Pisit Chansnoh is demonstrating how local wisdom and traditional fishing techniques can reclaim degraded coastal wetlands and improve the way of life for poor fishermen and their families. His program assists them in organizing to protect their fishing grounds and in devising strategies to increase their earning power.
The New Idea
An emerging truth of the world-wide environmental movement is that real ecological stability can only come through a sustainable integration of man and nature, not by the creation of parks and refuges alone. This is clearly illustrated in the wetlands of Trang Province, southern Thailand, where the organization founded and directed by Chansnoh, Yad Fon (Raindrop Association), assists fishermen in protecting their local fishing grounds and the mangrove swamps which are the nursery of the future catch. Their fishing grounds need protection from trawlers which illegally fish within the three kilometer limit using nets and dynamite. The fishing areas are also seriously threatened by the local charcoal industry and from profitable shrimp farms whose waste fouls marine breeding areas.
Working closely with fisher folk, respectful of their customs and mores, traditional knowledge and techniques, Yad Fon's field workers identify problems and help find solutions. The resulting strategies form a multi-layered approach to wetland conservation and reclamation which relies on traditional technologies, as well as cooperation and information-sharing with other fishing villages, citizens' organizations with complementary goals, and cooperative government agencies or officials. When these fishermen are convinced that a healthy environment pays off by enabling them to earn a good enough living to support their families, they become empowered to help protect the fragile ecosystem which is being threatened by major forces.
Yad Fon has targeted the very poorest villages in southern Thailand. Traditionally dependent on fishing for their livelihood, they are predominantly Muslim and do not receive as many government benefits as do Buddhist communities. A monopoly in the wholesale fish distribution network bound up with a system of credits to villagers conspires to keep their economic status low. They have no power to negotiate better prices for their catch with those to whom they owe money. In recent years a variety of destructive forces have combined to reduce stocks in their traditional fishing grounds. Villagers who can no longer fish go into debt and find the only way out is to cut down the mangrove forests for the local charcoal industry, thus further devastating the ecosystem which has sustained them for generations.
This ecosystem is comprised of three interdependent components: the mangrove swamp, the underwater sea grass forest, and the coral reef. All three must be protected to maintain the ecology of the wetlands and nurture the marine life upon which the fishermen depend.Trawlers dynamiting and net fishing within the three kilometer limit destroy the coral reef and sea grass forest. Laws prohibiting these practices exist but are poorly enforced. Likewise, it is illegal for shrimp farms to discharge toxic waste, but since shrimp farmers are very wealthy, they are able to influence local officials not to regulate them too closely.
Through Yad Fon, Chansnoh has devised an approach to preserving the wetlands ecology and the fishermen's livelihood which considers every aspect of the complex environment.The staff of eleven field workers spend extended periods of time living with and learning from villagers, and observing the layering of causes which has led to their current crisis. Gaining the local people's confidence is essential for the education component of Chansnoh's program to be effective. A respect for the fishermen's knowledge and techniques is central to the strategy. "They are our teachers, they know more about the natural history of their environment than you will ever find in a textbook," Chansnoh asserts. Starting out with four, but at present including seventeen communities within the project area, Chansnoh's education project has led villagers not only to stop cutting down mangrove forests but also to replant. Villagers have been more successful in reintroducing saplings using their traditional techniques than government field workers following guidelines from agricultural institutions. The use of traditional technologies will encourage group awareness and stop individuals in engaging in destructive activities. Techniques of planting the Rhizophora SP, the use of locally made fish traps (which interfere with commercial fishing), and the use of other obstructions to keep the commercial boats from shore are examples of the knowledge and skills of the villagers that are being employed.
The fishermen eventually benefit from a healthy coastal ecosystem because it provides alternative fishing grounds comprised of mangrove swamp, sea grass forest or coral reef subsystems, depending on the season and weather conditions.
Helping, supporting, and pressuring local officials in law enforcement is an ongoing objective. By setting up village watches for illegal trawler activity, and coordinating and lobbying with other citizens' organizations sharing this concern, the coastal area within the project is gaining protection. And through the citizen group and village association network, successful strategies are being shared with other coastal communities. Chansnoh has also learned how effectively to enlist mass media to gain attention and arouse public sympathy for his causes. The mass media currently used are local and national newspapers, radio, and television. Academics from various educational institutions are also used as facilitators of information about Yad Fon. In addition, Chansnoh is an effective fund raiser and has traveled widely to spread the word about the work of Yad Fon.
A small revolving fund has been set up supplying interest free loans to fishermen for equipment. This reduces their dependency on the distribution monopoly and puts them in a better bargaining position for their catch. Yad Fon is showing villagers how to organize effectively in support of their interests. His long-term goal is to plant and nurture among fisher folk.
Even while he's developing and refining his approach along the Trang coastline, he's beginning the equally difficult task of spreading it, starting with all the Thai provinces along the Andaman coastal area.
Ultimately, Pisit Chansnoh envisages regional cooperation for the conservation of the rich but endangered coastal wetlands of southeast Asia. He's recently helped spark a gathering of citizens' groups to become active in this field within the ASEAN region. In addition, Chansnoh has just been asked to become a group director of the international "Mangrove Action Plan".
Pisit Chansnoh has devoted his career to working with the underprivileged in rural development. He grew up in the fishing villages along the Trang Province, where he learned the value of the coastline and the ecological and human community who depends on it.