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      A Raindrop Cleans the Wetlands

By Susan Cunningham

Pisit Chansnoh takes great pride in the fact that he has helped impoverished fisherman on Thailand's Andaman Sea stand up Pisit Chansohto a group of World Bank officials who wanted to transform their nearby sleepy port into a powerhouse facility servicing ocean-going fishing ships and create jobs for everyone. They peppered the bankers with questions: What kind of jobs? Won't these ships create a lot of pollution? How would that affect the livelihood of small fishermen? What would be the effect on the local environment? The bankers slunk off and the port development project is on hold.

In the list of achievements by Yadfon, a non-governmental organization (NGO) set up to help impoverished fishermen, Pisit Chansnoh (pronounced PEE-zit CHA-nor) no doubt finds most significant that encounter with richer, more powerful people, because it illustrates the outcome of a long process. Not so long ago, the fisherfolk would not have made such efforts, he says. Or if they had, they would have failed. It took a great deal of time to build self-confidence and self-reliance in these people with whom he began working thirteen years ago.

When Pisit, his wife, Ploenjai (pronounced PAWN-jai), and two friends set up Yadfon in 1985, they decided to research the problems of seven remote coastal villages in Trang province. While there were other needy groups, these fishing families were the poorest of the province's poor, ignored by government and development organizations alike. Pisit saw their poverty and degraded environment as symptoms of a deeper problem: "They lived together, but they had forgotten how to work together and it was inconceivable that they would burden authorities with their problems, no matter how justified."

Rack for growing oysters
Rack for growing oysters at Ban Laem MaKham

That the fishermen were Muslim in a predominantly Buddhist nation contributed to their apathy. While there is little open animosity between Buddhists and Muslims, Muslims can't avoid being trapped in a rigidly hierarchical society, in which status is defined solely by displays of wealth. Because they were both poor and Muslim, the fishermen were doubly damned. "They felt they were second-class citizens," Pisit recalls.

The villagers were certainly aware of their problems. The arrival of big trawlers since the 1960s had depleted their catch and damaged their nets. They knew that the trawlers often fished illegally within three kilometers of the shore, but felt it was useless to complain since the trawler owners probably had powerful connections in government. Many were in debt to the middlemen who bought their fish. Some of these middlemen were what Thais call "influential people" – mafia sorts with links to government – who could then hand-pick headmen or instruct villagers how to vote.

The poorest villagers labored on the trawlers or worked for mangrove concessionaires, cutting Talking about medicinal plants trees for the production of charcoal. Old-timers realized that as well as a dwindling supply of mangrove trees, medicinal plants, fruits, honey and nipa palm (whose leaves are used to make thatch) had disappeared as well. Those without legal title to use or own their land feared that they were vulnerable to eviction, despite having occupied their homes for more than a century.

Villagers were less aware that the destruction of mangrove forests had also affected the supply of seafood. Mangrove trees with their tangled roots, exposed at low tide and submerged at high, are nurseries for fish and crabs. The disappearance of the mangroves led to erosion and silt that choked seagrass and coral. The fishing practices of small fishermen themselves (using dynamite and cyanide, and pushnets that a small motorboat can push along the sea floor) had directly damaged coral and the twelve species of seagrass – which had once sheltered and fed fish, shellfish, squid and turtles.

Although he had a degree in animal husbandry, Pisit and his friends knew little of coastal ecology when they started Yadfon, the country's first non-governmental organization devoted to coastal conservation.

But having worked elsewhere in the country for fifteen years in large bureaucratic NGOs, Thai and foreign, he did have firm ideas about Yadfon's shape and substance. It should encourage the formation of community organizations that could initiate and carry out their own projects. And it should remain small; the meaning of "Yadfon" in Thai is "Raindrop". Today there are still only eleven staff members.

