Search
Close this search box.

Can a river have legal personhood and rights? Mekong communities echo ongoing global debates

By Nicha Wachpanich

Photography by Peerapon Boonyakiat and Luke Duggleby

Before performing the Brahmin ceremony at the event “Bring the spirits back to the Mekong fish,” Gangong Chanlong lights incense sticks to honour the sacred things believed by the locals to reside in the Mekong River. Peerapon Boonyakiat/HaRDstories

As the world grapples with the ongoing ecological crises, communities and scholars in Thailand’s Mekong region are advocating for a radical shift in the way we view our relationship with nature. At the forefront of this movement is the belief that rivers, fish, and other living creatures have the inherent right to thrive.

 

“May the god of the four worlds, the mightiest of all spirits, together with the godmothers, come down,” chanted the Brahmin in ancient words. “…and bless the fish!”

As dusk settled over the group of Tai-ban, they sat on the ground with hands on their chests in prayer. In front of them were thousands of fish breeds in plastic bags, ready to be released into the currents of the Mekong.

In the rainy season of October 2022, about 40  Mekong Tai-ban gathered in Sangkhom, a rural district in Nong Khai province at the Thai-Lao border. As part of their desperate efforts to revive the dying river ecosystem, the locals welcomed the fishes to their new home by blessing their souls, known to the locals as khwan, before releasing the fingerlings into a new preservation zone.

As concerns over the threats posed by the many upstream hydropower dams continue to grow among Mekong communities, preservation efforts driven by an animistic worldview, are echoing the ongoing debates around the world: Can a river have its own legal personhood and rights?

The lost khwan

The Tai, an ethnic group among the many groups that span across the Lower Mekong river basin, have a strong belief in animism – a system of thought that posits that nature possesses spirits. This culture remains strong among the Tai-ban, the term used by the locals in rural northeastern Thailand to highlight their local identity in contrast to the urban population.

Traditionally, the Tai believe that everything possesses a khwan or soul, including humans, animals, and non-living entities that are important to their daily lives, such as houses, rice, and work animals. Invisible and intangible, khwan helps safeguard the entities they inhabit. When a person passes away, their body may degrade, but their khwan will return to be with Tan, the god of the sky. This belief in Tan can be seen during the annual rocket festival when locals along the Mekong fire homemade rockets into the sky to request abundant rain during the growing season.

Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, an influential scholar who is known as the “Father of Thai history”, wrote in his 1918 essay that “People in the old time believed that entities with souls have khwan, not only humans.” His assumption is agreed upon by other scholars who posit that khwan is a cultural heritage from the concept of souls in China, where the first generation of Tai ethnic groups migrated from.

“I guess the fish have khwan just like other living beings,” explained Gangong Chanlong, a 43-year-old woman who helped run the ritual in Nong Khai. She has extensive knowledge about the fauna and flora of the river. Only a short walk from her home, the Mekong has always been like her front yard. 

Even though khwan has profound meaning ingrained in Tai cultures, the awareness of it only came to Gangong and others when “the khwan vanished” – an everyday expression used when something bad has occurred. When someone falls ill or faces bad luck, it implies that their precious khwan have escaped from their body.

This is no different in the case of the Mekong fish threatened by hydropower dams. Since the operation of the first hydropower dam in the lower Mekong in 2019, the river has never been the same, affecting their seasonal tune. The muddy brown water turned a rare blue because of the few sediments in the current that are blocked by the upstream Xayaburi dam, approximately 280 kilometres away from Sangkhom. 

Geographically similar to the Grand Canyon, Sangkhom is known for its tourist attractions called Thousand Rocks and Ten Thousand Krais. The Krai plant (willow-leaved water croton) is a key species that thrives in the river, providing a safe habitat and food for juvenile fish. But as upstream dams hold back nutrient-rich sediments and the water level changes rapidly, the once-abundant plant is disappearing too.

Gangong documented the 2019 incident with her smartphone, showing that the rainy season of that year became a graveyard for aquatic life. “The fish lost their khwan, so we need to bless them and bring back their souls,” Gangong explained. 

