Grassroots - Hope in a raindrop
DON DE SILVA
Thailand's coastal regions are under serious threat. High-powered trawlers relentlessly encroach traditional fishing grounds. Reefs are destroyed to feed the tourist market for coral. Beach resorts have taken over prime land. Mangrove forests are being cut down for charcoal to make way for shrimp farms. Poor fishing families are driven further into poverty and despair.
Yadfon (meaning raindrop), a small non-governmental organization in Trang Province in the south of the country, is trying to reverse the trend by helping poor fishing communities organize themselves to campaign for their rights, establish community development programmes and restore degraded environments. It uses hut-to-hut visits and community discussions to create awareness about the crucial links between the fishing communities and the environment, and enable the communities to act.
The fishermen of Ban Leam Tri, for example, negotiated higher prices for their catches after Yadfon videoed businessmen buying fish at rock-bottom prices from them and selling it for much more at town markets - and screened the programmes during community meetings. They also confronted the local suppliers and forced them to cut the exorbitant price of fuel for fishing boats by two-thirds.
The village imam recalls another triumph: 'Recently, a big palm-oil company near our village polluted the waters, damaging our nets and devastating the fish breeding stock. We lost a lot of money and our people suffered. We made a video production, which was shown on our local cable TV. Newspapers and radio stations also gave wide coverage to our plight and the public supported our campaign. The company's shareholders urged it to compensate the fishing communities and, in the end, we received full compensation.'
The organization is also helping the communities to find alternatives to environmental degradation such as the destruction of mangrove forests, which are sanctuaries for fish and other marine life. In the past, the communities placed little pressure on the mangroves, but as fishermen were forced out of their traditional way of life, they resorted to cutting them
for charcoal factories. This further reduced the fish stocks and put the communities' livelihoods under even greater threat.
Instead of pressing the communities to stop, Yadfon
is helping them establish alternative sources of income, such as harvesting crab - much in demand in hotels and town markets - with local techniques. Fishermen are trained to make crab-traps using local bamboo, and in
half-a-day's work with a dozen traps can earn more than in two days of cutting down mangroves.
Other initiatives help the communities to conserve, and regrow, the mangrove forests and to establish seagrass zones.
The communities are also taking action against commercial trawlers, owned by powerful business interests, by constructing artificial reefs to protect their traditional fishing grounds. When the trawlers smashed through the reefs, the fishermen set up their own system of patrol boats. When a trawler is sighted the community is alerted. Some trawlers immediately beat a hasty retreat, but when they stand their ground, groups from the community go out and ask them to turn away. If reason fails, the fishermen confiscate the nets and hand them to the local police. They know that this may cause trouble as commercial fishing industrialists wield considerable power and influence,
but they strive to keep the Governor and other leading politicians and decision makers informed about their
reasons for taking independent action.
No legal title
The fishermen have no legal titles to their land, though
their families have lived there for generations. They can easily be forced out to make way for developments like hotels or housing. So Yadfon conducts information programmes on their rights. The organization also encourages schools from the towns to visit the
communities to learn traditional conservation techniques
and study the mangrove conservation programmes.
Yadfon now hopes to spread its approach elsewhere in Thailand, and abroad.
Don de Silva is an environmentalist and communication specialist. He can
be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org