields. Parasites, such as liver fluke, that specifically live in the rice paddy fields may latch onto fish that swim inland into the fields, and farmers who harvest the fish from the fields may fall ill from consuming contaminated fish.  Likewise to the other two stakeholders, this group also has a high influence on management decisions.
Unlike the affected stakeholders, the parties in the interested stakeholders most often do not have an intrinsic connection to the Mekong River and are not affected by what happens. Their interest in helping improve the management practices in the villages may be of deep concern and passion, but their livelihoods do not depend on the condition of the Mekong River like the villagers in the Khong district. The income of interested stakeholders in this case study are not generated from the fish stocks in the river, nor do they solely depend on rice paddies for sustenance. However, though interested, these stakeholders play an important part in helping improve the lives of affected stakeholders and are essential to the management process.
LCFDPP & EPCDSWP Staff
The employees of the LCFDPP and EPCDSWP are considered interested stakeholders due to their external involvement in the program. Some of these workers work on a salary, meaning that no matter what events occur on the Mekong River, they would still be getting income from the government. This makes them interested stakeholders because they do not have an intrinsic connection to the land, even if the employees were to care deeply for helping the villagers in the Khong district to improve management solutions. The employees would likely have had an ample amount of education and have traveled from the main cities to participate in the project. Thus, many of these workers may have a passionate approach to caring for the land, but, much of their work and understandings may be based on scientific research. For instance, a first step in the co-management program is to collect data using scientific methods, such as seasonal abundance, fish species, and behavioral patterns if the section of the river that the villages depend on.  Then, they may use the information to report back to the government and the villagers to summarize the key points to acknowledge in the river, such as sensitive ecosystems in the river that may require extra management. As a result, the staff do not demonstrate TEK to the extent that villagers do, and thus do not have the same level of connection as them.
Lao PDR Government
Government officials are also interested stakeholders like the LCFDPP and EPCDSWP employees. This is because, like the latter, their involvement in the program is external if not even more than the LCFDPP and EPCDSWP employees. Likewise, government officials can be deeply concerned with the management practices in the villages, but in the end, they will continue to receive a salary no matter what happens to the resources. “Government and project guests are required to act mainly as observers and facilitators and not as active participants” because they do not want villagers to become too reliant on government intervention, but they want them to own and exercise their rights and decisions on the land.  It is important to note, however, the government plays an important role as a central authority to provide assistance to villages, allowing the success of co-management regimes.  Though interested, the government prioritizes the economic and traditional livelihoods of the people in the Khong district. 
Recommendations Taken From the Khong District
100% Communication Along the Way
Rather than focusing on solidifying regulations, the co-management system is more reliant on the idea of communication and collaboration that the rules are agreed upon.  It is key to create communicative relationships between all parties and the amount of compliance and happiness is often dependent on how the village chief communicates the information to his villagers.  This point suggests that it is a good idea to have a representative of a village such as a village chief, as often times government officials or members of NGO’s may not have the same level of understanding a member of the village would. By having someone to communicate the needs of the villagers, decision-making processes will be much more efficient and fair to the local peoples. Consequently, the communicative process would allow for a smoother co-management program as all parties involved could fairly communicate their needs, thereby reducing the chance of conflicts.
In the Khong district, the government gives villages the freedom to suggest what can be done to fine or punish those who do not follow the regulations.  This ensures that regulations do not conflict with the state rules. Though this method may not give the Mekong peoples complete power, it gives the villagers a sense of solidarity and responsibility in the planning process. For instance, in cases of violation of regulations by outsiders from another village, the village chief may send word of the incident to the village in order to maintain good relationships between the villages.  Upholding the regulation gives the village chief a way to solidify relations with a clear boundary that helps organize his village with others. Not only can fines be used to ensure that regulations are upheld, it can also be used to fund the enforcement of regulations or management resources.  Similarly, villagers will more likely follow and enforce their rules if it were initially planned or suggested through community consensus. By enforcing regulations, villagers can abide by these rules to avoid conflict and ensure sustainability among their resources.
Help Upon Request
In this case study, governmental organizations agreed to take a step back and deal with proceedings in the Khong district passively.  They did not want to intervene too much in order to ensure that villagers do not become too dependent with their help.  Another reason may be attributed to the fact that they want the villagers to exercise their own rights on the land and have control of what they want to do. Thus, the recommendation from this point would be to ensure that there is minimal government intervention and to ensure that communities are dependent on their own.
Recommendations for the Khong District
Understanding of Dam construction
Dams are an important aspect of controlling floods along the Mekong River.  However, it is a destructive implementation when ecological aspects are not considered. For instance, many of those involved in the construction of a dam are engineers or developers who make decisions based on their views of benefits. A result of this could involve destruction of aquatic resource habitats that affect fish stocks within the Khong district villages. Thus, without the TEK of local peoples and intervention of government authority, the livelihoods of all villagers in the Khong district could be at stake. As such, a suggestion for this would be to remind the LCFDPP and the Lao PDR government to consider the case of Khong district on a larger scale in addition to looking at management practices in the villages. For instance, if dam construction is inevitable, then consultations between the developers after extensive research, data collection and monitoring of villages can help both parties reach a consensus. The government should be diligent in recognizing the ecological effects on local villages and not only how they can improve their local livelihoods.
