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No Empty Boats

A Thai conservationist helps fishermen prosper

By Marilyn Berlin Snell

On the morning of September 11, 2002, a small group of determined Muslim men gather in Ban Kang Kao, an isolated fishing village on the Andaman Sea coast of southwestern Thailand. An off-market day, the rough-hewn, mangrove-slatted tables, usually weighted with fish, crabs, lemongrass, chilies, cassava, and other local produce, are empty. Subdued chickens peck around the dirt for any trace of discarded food. The men remove their shoes and use the tables as chairs, sitting cross-legged under a roof made of thatched nypa palm. A few smoke as they chat quietly before the meeting begins; the tobacco, rolled thinly in nypa leaves, smells pleasantly sweet.

The agenda is simple: The fishermen want to take charge of a 2,600-acre swath of nearby mangrove forest. After being decimated and then abandoned by a charcoal company, which used the wood to make briquettes for barbecues worldwide, the area is now in the hands of the Thai Department of Forestry, which is doing nothing to restore or protect it.

More than 50 percent of the vast mangrove forests along Thailand’s 1,600-mile coastline have been destroyed by charcoal companies, expanding cities and resorts, and industrial shrimp aquaculture—the latter accounting for the majority of loss over the last two and a half decades. (Today Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of cultivated shrimp.) The spidery mangrove roots reach into the murky soil of tropical intertidal zones, protecting the coastline from erosion and filtering out stream-borne silt before it can reach the coral reefs and sea grass beds just offshore. As breeding areas, nurseries, and feeding grounds for marine life, mangrove forests are also among the planet’s most productive and biodiverse wetlands. Their destruction has led to crashing fish stocks throughout the Gulf of Thailand on the nation’s eastern side as well as in the Andaman Sea.

In an attempt to reverse this trend locally, Ban Kang Kao and two other villages want to create a community-managed forest—which entails first getting permission from provincial authorities, then nurturing the habitat back to health, and, finally, responsibly using its resources. It’s a plan that puts poor people first, while also putting them in charge. In Thailand, it appears to be working.

Leaders from several nearby villages have been invited as advisors because they already have thriving community forests and seabed conservation zones—well-marked areas in which restricted fishing protects the young sea turtles and the threatened dugong (a relative of the manatee) that live in the sea grass. The man preparing to sit at the head of the mangrove-slatted table is Pisit Charnsnoh, a Thai Buddhist from Trang—a city 25 miles to the east. Charnsnoh (pronounced CHAHN-sa-noh), who usually greets people with a bow, hands clasped before him as if in prayer, foregoes his Buddhist tradition with the Muslim villagers. Instead, the men clasp each other at the elbow or put an arm around a shoulder. This is a meeting of old friends.

Charnsnoh is cofounder and president of the nonprofit Yadfon Association, which works with a staff of seven to "serve communities and learn from them with respect," as a former employee once put it. Charnsnoh started Yadfon in 1985 with his wife, Ploenjai (she prefers the nickname Luong), and several friends. That year, he and Luong had pulled up stakes in the overcrowded city of Bangkok and moved their four children to Trang, where Luong had grown up and her parents still lived. Both Charnsnohs are graduates of Thailand’s turbulent student democracy and antiwar movement of the 1960s (the country’s military government provided bases for U.S. troops during the Vietnam War, and thousands of Thai soldiers were sent to battle in support of South Vietnam). Post-university, they worked with rice farmers in the central and northern provinces of the country and on urban labor issues in Bangkok. By 1985 they were ready to go home to the southern region (Pisit comes from a town 150 miles north of Trang). They knew their lot was with the poor, but beyond that they didn’t quite know how their new organization would contribute.

"Over my years of work with nongovernmental organizations, I observed that the more Thailand developed, the more we had poor people," says the 58-year-old Charnsnoh, referring to the export-driven economic policies favored by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund over the last 40 years. "The Thai government looked West for development models. We tried to be American but we failed, and the experiment cost us economically, environmentally, and culturally. I don’t support this path. I support development according to local culture."

Charnsnoh speaks softly in accented English. Sometimes his sentences resemble portents from the I Ching, as when he says, "Like a mountain, starting with a broad foundation and the rootedness of local knowledge is better." A roped-off man, he prefers listening to speaking. He has described his approach to grassroots organizing as nonconfrontational yet steadfast—a mix of receptive and strong, accommodating and authoritative. Well-balanced, he’s also built like a welterweight and not easily pushed around.

The village of Ban Kang Kao got electricity three months ago. The long dirt road that connects a string of fishing villages through the mangrove forest to the main highway is only three years old. When Charnsnoh decided to visit the area in 1985, he and two colleagues had to hire longboats to take them up the coast and across Sikao Bay, where huge limestone formations jut from the sea like sentries for the gods. There was no other way in. "When we arrived, kids ran away from us crying, afraid of foreign people. That’s how isolated they’d been." Unfortunately, they’d had enough contact to have gotten into debt with middlemen who bought the fishermen’s catch. The fishing communities were poor even compared with small-scale rubber and rice farmers farther inland. "Muslims are a minority in Thailand, and the government treats them almost like second-class citizens. They lag behind in health, education, infrastructure—everything."

