A rural Thai teacher-turned committed protector of the mighty Mekong River, Niwat Roykaew, aka “Teacher Thi”, has been awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental Prize for 2022, along with five other grassroots environmentalists.
The other awardees are from Ecuador, Nigeria, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States.
Born and raised in Chiang Khong district in the northern province of Chiang Rai, which is located on the banks of the Mekong, Niwat is very familiar with the river and has witnessed dramatic changes in the past several decades, as one dam after another gets built along the upper reaches of the river in China.
The river no longer fluctuates in line with the monsoon season and the downstream stretches, in Thailand and Laos, are nearly dry for most of the year, exposing the rock formations and sand banks as more dams are built, blocking the natural flow and ebb of the river. Fishermen have seen catches of fewer species dwindle.
In 1995, Niwat founded the Chiang Khong conservation group, a loose network of 30 villages, to address environmental and social issues caused by large-scale development projects along the river, the Chinese dams particular.
Upon learning about the China’s rapids blasting project, to facilitate river navigation for Chinese cargo vessels and with the consent of the Thai government, he began to organise against the project, drawing support from a large network of NGOs, local communities, civil society and the media.
He even submitted a petition, signed by many supporters, to the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, to protest against the destructive rapids blasting project which, he claimed, has destroyed the breeding ground of many species of fish, which are only found in the river’s rapids.
Despite setbacks and some success, in 2020 the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha finally agreed to cancel the project, to the relief of environmental groups.
Asked what the award means to him, Niwat told Geographical Magazine that he hopes the announcement of this prize will bring the issues faced by Mekong River to the attention of the global public.
He also said that maintaining the momentum and holding the public’s attention to the problem is very important in the efforts to save this mighty river.
The award presentation ceremony was held today (Wednesday) in San Francisco. The event was hosted online by Hollywood actress and activist Jane Fonda.
Founded in 1989, the first Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony took place in 1990.