Enhanced Participation of Government Monitoring
As little evidence is published on government monitoring, it is safe to assume that government monitoring of regulations is not strict in the Khong district.  This is not to say that government monitoring is incompetent, but that there should be a stronger emphasis on how the government ensures that regulations are being followed. With passive intervention, it is understandable that government officials are not entirely involved. However, to ensure the long-term success of a co-management regime, there should be thorough monitoring of regulation enforcement so that there are no outliers who break the rules and offset the regime. For instance, government monitoring will allow villagers to actively define boundaries and to make sure that their regulations they agreed upon are also honoured by other villages.  Thus, diligent monitoring is something to consider to ensure rules are followed and respected.
Deep Aquatic Resource Knowledge for Employees of LCFDPP
As much of the staff LCFDPP are under the authority of the Department of Forestry, many of them may lack aquatic resource management.  Though they may have many resources to conduct research and data collection, they also need to be knowledgeable in aquatic resource management as a form of respect to the local villagers. This could explain why some villages have not reached out to ask for assistance in co-management, as they may believe that government staff may not have enough respect to their TEK and may be deterred from asking for assistance. A recommendation for this point would be to have a deeper understanding of aquatic resource management to demonstrate to villages who are not a part of a co-management regime that the LCFDPP are capable of providing reliable assistance.
After the implementation of the community-based fisheries co-management program, villagers have reported that numbers of aquatic animals have increased,  suggesting that there is a huge benefit in giving local peoples the rights to decide how to manage their resources. Not only did it increase stocks of aquatic resources, but it also increased the prevalence of solidarity among the villagers due to increased responsibilities placed on the individuals. 
One important component that made this case study a continual success is because of its consideration of TEK in the management practices. Since the villagers have been living there for hundreds of years they "may be the most suitable people to implement locally acceptable conservation and resource management strategies”.  Thus, recognizing the importance of ecological knowledge in addition to scientific research will most likely yield a more successful program in cases of co-management. In the Khong district, one of the main ways to make sure villagers are involved is the organization of village-level workshops that call meetings to discuss issues in the fishing practices. This gives villagers the opportunity to participate and give input about what management practices need to be changed or what resource needs more attention. For instance, several villages have noted problems with using nylon gill nets and bamboo traps that capture large groups of migrating fish, and once this was known by the LCFDPP, new regulations were set to inhibit the uses of the tools.  Similarly, deep knowledge about the resources held by every individual villager would make it difficult for anyone to mislead the process since everyone has an understanding of local management practices and conditions of the land. 
However, it is also important to note that in order for co-management regimes to be successful, there needs to be a level of cooperation. The willingness to compromise and adjust management practices is a key part of why the co-management program in the Khong district is successful.  The villagers were willing to cooperate with governmental organizations and outsiders not part of their villages, an action that has brought a lot of positive change to their societies. Of course, this is not to be done without effort from the other side. It is often required of employees from the LCFDPP to earn respect from the villagers by showing a deep understanding of their TEK.  Without the evidence that they understand and value the importance of the village knowledge, it would be difficult to discuss the co-management regime with the villagers. This would most likely be attributed to the fact that villagers think that outsiders who do not take the time to gain a deeper understanding of their land are not eligible to help and would rather reject the opportunity. Thus, the willingness to compromise is required from both parties.
Consequently, failures can easily occur when there is an overestimation of how well governmental organizations can handle natural resource management and the underestimation of local peoples.  Often times, because the authority assigned to certain members of the natural resource management programs depend on their qualifications and education, many fail to recognize that intrinsic knowledge of the land from the local peoples is important as well. In many cases, social standing may play into why those of higher authority outside of the villages may view themselves as more knowledgeable. Some city dwellers may think that they are more advanced and that scientific knowledge from a degree is superior, but many foresters from these backgrounds have to learn to be humble about their own knowledge. Thus, there needs to be a mutual understanding that local and external knowledge are equally as important, otherwise a co-management regime cannot be successfully managed.
Similarly, it is also important that NGO’s do not take on too much management themselves but to remember to give the work back to the local peoples. It is not uncommon to see NGO’s take on an authoritative position, take over all management decisions, and to instruct local peoples to implement certain practices because it was deemed most optimal by scientific research.  It is important that the villagers also have a say and have authority over what happens on their lands so that there is also a consideration of traditional knowledge.
Co-management is not only a sustainable practice, but on a social level, it can also promote participation. The encouraging feelings of responsibility can create a more cohesive community so that villagers will have more agency over their rights to make decisions for the land. Strengthening their connection to land would eliminate the desire to leave and find better lives when faced with issues of degradation.  By providing a greater sense of responsibility, the villagers are also more likely to take care of their resources and abide by their regulations.
Overall, this is not to say that all co-management regimes are always going to be successful with the only the consideration of TEK. In some cases, co-management regimes may not be optimal because the political issues and Indigenous conflicts. Similarly, the case study of the Khong district is still on-going, which means that though successful, it can always come across issues. However, like many cases, with proper intervention, methods, and a deep level of respect to the Indigenous peoples who have resided on the land since time immemorial, co-management in any area could be as successful as the program that is currently demonstrated the Khong districts. 
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