On that first day nearly two decades ago, Charnsnoh met the local imam, Bu Nuansri, a religious leader and fisherman who lives in Ban Leam Makham, a mile down the way from Ban Kang Kao. Charnsnoh spent the night in Nuansri’s small wood-frame home, and they stayed up late talking. "Bu was neutral about me at first—open, but neutral." For the next few months Charnsnoh and other Yadfon staff lived in the village and listened. Part of the process entailed studying the basic concepts of Islam. "At first it was very simple: What to do, what not to do. But later we learned how Islam includes politics, economics, and also environmentalism. To exploit resources unnecessarily is a sin; to use resources in a luxurious way is a sin. You can’t cut too much, fish too much." Charnsnoh compared favorably the things he was discovering about Islam with his own Buddhist faith. "There is this aspect of moderation at the root of every religion," he says. "It’s just that some prioritize it more than others."

Nuansri was noticing destructive fishing practices before Charnsnoh and his Yadfon associates arrived but, Nuansri says, they hastened change. Nuansri had been using push nets—a technique akin to fishing with a bulldozer—in which weighted nets were set at the bow and pushed along by the boat’s motor, shattering coral reefs and ripping up sea grass beds. "I began to notice how bad the push nets were, but also how they took advantage of my fellow fishermen, who were only using hooks."

The imam became an early and powerful advocate of sustainable fishing, resigning his religious post to focus on environmental issues and community development—which he says are inseparable. In 1986, with Yadfon staff acting as a liaison with the Department of Forestry, Nuansri helped several villages create a 235-acre community-managed mangrove forest and sea grass conservation zone, the first in Thailand. Villagers replanted large areas of the forest, which in southern Thailand contains as many as 74 species of flora. They declared limited-fishing zones. They worked with fishermen to stop the practice of cyanide and dynamite fishing. And they petitioned district authorities to enforce a ban on the use of commercial trawlers within two miles of shore (the massive trawlers use nets that destroy the sea floor while sweeping up huge quantities of noncommercial fish that are killed and then simply discarded). As a result of these and other efforts undertaken by 16 additional fishing villages in the area, fishers increased their catch by 40 percent from 1991 to 1994—even though they were spending three to four hours less each day in their boats.

I ask Nuansri what happens when people break the fishing rules. "First they get a warning," he says. "Then the imam would give them a social sanction, like not being allowed to go to the village festivals, which is very serious. But we’ve never had to give a social sanction."

Charnsnoh notes that there are usually three distinct groups in the villages, which comprise from 80 to 200 families. One group, about 30 to 40 percent, he says, understands the connection between environmental protection and community development and wants to be actively involved in change. A smaller group that benefits from the destruction likes things just as they are. The largest group, he says, is on the fence. "Our work is to find and focus everyone on common goals."

Ban Kang Kao residents have been impressed by the results in Nuansri’s village and elsewhere and want to join with two other villages to create their own community-managed forest. At the September 11 meeting, Nuansri talks to the men about what Yadfon has done. "Conservation ensures that every day you come home with fish, not with an empty boat," he tells the gathering.

A fresh-faced teacher (the only young man to participate in the meeting) next explains that his fifth- and sixth-grade students have gone into the forest and inventoried the flora and fauna. They drew detailed color pictures of Rhizophora apiculata and Rhizophora mucronata (two types of red mangroves, the main species), with their sheltering prop roots exposed at low tide, and some of the 386 animals that live there. The students learned and wrote down the proper names, then studied the various ways that villagers could use the plants and animals sustainably.

As the teacher speaks and passes us the results of the students’ work, Charnsnoh’s wife, Luong, translates. When she puts on her black-rimmed reading glasses to study the handouts, she suddenly looks professorial—a sharp contrast to her easy laugh and wide, open face. We are sitting off to the side of the meeting. The elder men are making the decisions, while village women and younger men, also off to the side, in a different group, listen but don’t join in. Luong whispers that the teacher has helped Yadfon by having his students go home and tell their parents what they’ve learned in class.

Luong and I are so busy keeping up with the presentation, we don’t notice that village women have quietly brought gifts for the Charnsnohs and laid them next to Luong. There are two huge purple crabs that were caught in the mangrove forest, their pincers slowly opening and closing inside a mesh bag, and several pounds of chestnuts gathered from near the village. Heads covered with hijabs, the women smile when we notice; Luong reaches out and grabs their arms in delighted thanks—causing a discreet bit of commotion that the decision-makers don’t seem to notice.

At 12:45, an imam begins singing over the village loudspeaker—a call to prayer at the open-air mosque across the dirt road—and the meeting adjourns.

