Finding the Fish Conservation Zone

Finally visiting a Fish Conservation Zone!

Finally visiting a Fish Conservation Zone in Laos!

As our boat rounded a bend in the river among the hills, I asked my colleague Sinsamout, “Are we near the halfway point?” We were touring a 5-km-long Fish Conservation Zone, or FCZ, on the Mekong River in an area in Laos called Kengmai Rapids. My company has helped four villages designate this FCZ as a no-fishing area to protect an endangered fish species. Sinsamout said, “Yes, it’s just past the curve.” My heart leapt – yes, I realized, I knew that curve in the river. Over the past year, I had seen a map of the FCZ on the regulation signs we designed – I saw how it partially wrapped around two bends in the river. Now, after more than two years of supporting this project from the office – helping to write the grants, manage the budget, and report to the donor – I was finally seeing a Fish Conservation Zone in Laos for the first time.

After overcoming our transportation challenges, we had visited the village of Ban Palat, where we had a meeting with members of the Fish Conservation Zone committee. We met in their village temple, under the gaze of a shiny golden Buddha. Each of the four villages around the FCZ has an enforcement team, and they rotate patrolling duties of the FCZ to make sure no one is fishing in the closed area. We talked about their experiences of patrolling and enforcing the regulations. After the meeting, our team traveled to the river, where we met the enforcement team from Houayla, the village across the river in Xayabouri Province. We ate lunch and I tossed bits of meat and rice to a pair of desperately skinny dogs that scrounged in the trash nearby.

Fish Conservation Zone on the Mekong River

Fish Conservation Zone on the Mekong River

Then we piled into a long boat for our tour of the river. Despite rain that morning, the sun was out and the sky was blue. The rapids, for which the Kengmai Rapids region gets its name, were mostly submerged, but I could see how the water rushed and swirled a bit faster in the middle of the river. Being on the river felt so good, to finally connect with the work I’ve been doing from afar. Leafy trees grew in the water, all but submerged along the banks of the river, which are steep and hilly. Near the center of the FCZ, we climbed out and scrambled up the hillside to visit a farmhouse near the edge of the river. I at last got to see the signs of the Fish Conservation Zones that I had helped design.

An old woman sat chewing betel as she harvested white roots, which I was offered to sample. It tasted a bit like a watery radish, but slightly sweet instead of spicy. As we walked to the farmhouse, little chicks and ducklings skittered across the dirt. I saw seedpods from a nearby tree that were cracked open to reveal insides that looked like cotton or dandelion down. Sinsamout it can be used to stuff pillows or mats. A young man sat cutting bamboo pieces to make a roof for a chicken house. Both he and the old woman told us that since the Fish Conservation Zone was put into effect, they don’t hear people using dynamite to fish in the river at night anymore – it’s very quiet. The woman said she used to fish right near their farm, but now she has to travel outside the boundaries of the FCZ, which is hard at old age. But she said she still thought the FCZ was a good idea to protect fish for future generations.

In the side channel beside a sandbar

In the side channel beside a sandbar

We traveled back down the river, and explored a side channel that becomes an isolated pool cut off from the main river during the dry season. The villagers have discussed wanting to open this pool up for a community fishing day to raise money for their FCZ enforcement activities. Small birds with swallow wings skimmed across the water, and a white egret flew past. Two small boys played with sticks along the sandbar, the only other people we could see for miles. As we motored away, the boys began to run along the sand, and cinematic movie music swelled in my head.

Further downstream, past the boundary of the FCZ, we came across a fishing camp. The fishers hadn’t caught much that day – one showed us a fish trap with a few flopping silvery fishes in it. We looked at their nets, and Sinsamout said he had photographed one of the fishers a few years ago on a previous trip to the area. I distinctly remember those photos, and it felt like pieces coming together to finally see this familiar fishing camp for myself. We ended our trip by handing over some binoculars to the enforcement team that I had brought from the U.S. Several of the enforcement team members are village soldiers or police officers, and they looked very official testing out the binoculars with their camouflage uniforms and rifles.

At last I got to see a Fish Conservation Zone sign I helped design!

At last I got to see a Fish Conservation Zone sign I helped design!

