COVID-19 relief from the EU reaches Mekong forest communities

28, August 2020
RECOFTC
Mekong villagers facing hardship during COVID-19 pandemic receive relief supplies from the European Union.

The math doesn’t add up for Kong Sothea, the patrol team chief of Or Boun Leu Community Protected Area in Cambodia. 

“I am so worried because I don’t have money,” says Sothea. “I need to borrow money from the bank, which I have never done before COVID-19 occurred.” 

Before the pandemic, Kong could sell cattle to buyers in bordering Viet Nam when he needed money. But now, with the border between Cambodia and Viet Nam closed, Kong can’t sell his cattle, and has no money to grow rice.

Closed borders have hurt the livelihoods of many people like Kong who live in and near forests. Governments in the Mekong region are taking a cautious approach to lifting movement restrictions. For forest communities, the economic hardship caused by COVID-19 is making the health crisis even more acute. It has also changed how they manage and protect their forests. 

To ease the hardship and help protect forest communities from COVID-19, the Voices for Mekong Forests (V4MF) project, funded by the European Union (EU), sent more than 40,000 items of personal protective equipment or PPE to villages in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand. The supplies included face masks, hand gel, thermometers and informational posters in local languages. Kong is one of the villagers who received the supplies from RECOFTC.

Map of mekong
Voices for Mekong Forets project operates in these transboundary landscapes.

Ten kilometres, the distance to walk for hand gel in Cambodia

“Soap is available in the village, but I have to buy hand gel at the market located 10 kilometres from the village where the price is higher than usual,” says Kong. He plans to use the hand gel provided by V4MF while patrolling the forests. 

“The pandemic has opened an opportunity for activities such as illegal logging across the Asia Pacific because of less oversight and accountability,” says RECOFTC executive director David Ganz. “That’s why RECOFTC is thankful our donors have given us flexibility during this unprecedented global pandemic to help meet the personal health and safety needs of the communities we work with. This will also help them continue to patrol forests and manage their resources in the Mekong region.”

Cambodian man uses hand gel to protect himself against COVID-19
Lan Ratha, a member of the forest patrol team in Or Boun Leu, Cambodia, uses hand gel provided by the EU to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Working closely with implementing partner World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF)  in Cambodia, V4MF distributed supplies in April, May and June to Chiklab Phnom Choug Kdey Sangkheum, Sre Thom Maleong, O Nglav, Or Boun Leu and Pou Chrey community protected areas. The areas cover 17,666 hectares and are home to 1,122 families.

Soum Sokunthea, community engagement project assistant at WWF, helped to distribute the supplies to villages. She sees the importance of the supplies to communities but recognizes that it is not enough to meet everyone’s needs.

“Illegal logging is still happening,” says Soum. “In some areas, communities reported increasing cases due to the pandemic because people think the patrol might not reach all areas.” 

First time receiving PPE in Lao PDR

RECOFTC distributed PPE to 10 villages in Lao PDR. 

“This is the first time for us to receive materials to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” says Soui Chaluenvanh from Nalae Village in Lao PDR. “I am very scared, but I try my best to protect myself and my family members because we are not rich. If we get the virus, it will cost a lot of money for hospitalization.”

RECOFTC delivered hand gel, face masks and thermometers to Yai Navan, Nalair, Hadai, Nakhagnang, Namaung, Kan, Somboom, Phoukeur, PaoSumpunmeexay and Nongfamai villages. These villages cover 247,428 hectares of community forests and are home to 13,441 people.

“The supplies are invaluable because we never receive these kinds of materials,” says Boutdy Panyasith from Navane Yai Village. “Recently the village provided information on COVID-19 but did not distribute anything.” 

Woman is interviewed about COVID-19 in Lao PDR
Chinda Milayvong, RECOFTC communication officer, interviews Soui Chaluenvanh from Nalae Village, Lao PDR.