Quietly Opening Doors

Pisit's patient, self-effacing manner easily opens doors; no one could be further from the familiar overdressed Thai authority figure that blows into town with a Mercedes and an entourage. And Ploenjai, a veteran social worker, had grown up in Trang province, on a farm outside the capital city. Regardless, the entire Yadfon staff were looked on with suspicion as outsiders, Buddhists at that, and had to earn the villagers' trust.

The staff spent long stretches living in the villages. "We spent the first year talking," Pisit recalls. "Meetings lead to wisdom. They make one think," he said.

Eventually, the communities decided that they most urgently needed wells, since they suffered severe drought in the dry season. Yadfon, with aid from the Canadian government, paid for the materials, aided in construction and recruited secondary school students to help out.

Processing hoi paa clams Subsequent experiments with small revolving funds had mixed success. Some of the very poor were able borrow from the funds supplied by fellow villagers, buy simple fishing boats and support themselves from fishing. Others were unable to pay back their loans. Pisit nonetheless believes the projects were worthwhile because "emerging from this activity were a number of leaders, whose later role in the community was equal to that of their middle-class counterparts in the villages."

During this time, villagers had been meeting among themselves and with Yadfon staff, development workers from other areas and academics with an interest in and knowledge of fisheries and forests. A group of people in Thung village decided to try to revive their badly degraded communal-use mangrove forest.

The rest of the marshy mangrove area was leased by the government to concessionaires. The group petitioned government officials to prohibit further tree cutting in the communal area and demarcate the boundaries with the concessionaires' portion. Perhaps the group hadn't harnessed a community consensus because one of the leaders was shot dead, an all-too-common consequence in Thailand when little people challenge powerful business interests.

Replanting the Mangrove Forests

In 1986, the group took a different tack. On their own, they started replanting the mangrove tree, Rhizophora, to show their genuine concern for the forest. They explained their reasons to fellow villagers and invited officials to take part. Ultimately the provincial governor was invited. According to Pisit, the governor was shocked by his first visit to such an impoverished place, rife with signs of child malnutrition, but the enthusiasm of the villagers persuaded him to support their requests for legal demarcation of the communal and concessionaires' forests.

During this time, an inter-village network sprang up as leaders of the seven Yadfon villages began meeting and exchanging ideas. Yadfon also sponsored training workshops and took them on study tours to see how other villages coped with development. By 1989, the initial 94 hectares (about 240 acres) of mangrove forest near the villages of Thung and Laem Sai were recovered.

Estuary conservation zone

The Forestry Department declared the area "a community-managed mangrove forest." It remains quite a distinction since it's still unclear whether the government recognizes community management of any other type of forests. The designation has since been extended to six reclaimed forests in the Yadfon target area. The twice-yearly planting parties are conducted in festive style. Provincial and district officials, fishery and forestry officers are invited. The officials lend an air of importance and endorsement to the activities.

In Bangkok, even the opening of a department store warrants a few uniformed or titled figures in attendance and their photographs in newspapers. Yet many an NGO or community association would be loath to allow government officials to win any credit for a project carried out by local people, particularly if it was necessitated by dereliction of official duties in the first place.

Quite at odds with the image of Thailand as "the land of smiles", more often than not NGOs are in conflict-sometimes violent conflict-with government authorities and "influential people". It's understandable. Displaced or threatened by big dams, polluted by industry or state enterprises, swindled out of their land . . . by the time a community organizes in protest or to sit-in in front of Parliament, exploited people are desperate.

"Sometimes we use harsh words, but nice words don't seem to achieve anything," says Pisit na Phattalung, executive director of Wildlife Fund Thailand. He believes that the force of Pisit Chansnoh's personality has had a great deal to do with Yadfon's success: "His softness doesn't intimidate villagers or any other Thais. He avoids creating bad feelings. He's gentle, but he doesn't budge." Yadfon's small size is probably another factor. "Perhaps some of us have spread ourselves too thin," he says.

Where 'Top-Down' has Bottomed-Out

Pisit Chansnoh believes the Yadfon approach is simply pragmatic. Coastal conservation, he says, depends on the concerted efforts of five groups: local communities, civil servants, academics, media and small business people.

