05/26/2022, 15.41
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“Green Nobel” goes to activist who saved Mekong River rapids

by Steve Suwannarat

Retired Thai teacher Niwat Roykaew is among this year's recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. In his country, he successfully battled a Chinese project that would have blasted rocky islets to allow commercial and tourist navigation on a 400-kilometre stretch of the mighty river.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Thai activist Niwat Roykaew is among the recipients of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the “Green Nobel”, awarded yesterday by the Goldman Environmental Foundation in San Francisco.

Of undeclared age, with well-known principles pursued with determination, Niwat Roykaew was one of several people selected for their environmental commitment and care for communities who draw what they need to exist from nature.

Like every year, the prize went to outstanding individuals from each continent: Niwat Roykaew was joined by Chima Williams from Nigeria (Africa), Marjan Minnesma from the Netherlands (Europe), Nalleli Cobo from the United States (North America), Julien Vincent from Australia (Islands), and Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez from Ecuador (Central/South America). The latter are engaged in the fight against mining on Indigenous land.

Affectionately known as “Kru Thi”, Teacher Thi in Thai, Niwat Roykaew taught for many years. After his retirement, he distinguished himself for his uncompromising defence of the Mekong River, Southeast Asia’s main waterway, threatened by massive development projects.

Because of his action, Thailand achieved its only victory so far against corporate interests (starting with China’s) with an eye on the mighty waterway, home to tens of millions of people and a habitat that is both unique and increasingly threatened.

A Chinese project was cancelled after a struggle that lasted 20 years. Had it been approved, it would have blasted several rapids to allow commercial and tourist navigation on the river along a 400 km stretch between Thailand and Laos.

The project had been initially welcomed and supported by Thai authorities, who eventually reversed their position under pressure from public opinion, environmental groups and rural communities.

In its decision to award the prize to Niwat Roykaew, the Goldman Environmental Foundation noted that “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.”

Furthermore, “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.”

With his typical frankness and simplicity, Niwat Roykaew welcomed the award stating: “If I didn’t speak out about this, the Mekong River would be destroyed 100 per cent”.

He also noted that his activism and that of others brought to the attention of world public the risks facing the mighty river, local traditional ways of life, and its extremely varied and valuable habitats.

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