The Coastal Village of Chao Mai, Thailand: Restoring the Ecological Balance

Fishing is vital to the Muslim coastal village of Chao Mai in Trang province, Southern Thailand. So when the fish catches began to decline, so too did the economic fortunes of the villagers.

Traditionally, small scale subsistence fishing has been the main occupation for coastal villagers. However, beginning in the late 1960's, fishermen were drawn into the commercial fishing industry, which established branches in the area to buy fish and to grant credits for villagers to purchase larger boats and ever more sophisticated fishing equipment. A debt cycle was established, bearable so long as the catch was large.

An even more complicated and interlinked cycle of problems arose as the government also opened up coastal mangrove forests to concessionaires to cut for charcoal production. Mangrove forests, not being renewed at an appropriate rate, were depleted. More recently, both the forces of agri-business and government policy made prawn farming on the coast a rapid growth industry, degrading the mangroves further and also added pollution to the toll on the environment.

All in all, the ecological balance was upset. The depletion of mangrove forests meant a reduction in marine life sanctuaries and the depletion of nearshore sea grass which grows on silt washed down from the mangroves. The encroachment near the shore of larger boats using pull nets (a type of trawler) on the sea bed also destroyed the sea grass which served as nature's marine life nurseries. This had a severe effect on the livelihood of villagers, who, with small boats, could only fish in shallow waters. It also served to create conflicts between small scale fishers and those with larger boats and the commercial fishing companies. Social conflicts over resources multiplied. Environmental degradation and economic survival are concretely linked in the lives of the Trang coastal villagers.

Villagers, who had traditionally depended on the mangroves, attempted to protect these areas from encroachment by concessionaires without success. In fact, the conflict incurred loss of life. They had also tried to negotiated with other village fishers who used pull nets and other destructive equipment. With the pull netters closely linked to large commercial fishing concerns, negotiations failed to produce results. In frustration the villagers attempted to post obstacles around sea grass areas to deter the larger destructive vessels. Tragically, this cost them the destruction of their own smaller-scale and environmentally friendly equipment as well as injuries and deaths. Villagers felt that government policies worked against them in both the mangrove and pull-net cases. The villagers themselves, unable to fully unite, and lacking outside support, had little bargaining power.

It was at this low ebb in villagers' morale that Yadfon (Raindrop) Association began to work with the small scale fishers in Chao Mai. Yadfon first encouraged villagers to organize activities to supplement their incomes. A high point was setting up a gas station to compete with fishing industry outlets. They were successful in bringing down the price of gas, making it more economical to fish. Thus encouraged, the villagers turned once again to environmental protection in order to safeguard their livelihood in the longer term. Yadfon had access to people and resources that were able to reassure the villagers that their traditional knowledge and approach was valuable. They worked with the villagers to gain the cooperation of the local forestry office and the province administration in designating 500 rai (about 80 hectares) as "community mangroves". Villagers now responsibly manage the mangrove forests, helping to ward off encroaching concessionaires as well as planting seedlings to begin a restoration process.

Sea grass is also an important part of the delicate coastal ecosystem. The villagers set the example themselves by refraining from using destructive fishing equipment and motivated those in other villages to do likewise. A publicity campaign for the protection of sea grass areas was launched that involved fishery, forestry and province officials, university academics and the media. It was an effective campaign, which led to a reduction of encroachments, particularly from pull-net boats; however there was no increase in legal enforcement of the 3,000 metre legal fishing limit.

Though Yadfon and the villagers have been able to gain support, including some financial, from provincial level authorities for their mangrove restoration projects, it has been a limited commitment. The state still considers the mangroves to be state property and that the village communities have no legal rights over them. Such projects are thus only possible as government projects with villager participation.

Another effective campaign, directed at sea grass conservation and developed with the assistance of Wildlife Fund Thailand, has led to a provincial level project financed jointly by the Ministry of Interior and Yadfon that involve villagers, government agencies, research institutes and NGOs. The villagers hope that this campaign will foster support for their goal to identify destructive fishing techniques as illegal, and to pressure authorities to strictly enforce the 3,000 metre coastal limit.

Both these efforts at mangrove and sea grass conservation are frustrated by the lack of legal recognition of community organizations' rights and powers to manage coastal resources in their localities. It is in this context that Yadfon and the villagers are joining with a national NGO network to advocate the legalization of community organizations and their rights to use and manage local environment resources.

The villagers' efforts have led to improvements in the ecological system as seen by recognizable increases in marine life, even of the rare varieties such as dugongs (similar to manatees), sea turtles, sea lions and whales. These successes have led them to launch conservation projects to protect these unique marine creatures. Villagers have agreed to refrain from the collection of turtle eggs for food and trade, and from using damaging fishing equipment. Chao Mai even "adopted" a friendly dugong as a symbol of their community's commitment to conservation. Signs are posted to ask visitors to be respectful to their friend, named 'Tone', who swims close to their shore. And since Tone feeds on sea-grass, he helps to reinforce the benefits of their conservation efforts. Unfortunately, they still face resistance from pull netters, necessitating further lobbying to government to assist the project.

Such improvements in the environment have had a favourable effect on the villagers' livelihood, with increases in income, and a more even distribution of income. Another important product of their conservation activities had been the development of village organizations, and the emergence of natural leaders from their communities. The villagers have renewed confidence of their ability to manage problems concerning their environment and livelihood. They have seen how cooperation can create community power, and how effective that is when negotiating with villagers, commercial interests and governmental authorities. Their efforts have achieved limited changes in policy at the province level, and more of the province's budget is being allocated to environmental projects, and stricter enforcements on illegal fishing.

Yadfon continues to work with the villagers, particularly in matters involving negotiations with governmental authorities, and in providing technical and publicity support. The achievements in Trang remain an unusual case. So long as there is no shift in government policy, provincial officials will remain limited in their capacities. Villagers and NGOs see the need to continue to work with the national NGO network in a coordinated effort at policy advocacy.

Apart from working with villagers, Yadfon has gathered around it sympathetic school teachers, university lecturers and other members of the middle class in the sub-region. Teachers are developing educational projects involving students in cooperative efforts with villagers in environmental protection. In addition, the Trang Environmental Protection Group has been formed to work with neighbouring inland communities. The aim is to help identify community leaders and to build community organizations which it views as a sure way of nurturing democracy at the grassroots.

The community of Chao Mai is encouraged by their work. A feeling of pride, and renewed cooperative spirit is developing as they work to ensure that their small scale, selective gear fishing industry can survive, maybe even flourish.

Written by Prudhisan Jumbala

From the "How to Live in the Real World" education kit, created by the Nova Scotia Environment & Development Coalition.

Excerpt from a paper prepared for the International Conference on Thai Studies, July '93, entitled "Mobilization, Movement Formation and Politicization: Environment- Related Cases From Southern Thailand"

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