 

Changing river, changing rituals

In Tai cultures, it has been customary to bless important things, including rice paddies and labour animals such as buffaloes and elephants, through a khwan ritual to protect their guardian soul. However, in 2019, it may have been the first time this traditional blessing was given to all species of Mekong fish.

The growing concern over the dwindling numbers of aquatic animals in the Mekong River may be one reason for this change. Previously, the Mekong catfish, a symbol of the river, was blessed before catching, but both the practice and the fish itself have all but vanished.

On 29 October 2019 – the same day Xayaburi dam started supplying electricity to Thailand – Mekong communities began holding khwan blessings of fish to protect them from harm, a ritual they have continued annually since

Leab Thonglok, a 73-year-old Brahmin, led the ceremony creating a new blessing, in which he replaced the word people with fish. “This is the first time I did a Khwan blessing to fish.” 

Shifting environmental discourse

The Mekong River is home to over 1,200 freshwater fish species, the second-highest density of species in the world. But in recent years, the diversity of species in the river has decreased significantly, sparking concerns about the environmental impact of human activities on the Mekong community.

These concerns reflect a global shift in environmental discourse towards recognising the rights of species other than humans. As Canadian environmental lawyer and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David R. Boyd, pointed out in his book “The Rights of Nature”, the contemporary development agenda is still dominated by Western thinking.

Throughout history, influential philosophers such as Aristotle have perpetuated the belief that animals are inferior creatures and suitable resources for human use. The first environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, considered the launchpad of the contemporary global environmental movement and law, focused on managing animals and nature as natural resources for human use.

However, a contrary attitude toward animals had emerged earlier, in the 19th century, when thinkers questioned whether animals could suffer and therefore have the right not to be harmed. This debate has gained traction in recent years, against the background of  what has been dubbed the Anthropocene – the era in which humans dominate and influence the earth.

This trend of putting animals at the centre of thinking has already made a tangible impact. In the 1970s, a species of fish called the snail darter, found in the Tennessee River in the US, became the subject of an epic battle over the construction of a dam. Environmentalists argued that the fish had the right to protection from extinction, and the court upheld this claim.

As the Mekong community struggles to preserve the biodiversity of its river, the global shift towards recognising the rights of non-human species may provide a ray of hope for the river’s threatened fish and other species.

Safeguarding the river

After the Brahmin completed his chanting on that evening at the Mekong River, the locals wrapped white strings around each other’s wrists as a symbol of blessing. Hand in hand, they released fishes into a new preservation zone, near the riverbank and in front of a Buddhist temple. It was informally agreed among them to avoid fishing in the area.

For the Mekong communities in Thailand, such rituals provide not only an opportunity to express concerns about the river, but also a chance to come together and advocate for its protection. 

In 2021, locals even travelled to Bangkok to demand government action to mitigate the impacts of human activity on the river. It was a parade filled with puppets of different fish species and the rallying cry: “On our feet to speak out for the fish.” 

However, not everyone can afford to travel to Bangkok to make their voices heard, said Chaiwat Parakoon, the 51-year old community organiser of the event. “We need to organise cultural activities here in the communities,” so he and his friends have turned an old family home into a community learning centre focused on the Mekong, with space for concerts and other events.

After the blessing of the Mekong fish ended, the centre held a concert to draw young people in. Bands played northeastern style music that illustrates the relationship of people and the Mekong, similarly to the spiritual chanting of the Bhramin at the ceremony.

For Teerapong Pomun, a member of an NGO researching the ways in which Mekong women express their emotions about the changing environment, such community gatherings are crucial. “We can learn many things about the importance of rivers to the people and the impacts they are facing through the way people express their emotions,” he said, “and we can design better governance from this.”

Despite years of advocating for protecting the Mekong, the construction of the Xayaburi dam was eventually completed, leading locals to focus on mitigating the impacts and reviving ecosystems. As Gangong notes, however, the khwan blessing is not just for the fish, but for the people themselves. By creating spaces for community members to come together and express their concerns, these rituals offer hope for a better future for the Mekong and its inhabitants.

 

Pushing the boundary of rights

In the meantime, scholars in Thailand are exploring the idea of granting legal rights to the Mekong River, a vital source of livelihood for over 300 million people, in a move that has gained traction globally. This recognition of rights for nature has led to major shifts in the law of many countries, as it has led to more serious actions to protect the environment. 

