Development along one of Southeast Asia's biggest rivers is threatening local communities.
The Mekong is a 2,700-mile-long river that flows from the Himalayas into the South China Sea, winding through six different countries along the way. It's estimated that more than 60 million people rely on the waterway to survive.
With its generous current, the river and its tributaries are also a potential goldmine for energy companies, who are building dams at an increasingly frenetic pace. Unfortunately for villages and tribes on the river's path, these dams can flood agricultural land and wreak havoc on fish populations, subsequently ruining people's livelihoods.
For the past nine months, South African photographer Gareth Bright and Canadian photojournalist Luc Forsyth have been (slowly) making their way along the river's shores to explore the impact of this development in a project called A River's Tail. Their latest work shows how the construction of the Sesan II dam has divided Cambodia's Bunong tribespeople, whose land could soon vanish under 30 feet of water.
VICE chatted with photojournalist Forsyth to discuss the complicated realities of this power struggle.
VICE: What's A River's Tail all about?
Luc Forsyth: My [photographer] friend and I decided to take a break from normal assignment work, so we bought a wooden fishing boat in a province in Cambodia and drove it for a couple of weeks through the Tonlé Sap river, which leads to the Tonlé Sap lake which is the biggest lake in Southeast Asia. From there, we were getting ready to go back to work and we were contacted by an NGO called Lien Aid who proposed expanding the trip to cover the entire Mekong river. We actually started production in March 2015. We finished traveling through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and we're going to China in six days. The whole thing will take slightly longer than a year.
Your last story is on the plight of the Bunong tribe. Tell me what they're going through, what this dam represents for them?
The Bunong are in a pretty remote part of Cambodia. The demographic in Cambodia is very clustered around its cities with the urban population being the vast majority of the population. Up there in the northeast, you have a lot of Indigenous tribes, and the Bunong are just one of them.
They are subsistence farmers: The community we met with didn't need much from the outside world, they were pretty self-sustaining. It's the kind of community where they don't even fence in their pigs because they know they'll come back every night, so there were animals walking around everywhere. It's a very rural setting with people who are deeply tied to land and natural resources. Right now, they're in the flood path of the reservoir for a dam called the Sesan II which is almost finished. When they start flooding the reservoir, that entire village will be under ten meters [30 feet] of water.
So the company is offering to relocate and compensate them? The compensation they've been offered is hierarchical, depending on how many family members you have and how old they are, how poor they are... So you have people who have huge families and were getting offered different compensation packages than single widows. The poorer the people, the more enticing these compensation packages that are being offered by the Chinese corporation that's building the dam, Sino Hydro.
The Bunong culture is thousands of years old, right?
There's no detailed record of how long they've been there but yeah, it's a few thousand years old. They have been living pretty much exactly the same way, with the exception of motors, for hundreds if not thousands of years. It's a culture that needs to be tied to the land, they're fishermen and farmers. To get rid of that ancestral homeland, it's going to gut the culture, completely.
But then this big corporation is dangling this promise of resettlement, what's that doing to the community?
People don't want to leave, it's not like their needs are being addressed. There's a pattern in Cambodia, in Southeast Asia where private corporations want things and they offer relocation packages. I haven't seen the exact relocation sites, I don't think many people in the village have seen them either, but they typically offer houses that look nice and modern, maybe they're made out of cement instead of thatch and bamboo, and they might have electricity, so at first glance they look appealing. But when people move into those kinds of places in Cambodia, they find there's very little to do in terms of jobs, there's little infrastructure, like education and hospitals. And often they find that after they've moved, they're in a worse spot than they were before. So this offer is really preying on the poorest members of the community, offering them money and a house that's better than what they have now.
So they're convincing half the community to accept and sell their lands. The other half are self-sustaining farmers who are not rich but are probably having [a less enticing offer], so you've got the community completely split down the middle.
Tell me about the conversations you had with people there.
It's a weird mood because the people who are really against the dam have sort of become activists, they run media campaigns, work with local NGOs, and the ones with the relocation packages don't really talk at all.
Did you reach out to the company?
I've encountered Sino Hydro a bunch of times in the past, they're really active in the area and they have never responded to me. I didn't reach out to them for this story but I've emailed them about eight or nine times and they never answer.
What's the future of development in Southeast Asia as you see it?
The Mekong is difficult because it's transboundary, not one country owns it. So trying to get everybody to work together, there's a lot of history in the region and they don't necessarily want to work together. I think if there was a concerted effort across five governments to really protect these resources and the people living off them there would be no problem, but in this part of the world, and especially in Cambodia and Laos, they need these resources. Laos has decided that it's going to transform itself into the battery of Southeast Asia by damming the Mekong in a lot of different places, I think there are 13 or 15 different places so far. Cambodia is also doing similar things.
It's not fair to tell nations like Cambodia and Laos that they should not build dams. These are some of the poorest nations in Asia, and they need to develop. Richer countries have used dams to great effect to boost their economies and electricity needs, and so to say that Mekong nations should not do so is hypocritical. But there is a complete lack of regard for these cultural and environmental casualties when planning dams in Southeast Asia. It's not that they shouldn't be developing their hydropower industry, but when reports are released indicating that a certain location would devastate nearby human and animal populations, more attention needs to be paid or it will be future generations who suffer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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