The specter hanging over this idyllic river scene is that the site of a proposed dam on the Mekong River is just downstream of our project site. If constructed, it would likely turn our project area into a reservoir, flooding the shallow spawning habitat that many native fish need. Sometime it’s hard to work in the midst of such uncertainty. At least now I can carry with me the memory of those two boys running along the sand.

 

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Over the Bridge and Through the Mud

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Just two hours after my plane touched down in Laos on Wednesday, I was in a van on the road to one of our project sites. I had been able to time my trip with a visit from a representative of our project donor, who wanted to assess the project in the field. With barely time to repack my things, and definitely no time for a shower, I ate a quick lunch of fried tilapia, sticky rice, and papaya salad with my Lao colleagues at the office, and then we were off. The weather was cloudy and cool, like I was right at home in Santa Cruz. Just minutes into our three-hour drive, it began to rain – hard. I worried that tomorrow’s rainy forecast didn’t bode well for our field trip.

Mist and rain over the Mekong River

The paved road turned to bumpy dirt as we got closer to our project site. We were traveling east of Vientiane. On the other side of the river was Thailand, with hills shrouded in rainy mist. I saw rocky islands and green plants in the Mekong River for the first time – I had seen photos of these from my colleagues who had visited the project site, but had never seen them for myself. I had only seen the river as wide and flat and brown. When we reached the town of Sanakham, the head of Sanakham District in Vientiane Province, the rain had stopped, leaving puddles in the reddish brown mud of the roads. I was bundled up in all the layers I had brought, thinking it strange to feel so cold in Laos. While I think I prefer the cold to the heat, I was thinking about what my grandma had said about the cold in Hanoi, Vietnam – a damp cold that cuts to your bones. It feels impossible to get warm in such conditions, but I asked for any extra blanket at our guest house, and slept in several layers, which helped a lot.

The next morning we ate noodle soup at a streetside restaurant. The smell of the wood burning fires and the coolness of the morning reminded me of camping. As we left, one of my colleagues approached a black mynah bird in a cage with striking yellow feathers around its eyes. He said “Sabaidee,” or “Hello,” in Lao. The bird answered “Sabaidee,” in a deep, eerily human voice. It could also say “Do you want to buy some beer?” in Lao. It’s pretty common to see beautiful birds in cramped cages in Southeast Asia. I was amazed at the bird’s mimicry, but also sad to see it reduced to a party trick.

Our first stop the district governor’s office for a meeting about the Fish Conservation Zone, or FCZ, our project helped establish in the area. The district deputy said they had tried to create Fish Conservation Zones with local communities in the past, but these efforts didn’t really succeed because of a lack of training and outreach for the communities to understand and enforce the rules of the no-fishing zone. He hoped that our project, for which we held many meetings and trainings, could become a model for other villages.

By this point, the rain had stopped, but as we headed toward one of our four project villages that shared management of the FCZ, we realized it wouldn’t be a smooth ride. A new bridge was under construction, with piles of rocks blocking the entrance on either side. A dirt side road skirted around the bridge, but a truck had gotten stuck in the mud at the lowest point, blocking the way. Trucks were backed up on either side, and a small crowd of spectators stood on the bridge, watching and commenting on the effort to get the truck unstuck from the mud. A steam shovel arrived and began clearing the rocks to open up the bridge. The local fisheries office offered the use of their truck, since our van had to wait for the bridge to be cleared. I was worried that our project plans would be foiled, but after an hour, we were on our way. It was a good reminder to me that when working in countries like Laos, just getting to the project location is a small victory in itself!

Indawgyi Folk Song

Indawgyi Folk Song Recording

One pleasant surprise about my trip to Indawgyi was the number of other foreigners who were also working on the project. It was exciting to feel like a part of something bigger in this isolated place, and I felt like I always had company. I met a French couple, Claire and Hugo, who had lived for several years in New Caledonia, and were volunteering their time with Fauna and Flora International to make a video about the project. Claire shot video, while Hugo recorded audio.