The buzzword of the year, "stakeholders", has genuine meaning here. For villagers, the stake is their livelihood and quality of life. Initiatives must originate with them because "top-down hasn't worked."

Civil servants now have a stake in enforcing the law, in part because they are watched by the media, which has given wide and favorable coverage to Yadfon's activities. For marine and forestry scientists, their very subjects of study are endangered. With their short term vision, businesses are the hardest to reach and a nut that Pisit has yet to crack.

Night fishing

Following the mangrove strategy-displaying their sincerity and self-reliance coupled with multiple community discussions-villagers set out to protect coral and seagrass beds. Dead coral takes hundreds of years to replace, but with education campaigns and peer pressure, most small fishermen swore off dynamite, cyanide and the use of destructive nets near existing reefs. Unlike coral, seagrass beds recover quickly. At first, the boundaries of seagrass beds were designated with the trunks of coconut trees. This was a no-go area for boats with destructive "pushnets" that scraped the sea floor. Eventually, the Fisheries Department contributed buoys and signs.

The rewards are obvious to local people. Fish, shellfish, squid and turtles returned. Fishermen no longer have to travel so far out to sea, thus saving petrol and up to three hours traveling time daily. With simple wooden traps or handheld nets, children catch crabs in the seagrass or mangroves and can earn 300 baht ($8) in an afternoon. They once earned the same amount from a day of chopping mangrove trees.

Data on the increases in marine life, income and so on is gathered by the villagers themselves. Before launching any project, the villagers always undertake considerable "Participatory Action Research". It may entail mapping seagrass beds or surveying the populace to learn who derives income from which resource.

Planning participatory action research

Bung Hed Hawa, a leader in the village of Ban Chao Mai, recalls that "WhenYadfon first told me about the importance of seagrasses, I thought they were crazy. Now I'm telling others that seagrass, coral, mangroves, crabs and turtles are all very important. You can't have rich corals without the mangrove forest. You can't have crabs and fish without seagrass".

Dugong to the Rescue

Saving the seagrass also had some unforeseen consequences. In 1995, off Ban Chao Mai, a dugong made its home in the revived seagrass. Related to the manatee, this sea mammal is almost extinct along the coast and most young people had never seen one. The media descended in a frenzy. Wildlife Fund's Pisit believes that the dugong was an important factor in firming government support for the villagers' seagrass protection zones, "No one wanted to be accused of threatening the dugong," he says.

With a history of success and cooperation behind them, fisherfolk were able to take on the large trawlers trespassing in the three-kilometer coastal zone, often using destructive and illegal fishing gear, such as dragnets and purse seine nets. The villagers' usual tactic is to putter out in several longboats and politely inform the trawler crew of their error. The Fisheries Department had always pleaded a lack of manpower to enforce the law. Through shame or duty, the community patrols have spurred officers to became more active.

Trang River Club students
Junior high students in the Trang River Club
examine samples of marine life

Not that a victory for any small-scale fishermen or farmers is permanent. They must remain vigilant, especially now that the nation is mired in deep depression. In early August, a group of trawler fishermen met with the Trang provincial governor, Phinyo Chalermond, urging him to reduce the protective zone from three to one kilometer. No matter that its a national law that the governor did not have power to amend. Earlier in the summer, trawler owners on the east coast were making similar, louder demands. In Thailand, it is the sort of opening salvo that ends up diluting many laws.

After the meeting in Trang, Phinyo's coments on the television news were ambiguous. Small fishermen from thirty fishing communities swung into action. Gathering in one of Yadfon's shophouse buildings (a 2-3 story building with living quarters above the shop) they decided to request a meeting with the governor, which was arranged for the next day. The governor clarified his opposition to altering the zone. When the fishermen asked him to do so in writing, he went one better and made the statement on television.