Stories of environmental degradation caused by development projects are widespread around the world, and affected communities often take the issue to court. Initially, recognition of rights expanded to include animals. But the idea of granting rights to nature itself has emerged only in the past decade. What if trees or rivers could go to court on their own behalf and hold polluters accountable?

The concept of legal standing for rivers, first proposed by a legal scholar fifty years ago, was actualised in Ecuador in 2011 for the Vilcabamba River, followed by the Whanganui River in New Zealand in 2017, and the Ganges River in Bangladesh.

One of the key successes of this groundbreaking move is the recognition of local beliefs. In New Zealand, for instance, the Maori people strongly believe in protecting the Whanganui river, which they view as having its own life. 

“Today, environmental laws are rooted in the thinking that the state has to be in charge of managing natural resources, so natural resources won’t be used up,” explained Dr. Chatubhoom Bhoomiboonchoo, a legal professor at Naresuan University. “But in reality, we found out that many states face challenges and can’t successfully manage. So the question is how do we do it? Can we share this role of taking care of nature to the locals who have knowledge and experiences?”

His research aims to understand the key components of each successful case to recognise rights for rivers. In the case of New Zealand, the Maori’s traditional belief system played a key part in making this theory a reality. After the government passed the new law, the people who held this belief were ready to put the concept of legal personhood for the river into practice.

The government and Maori set up a committee to represent the river. The agreement eventually ended the centuries-long dispute over river management between the communities and the government.

However, granting the Mekong River legal rights will not be easy. So far, there are no regulations regarding river or nature rights in Thailand, and the concept is very abstract. “Rights” is a legal term that is far-reaching from the Mekong people because it originates from the West and transferred to Asia, according to Kanokwan Manorom, director of Mekong Sub-Region Social Research Center based in Thailand. 

As a sociology scholar who works with grassroot communities and local authorities, she observed that the idea of river rights is often met with resistance from some Mekong people “People are hungry, why are we talking about rivers right now? We should think about the rights of the people first!” recounted Kanokwan some of the responses she collected in her research. 

But Kanokwan believes that the rights of nature and the rights of people can co-exist, as there is cultural and local wisdom embedded in the livelihoods of Mekong communities. “If the national water management respects the communities that means it is a governance that respects the river.”

The issue of river rights has been widely discussed not only in Thailand but also in many lower Mekong countries. Scholars from four countries in the lower Mekong basin took an important step in 2022 to discuss the issue of river rights with their local communities. For instance, fishing communities alongside the Mekong river in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province were asked what the river means to them. 

“Local people are not familiar with the idea of rights for nature as it is a very abstract concept,” said Try Thuon, a researcher from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, in a recent policy dialogue session. “However, the local communities have strong spiritual connection to the river, reflected through their belief in the Neak Ta Krahom Kor.” 

Shortly called Neak Ta, a guardian spirit widely respected in Cambodia. Threatened by the Lower Se San 2 hydropower dam, the Stung Treng communities gathered in 2010 at the riverside shrine to ask Neak Ta for the protection from the dam builder.

The policy dialogue ended with the suggestion that the recognition of river rights can begin from domestic rivers, and then expand to the regional level like the Mekong, which runs through six countries. It was also agreed that it is time to bring modern science in service of local and indigenous knowledge, like the concept of khwan in Thailand and Neak Ta in Cambodia.

It was March and communities along the Mekong River are gearing up to celebrate the International Day of Action for Rivers on the 14th, an annual event aimed at raising awareness about the importance of preserving our planet’s waterways. This year they will hold traditional khwan rituals again, seeking blessings for the fish that sustain their way of life.

Amidst growing concerns over environmental degradation and the impact of development projects on the Mekong, this year’s khwan rituals take on added importance as a symbol of hope and resilience in the face of adversity.

Edited by Fabian Drahmoune

This story was supported with a grant from the Earth Journalism Network

Nicha Wachpanich is a Bangkok-based journalist covering stories from a rights-based and human-interest perspective. She previously worked with a local environmental news agency under Thai Society of Environmental Journalists. 

More Features

No surname, no citizenship: Two men launch landmark lawsuit against statelessness