Fallen MangosThe pair decided they wanted to record some local music to use as a soundtrack to the video. Very few people in the village where we stayed spoke any English, but somehow Hugo managed to convey that he was looking for someone to sing a local folk song about the lake. He invited me to come along while he made the recording. We walked to one of the little stores in town to wait for someone to take us to the folksinger. It wasn’t clear how long we’d have to wait, so we ordered some mangoes and other snacks.

Then a woman arrived, and we followed her down one of the dirt roads in the village. A big storm had blown through the day before, and the wet dirt was littered with leaves, tree branches, and tiny green mangoes. I discovered the hard way that the mangoes attracted big red ants. They peppered my feet with fiery bites through my sandals.

We arrived at a house where we met a woman and her daughter, who spoke a little English. Hugo struggled to explain that he needed total silence to make the recording. The first time, a phone rang, and the clock chimed in the background. The singer, whose name is Daw Yee Tee Tin, seemed a little nervous, but obligingly sang us a lovely song. Then we changed positions to have her sit closer to natural sounds from outside, and asked her to sing again. This time, I turned my camera on, trying to keep silent and not intrude on the recording. That was especially hard at 0:52 seconds, when I discovered an ant had hitched a ride on my pant leg and started to bite…

This time, she accompanied the song with graceful hand gestures. I imagined how she might have performed the song with others when she was younger. Will anyone learn these songs to pass them forward? It was a special moment that filled my heart, and I felt fortunate to be part of it, to have captured it. We played the song for others, like the owner of our guest house, and he smiled at the familiar references to the birds and beautiful golden pagoda; he mimed rowing a boat on the lake. Claire had the song translated when she returned to Yangon, and passed them on to me. Learning the words makes the song truly enchanting.

Like a vast silver mattress,
News about this place should be passed,
Let’s go pay homage to the holy pagoda with a boat,
Birds are playing in the water,
In the northern state of Kachin,
Imagine the scenes,
The Shan ladies are pretty,
In renowned charming Indawgyi Lake,
O fellow countrymen and countrywomen,
You must come to Indawgyi,
Residents of the lake have pure hearts,
When you row a boat,
Looking to make friends,
The sound of Shan drums,
Can be heard,
O Burmese brother from the plains,
If you stretch your legs to travel,
We invite you to visit Indawgyi.

You can hear the song at the end of Claire and Hugo’s video here.

 

Moments in Myanmar

Bittern flying across the lake

In one week, I’ll be heading to Asia on a trip that will include 10 days in Myanmar. It feels like a fitting time to post these snippets of moments and memories I jotted down as I was sitting in the airport, preparing to leave Asia last June. In May and June of 2015, I spent nearly three weeks in Myanmar as a consultant to Fauna and Flora International to help communities around Indawgyi Lake establish Fish Conservation Zones, or community protected areas for fish. While at the lake for two weeks, I was almost completely off the grid. It was an experience I had approached with much apprehension, yet it ended up being an incredibly unique and liberating time…

There was the time we rode a boat around the lake and watched the birds take flight. The purple swamp hens ran across the algae mats like they were walking on water.

There was the time when the ladies at the meeting tried to marry me off to an eligible older bachelor with 25 acres of rice fields.

There was the time when I taught the restaurant owner the English word for “cucumber.”

There was the time that the whiskey delivery truck got stuck in the mud and everyone came to observe and offer advice.

There was the time when a few fireflies glowed green in the darkness, one and then another.

There was the time when the little baby with a shiny bald head waved at me and blew me a kiss.

There was the time when we walked down the road littered with fallen green mangos after the storm, and firey red ants bit my feet.

There was the time when the ants bit through my plastic bags and Cliff Bar wrapper, and one lucky fat pig got to eat the chocolate chip bar I tossed in the pile outside the guest house.

There was the time the village head joked with the villagers not to fall asleep during the meeting, then proceeded to doze off during my presentation.

There was the time when all the frogs starting singing at night, and one lone frog croaked forlornly.

There was the night after the big rain that insects swarmed the walls at night, turning the guesthouse into an entomological curiosity.

There was the time when two mating dragon flies skimmed right over my face as I floated on the water, never breaking their concentration.

There were so many more special moments and little stories. Thanks to inspiration from Amy West and other courageous creatives, I’m committing to sharing these moments, both past and present, more regularly in this space.