Eventually, the Decade of the Ocean

  Read about the threat intensive shrimp farming poses to Thailand's remaining mangrove forests in "Pink Gold" below  
It was the kind of action that the fishermen would never have marshaled fifteen years earlier. Pisit says: "The philosophy has started to change in favor of community-based fishery management. It's not just a few organizations now; it's a movement. While I once would never have expected it, the government is now somewhat more open to the concept of local people co-managing resources."

In the next decade, he believes that oceans will become more the focus of international environmental concern. That in turn could shift attention to the world's insatiable consumption of its resources. More pessimistically, he fears that the coastal resources of Thailand and other nations bordering the Andaman Sea are continuing to deteriorate. But the newest threat isn't coming from the sea. It's the small intensive shrimp farms which, after wreaking destruction on the eastern coast and in countries elsewhere in the region, are now sprouting up behind the mangroves and among the rice fields of the western coast.


Pisit is an Ashoka Fellow, and in the past Yadfon has received aid from the Asia Foundation, the Australian and Canadian governments as well as private Italian and Australian aid agencies. The baht devaluation, however, has had little impact on Yadfon's operations. It continues to run on a budget of one million baht (now $25,000) per year. With Yadfon's three-year European Union grant scheduled to run out in early 1999, Pisit is looking for new funding sources.

Pisit would like to share "information, case studies, books and advocacy" with other groups working on coastal conservation, fisheries and shrimp cultivation-especially those elsewhere in Southeast Asia and in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Yadfon has also had contacts with the International Rivers Network , World Rainforest Movement and was among the first members of the Mangrove Action Project , based in Seattle. Yadfon is too small to accommodate volunteer workers, unless they speak Thai. If people, particularly in the North, are concerned about coastal conservation and the future of the world's small fishermen, he says, they should learn more about the sources of the seafood they eat. As in the case of shrimp, they should support efforts to label or otherwise identify seafood that has been harvested in a sustainable manner.



Pisit Chansnoh
Yadfon Association
16/4 Rakchan Road
Tambon Tabtieng, Amphur Muang
Trang 92000
Tel: 66­75­219737, 214707
Fax: 66­75­219327

Author Susan Cunningham is an American freelance journalist based in Bangkok. She has written on many environmental subjects and traveled widely in Asia.

"Pink Gold"

Most of the country's remaining mangrove forests are still in the hands of logging concessionaires. The most ominous threat, however, is intensive shrimp farming.

Shrimp farming initially swept the Gulf and eastern coast a decade ago, as Thailand became the world's biggest producer and exporter of cultivated shrimp, specifically the large Black Tiger prawn. Despite the swaths of abandoned, salinated plots there, the ponds are now popping up amidst the rice paddies in Trang Province and elsewhere along the western coast. It's now recognized that mangrove forest soil is too acidic for prime shrimp farming. But since mangroves can filter the wastewater, the new farms are often located just behind them. No one knows just how much of the pesticides and antibiotics the mangroves can withstand. But wherever the ponds, the waste tends to pollute neighboring rice farms – if the ponds don't self-destruct first.

Abandoned shrimp farm
Abandoned shrimp farm in the Kantang district

Nipon Jaipleum is a lecturer at Rajamagala Institute of Technology, on the east coast at Nakhon Si Thammarat, and a monitor of a European Union grant to Yadfon, a small coastal conservation organization. As far as he can tell, the vast majority of Thai shrimp farmers are driven out of business within five years and probably into deep debt. Yet the evidence of exhausted shrimp ponds hasn't dulled the allure. Nipon and Yadfon's Pisit Chansnoh say that Thais are gamblers who are seduced by the chance of getting rich quick. The economic downslide since July 1997 has only buffed the allure. In baht terms, shrimp now earns even more because the baht has declined 40 percent against the US dollar. By trucking in seawater, Thais are now pioneering shrimp cultivation far inland, deep in prime rice-growing territory. The cash-strapped Thai government is little inclined to regulate an export that in 1996 brought in $2 billion.

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