To date, Yadfon has worked in 30 coastal villages. Mirroring the intimately connected ecosystems it seeks to protect, five years ago the organization began branching out to 10 inland villages and the waterways that nourish the mangrove forests and communities downstream. On the day we visit one of these villages, we interrupt a women’s meeting. Those gathered under the thatched roof are not locals. The women had gotten into minor trouble with the police in the city of Trang and had been sentenced to community service. Today they are being initiated in the village of Na Khao Sia, where they are learning from local women about the value and traditional uses of sago palm trees. They are then expected to take this knowledge home and put it to good use. Unprepared but eager to speak, Luong removes her shoes, bows to the women (who bow back from their seats), and moves to the front for a talk about sago.

Wherever they haven’t been yanked out by farmers or plowed under in government "beautification" campaigns, sago palms line the banks of streams and ponds in the rice-farming region. The languorously limbed trees droop into the water, often shedding their prodigious fronds, providing a sheltered habitat for fish. Their shade reduces evaporation and keeps the soil moist during the dry season, and their roots protect the banks from erosion. Pulp harvested from sago produces a high-fiber, low-fat starch similar in texture, nutritional benefit, and use to whole-wheat flour. A syrup can also be made, and fronds can be used for weaving and thatching.

This sort of local wisdom was known in the upland villages but had fallen into disuse. Luong has taken the lead in encouraging sago conservation and production because handling sago is women’s work. "In other campaigns women keep quiet," says Luong with a conspiratorial grin. "But with the sago projects the men sit on the back seats and listen for once."

Her husband feints around Luong’s gentle poke. "Our waterways are the key links between communities," he says. "It is 75 miles from the coast to the mountain range in the middle of the southern region. If people along every part of the link work to protect their resources, we have some hope."

It is not an idle hope. Yadfon has been instrumental in bringing before Thailand’s parliament the first-ever popularly written Community Forest Act. The act mandates that if villagers can show they have managed their lands well—even if they reside in national parks—they retain the right to continue living in and harvesting from those areas. "We held public forums all over the country," says Charnsnoh with a hint of pride. Fifty thousand small-scale farmers and fishers participated, and helped write the act. Authors of their own future, these once-disenfranchised Thais are becoming authorities on how best to use and also protect their land.

"Our work has proven that if poor people have proper support they can survive and also the forest can survive," says Charnsnoh. "I don’t mean that people are all good, but if they are well-informed they will usually be conservationists."

The Lower House of Parliament voted overwhelmingly in 2001 to support the Community Forest Act. When it went to the Upper House, says Charnsnoh, unacceptable amendments shifting power away from the poor were added before it was sent back to the Lower House—which stuck to its guns and refused the changes. A special committee has been created, of which Charnsnoh is a member, to work out a compromise. He believes that the act will be passed by March, with the only change being a somewhat more stringent review process for evaluating sustainable practices.

In Thai, yadfon means "raindrop." "Rain cools the temperature and makes new life possible," says Charnsnoh. "And it’s fair to everyone." It also touches the ground one drop at a time. Over nearly two decades, Yadfon has gained force as well as notice. Last year, Charnsnoh was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize and $125,000 for his work on behalf of poor communities, their cultures, and the environments in which they dwell. For Charnsnoh, his work is a tribute to Buddhism’s Middle Path of right action. "It’s not good or bad; it is correct. It’s a fact."

Because Western appetites drive the construction of intensive shrimp operations worldwide, in 1992 Charnsnoh cofounded the Seattle-based Mangrove Action Project, which connects an international network of 400 conservation groups and 250 scientists in order to protect the forests and promote restoration. "I prefer to work on the local level," says Charnsnoh, "but global work is important if we’re going to protect that vital area where land and sea meet." In 1997, he cofounded the International Shrimp Action Network, alerting consumers to the often devastating impacts of industrially farmed shrimp, including displaced communities, clearcut mangrove forests, and heavy use of antibiotics and toxic fertilizers. "It’s important to reduce the consumption of shrimp, to return to quality taste rather than quantity," says Charnsnoh. "Everything we do in this life requires proper action—even eating."

Late on the evening of September 11, I turn on the television back at my hotel in Trang and see the West, halfway around the world, just waking up to ceremonies of grief. In Washington, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu is telling a cathedral gathering that "we are all bound together." Just as true, I thought, of the interdependent mangrove forests, coral reefs, sea grass beds, Buddhist conservationists, Muslim fishermen, and international consumers of cheap farmed shrimp. In making these links, Charnsnoh’s work is the epitome of "sustainable development," yet he says there is no direct translation for the term in Thai. "When I speak of it I say peace, and happy life."

To find out how you can help, visit www.sierraclub.org (search "shrimp farming"), the Mangrove Action Project at www.earthisland.org/map, and the Industrial Shrimp Action Network at www.shrimpaction.org.


Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra’s writer/editor.

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