Upper tributary watersheds in the Mekong Region have become a contested zone over land, forest and water policies and management practices. Pressure on groups living in the uplands of the Mekong has increased over the past decades, especially with respect to rights to access resources – land, water and forests. The most typical configuration sets State agencies with strong lowland perspectives against upland farmers with different land-use practices and cultures. NGOs, mass-media and academics align at opposite poles making contradictory claims about impacts on forest conservation, flood risks, poverty reduction, usage and availability of water.
One critical issue reiterated by M-POWER researchers is that 'watershed' and 'watershed management' are contested terms. Who defines these terms and how, is crucial to what happens (or not) in terms of management practices in the uplands. A lot of watershed politics and policy revolves around misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the hydrological consequences of changes in land-use in upper tributary watersheds.
There is a lot of conventional wisdom, both in technical bureaucracies and in local rural communities, which may in fact be wrong. Governance approaches to upland areas have been affected by wider reforms. Decentralization in the Mekong Region, for instance, has put more responsibility for natural resources in the hands of local communities, but at the same time stronger state regulations over forests and commitments to conservation has often given more powers to forest and other land agencies in certain areas.
Increased awareness of ecosystem services provided by upland watersheds has been a tool for both asserting importance of management by upland farmers and forest users as well as a basis for exclusion. Payments for ecosystem services are being talked about as a possible alternative approach to reducing poverty in the uplands while improving forest conservation. However, not all environmental uses generate financial returns commensurate with their true economic value.
Action-research interventions such as multi-level dialogues and debate appear to be useful and necessary to address issues of access and equity and to resolve conflicts. This appears especially true in situations where the issues at stake are multi-level (and even sometimes transboundary) and no single actor or agency is either able or willing to handle them.