Myanmar migrant workers bring home health and job concerns

The Internet has been shut down in some parts of Myanmar for more than a year and other areas have limited connectivity, leaving some people without crucial information on the pandemic.

Working with the Green Network, Motherland, Dawei COVID-19 Response Team and authorities from Tanintharyi and Karen forest departments, RECOFTC distributed hand gel, face masks and COVID-19 posters in local languages to 19 villages in Dawei, 12 villages in Karen State, and four villages in Myeik.

“Communities can be at risk if they do not know about the pandemic,” said Lae Lae Zaw, treasurer of the community forest user group of Kothlaing Village. “Official statements and information are in Burmese, which is the national language. But many among us mostly speak Dawei, Karen and Mon dialects.” 

Man unboxes COVID-19 supplies from European Union
Chairman of Kyaukse Community Forest U Myint Ko Ko unpacks PPE from the EU to help Thayet Chaung Township stop the spread of COVID-19.

In Tanintharyi region, RECOFTC distributed supplies to 23 villages. And in Karen State, 12 villages. These villages cover 8,638 hectares of community forest and are home to 2,980,513 people.

As chair of the community forest user group in Kyaukse Village, Myint Ko Ko, worries about migrant workers returning home. More than four million Myanmar nationals work abroad, mostly in China, Thailand, Malaysia and India. The loss of work for migrant workers is compounded by the fear that they could be carriers of the virus when they return to their home villages.

“There are many people and fishermen coming back to our region, and I just worry whether they might be COVID-19 positive even though they stay in quarantine as long as they can,” says Myint Ko Ko. 
 

Easy-to-understand COVID-19 instructions in local Thai dialects 

Raks Thai Foundation will distribute rice, soap, face masks, and other supplies to 35 villages in Nan Province, Thailand. They have already provided rice to almost 500 families in seven villages in Dong Phaya and Bo Kluea Tai subdistricts. More supplies will be distributed to communities in Bo Klue District, including a colouring book that shows how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and provides information about the importance of protecting forests.

“The pandemic took people by surprise, especially in the highland communities in Thailand,” says Traitip Sekararith, field coordinator with Raks Thai Foundation. “These communities speak many different local dialects. This is why we produced easy-to-understand communication materials for them to understand how to protect themselves and their loved ones from contracting or spreading COVID-19.”

"The pandemic took people by surprise, especially in the highland communities in Thailand."

 

Traitip Sekararith

In addition to sharing PPE, RECOFTC conducted a survey of forest communities across 30 provinces in Thailand in April 2020. The findings show that indigenous and local communities, especially those living in remote and highland areas, are struggling to access the internet to receive vital news and information. Two-thirds of the respondents said they have an unstable mobile internet connection. More than 17 percent said they have no internet connection. Others are unable to fully use internet technology for work because they can’t afford it or lack knowledge about online conferencing and other web tools.

Community forests, a source of resilience 

Forest communities have suffered from the pandemic in many ways. Movement restrictions have limited some forest patrolling. This has emboldened illegal loggers. Lockdown measures have hampered farmers. Migrant workers have lost jobs and many do not have the ability or the internet connectivity to work remotely or online from their homes in the forest communities they have returned to. They are all facing hardships beyond health concerns. 

The PPE will help the villagers adapt their lives to the new social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, the pandemic harshly reveals the economic vulnerabilities of these communities that live in and near forests. Their safety net is their community forest, where they can find food, fuelwood, medicines and other forest products. 

“The pandemic is another reminder of the importance of protecting our forests, not only to provide for the millions of people living who depend on them for life and livelihood but also as a barrier to prevent future zoonotic diseases,” says Robin Aus Der Beek, project coordinator at RECOFTC for the Voices for Mekong Forests project. 

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This story is produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its content is the sole responsibility of RECOFTC and it does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. To find out more about this and other activities under the EU-funded Voices for Mekong Forests, visit the project page.

RECOFTC's work is made possible with the continuous support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).