The Mekong River is the life-giving artery of mainland Southeast Asia. Stretching from southern China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, it is the second most biodiverse river in the world and home to numerous endangered species, including some of the last remaining Irrawaddy dolphins. The river and its tributaries also account for a quarter of the freshwater fish consumed globally.
A hub of human diversity, the region is home to 300 million people from hundreds of ethnic groups. Most of the populations, particularly indigenous peoples, rely on the rivers and the surrounding ecosystems for their food, livelihoods, and culture.
The Mekong region and its people are in grave danger. Its rich natural resources have made it a hotspot for rapid and large scale development, and the region is now peppered with major infrastructure and resource extraction projects. On the Mekong’s lower mainstream alone, 11 massive hydropower dams are planned or underway. Upstream in China, eight projects are in various stages of development, with up to 22 planned. These projects threaten to destroy vital fisheries, topple traditional agriculture, and wipe out endangered species, affecting the food supply and culture of those downstream. By the end of the decade Chinese dams will control the hydrology of the entire river basin.
A region marred throughout history with precarious and authoritative governments, the threats aren't only to the environment and food system. Local communities can be caught between powerful corporations and governments and invaluable natural resources are vulnerable to many forms of abuse: illegal land grabbing, physical violence, imprisonment, and even death.
Those who take action take great risk.
What We're Doing About It
- Without a seat at the table where development decisions are made, local communities face formidable odds in their efforts to defend their environmental and human rights. To shift power back into their hands, we train community leaders, campaigners, and public interest lawyers in the skills they need most, including grassroots campaigning, legal advocacy, environmental protection, and human rights. Then, working side by side with them, we mentor and support hard-hitting legal advocacy campaigns to shift the power imbalance and ensure that local voices are heard.
- Since 2006, our EarthRights School Mekong trained emerging civil society leaders from throughout the Mekong region, preparing them to advocate for more equitable development based on public participation and transparency. Our alumni have gone on to inspiring careers in advocacy, activism, politics, media, and academia, and have made some remarkable accomplishments. For example, one alumnus went to court on behalf of farmers, and won, resulting in the cancellation of a husk-fired power plant in Thailand. Others have helped organize community campaigns where no one else has been able to do this safely.
- Recognizing the urgent need for public interest lawyers to partner with communities and campaigners in the region, we launched the Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute (MLAI), a forum for junior Mekong lawyers and campaigners to develop new legal and advocacy skills and strategies, and coordinate action on regional environmental and social issues.
- We also convened the Mekong Legal Network (MLN), which furthers the work of MLAI and EarthRights School Mekong through ongoing professional development and lasting partnerships around transboundary legal issues. Through these growing networks, we facilitate a regional network of public interest lawyers and train emerging lawyers in human rights and environmental justice, and work to inspire the growth of public interest legal campaigning worldwide.
Whether we’re helping downstream communities demand further impact assessments for the proposed Don Sahong Dam in Laos, standing beside Cambodian families whose land was illegally confiscated by a Thai sugar company, or challenging Chinese investors to meet Chinese laws and standards, we strive to put the power of law back in the hands of the people, and to raise their voices in the places that matter most.
We have been working in the region for 20 years. We remain committed and well placed to work on these issues for as long as it takes to effect transformative change for the people and environment of the Mekong.