Defender of the Mekong, retired Thai teacher wins ‘Green Nobel’

A file photo of Niwat Roykaew. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize
A file photo of Niwat Roykaew. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

A schoolteacher was among seven activists honored yesterday by a prestigious environmental award for his relentless efforts to protect the Mekong River. 

Niwat Roykaew, who is known around his northern border community as Teacher Tee, was awarded a Goldman Environmental Prize for his role in convincing Thailand to cancel a devastating project.

Niwat along with other local river advocates along the Thai-Laos border, successfully stopped a blasting project that would have devastated about 400 kilometers of the Mekong – all its biodiversity, fisheries, and wetlands – to make way for passage of large Chinese cargo ships. 

It marked the first time Thailand’s government canceled a transboundary project for environmental reasons.

Niwat Roykaew with community members. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

“The official cancellation of the Mekong rapids blasting project marks a rare, formal win in a region facing substantial pressure from development projects and is a testament to the collective power of Kru Thi’s campaign,” the prize wrote. “By amplifying the voices of local people in articulating the Mekong’s environmental, social, and cultural value, he forced the Thai government to pay attention to civil society and increased its accountability to its citizens.”

Niwat said he hopes that receiving the prize, nicknamed the “Green Nobel,” will bring Mekong issues to wider attention. 

“If I didn’t speak out about this, the Mekong River would be destroyed 100 percent,” he said.

This year’s other awardees – one from each human-occupied continent – were environmental lawyer Chima Williams from Nigeria, Dutch climate litigation pioneer Marjan Minnesma, American teen activist Nalleli Cobo, Australian activist Julien Vincent. The last two went to Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez, who led their indigenous group’s fight against mining on their land in Ecuador. 

The award emphasizes recent achievements using grassroots approaches by private citizens.

Fighter of Chiang Kong

Niwat was born and raised in Chiang Kong, a district of Chiang Rai on the banks of the Mekong River. As a schoolteacher in remote locations along the Thai-Laos border, he witnessed firsthand the environmental impacts of Mekong development projects on rural farmers. After retiring in 1995, Niwat founded the Chiang Kong Conservation Group, a loose network of 30 Thai villages to address environmental and social issues caused by large-scale development projects along the river. 

In the early 2000s, China announced joint plans with Thailand to blast rocky sections of the Mekong, which divides Thailand and Laos, to make way for 500-ton Chinese cargo ships. These ships travel downstream from China, through Laos, and on to Thailand. The plan was to convert the river into a “Panama Canal-like industrial navigation channel” by destroying a 400-kilometer stretch near Chiang Kong. 

The Mekong River in Thailand. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

Upon learning of the project, Niwat began to organize. He drew on his large network of civil society groups, local communities, NGOs, and media in order to get the attention of the developers and government. He emphasized “biodiversity loss and ecosystem failure if the project were to continue.” He voiced his opposition to Thai authorities with oversight over the project and invited them to meet him in Chiang Kong. 

The project was suspended and revived several times in recent years, but faced with mounting controversy, the government in 2020 finally announced that it was canceling the project due to its “potentially devastating environmental and social impacts.” 

It was a “rare, formal win in a region facing substantial pressure from development projects and is a testament to the collective power of Niwat’s campaign.”

Read more about Niwat on Goldman Prize’s website.

The Mekong River in Thailand. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

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