Thailand’s Community Forest Project: The Fishers That Rescued The Sea

Thailand’s Community Forest Project: The Fishers That Rescued The Sea

Yadfon’s Way

In Thailand, over half of the mangrove forests have been lost to development. Shrimp farming has been largely responsible for this serious loss. However, a small NGO in Southwestern Thailand, Yad fon (Rain Drop) Association, located in Trang, has taken up the cause for the mangroves and the coastal communities which depend on healthy mangrove ecosystems for their lives and livelihoods. For over a decade, Pisit Chansnoh, a cofounder and current President of Yad Fon, has led his organization in pioneering grassroots methods enhancing local community involvement in management of coastal resources. And, in those years of practical fieldwork, Khun Pisit and his dedicated staff have developed a methodology of village-level organizing that seems to be working.

The concept of the “community managed forest” arose from a more general principle of local community involvement in ensuring the sustainable management of natural resources. Without local support and direct involvement of resident communities in those important resource management decisions, sustainable and eco-friendly development is not possible. Yad Fon had pioneered this idea at the village level long before it had become vogue in “official” resource management procedure.

Yad Fon has spearheaded a resilient and enduring grassroots movement that is winning them some well deserved acclaim, both within and outside Thailand. Yad Fon’s organizing concepts involve local fishers and farmers taking on more responsibilities in managing their own local natural resources. By learning techniques that allow them to sustainably manage their surrounding resources, small village communities can ensure their livelihoods and traditional cultures. Thus, communities that were once self-sufficient again are in a position to retain, or at least reclaim, their autonomy.

According to Khun Pisit, “Approximately, a half million small-scale fisherfolk once lived quiet and peaceful lives, sustaining themselves along the coasts of Thailand. Now, however, their lives have been upset by the destruction of the coastal ecosystem on which their way of life is dependent. Mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and coral reefs have been widely degraded in the country as a result of destructive fishing gear, large-scale commercial harvests, and the rapid development of intensive aquaculture.
“As a direct result of the deterioration of the coastal ecosystem, many fishing villages have faced severe hardship. ..In some cases, whole communities have collapsed as households have been forced to sell their land…

“One of the first projects that Yad Fon undertook was to initiate a 587 rai community forest, set up under the support of the provincial authorities. This became the first community mangrove forest in the country supported by the Forestry Department. …Through a series of community meetings, villagers worked together to find solutions to their common problems based on a combination of local wisdom and modern knowledge….”

During a personal interview, Khun Pisit outlined the various aspects which highlight his organization’s unique organizing approach at the local community level:

The Savings Plan

“To cope with the rising costs of fishing equipment, a group savings program was begun. An integral component of the savings project was a fund through which families in need could borrow small amounts of money at low interest rates. At the same time, a cooperative buying program was set up to enable fishers to purchase equipment and gasoline at reduced rates.”

By organizing their savings fund, the villagers control to some extent the costs of needed materials and supplies, such as diesel, netting, lines, tackle, etc. With more bargaining power as a cooperative, they can actually lower the prices by eliminating the middleman in many cases. They also have more incentive to protect and continue to restore their coastal environment. As they begin to see the increased yield from the sea, and can fish with greater ease closer to shore, their costs go down, and the time required on the job is lessened.

To date, Yad Fon is working in 30 “target” villages. The fishers are urged to conserve and restore their coastal resources. By doing this, they can see a marked increase in their catch from the healthier coastal ecology. In turn, this offers them more ease and an incentive to contribute their extra profits for dues and common cooperative funds. Among many of the Muslim villages of Trang Province, the women usually manage the family finances. So, this program greatly eases their burdens of saving, and lessens worries of hard times to come. It acts as a sort of security, or insurance, which is built into their cooperative savings plan.

The simple act of organizing themselves to undertake communal projects (e.g., protect the environment, dig a new community well), often results in refining and strengthening village unity. Also, the true village leaders emerge. Those with special talents or skills begin to shine and can develop them further. So, it is vital to begin with a project on which some of the villagers agree. At first, it is not necessary that all villagers become involved–perhaps, even only 30%-40% of them get involved. Once the project begins, other villagers will usually join. (Pisit believes that organization brings more organization where most needed.) Thus, a first step in the Yad Fon program is to persuade the villagers involved to take that first step!

Another benefit has evolved to these target villages. Now, the fishers can sell their daily catch at fair market prices. Heretofore, they had to trade their fish to pay off debts owed to the middlemen, at prices set by the middlemen. These were invariably lower than fair market prices. In this fashion, the middlemen could not lose. First they charged high interest on loans, then made an extra profit on the sale of fish bought from their fisher debtors at lower than fair market prices. This formula increased the wealth of the creditors. However, it brought crippling and spiraling poverty for the fishers.

In addition to helping organize villager savings plans, Yad Fon offers a “revolving fund” to assist indebted fishers. Small, interest-free loans of around 2500 Thai Baht each ($100 US) are made to the very poor who usually cannot become shareholders in a village savings plan.. This boosts the economy of the extremely poor, and helps end their spiraling on toward bankruptcy.

“Though they have no share, they can still share,” Pisit says. He points out that even fishers too poor to join a cooperative can still receive a sort of “jump-start”, or timely boost. Almost 80% of Yad Fon’s loans are repaid; only 20% are in default. This is not a bad return, considering the very positive impact these loans are having within the fisher communities.
Yad Fon also encourages small scale, sustainable aquaculture projects. In these, individual families are able to supplement their meager incomes by initiating some low-intensive enterprises. “Milk fish” and “grouper”, as well as “blue mussels”, are mainly reared in floating pens staged just off shore. These pens require little upkeep, and the surrounding waters provide most of the nutrients necessary to rear the fish or mussels. Thus, 100 fish can be reared in a year, generating an income of 300 baht ($12. US) per fish, or 3,000 baht ($1200. US) per year added income!

“First of all,” Pisit states, “we believe in the potential of local fishers…that they have knowledge, or wisdom, but don’t always have the opportunities to share their knowledge. They often don’t understand at first the shared problems affecting them, until we can sit them down to learn about these problems.”

Once, Yad Fon initiated a project in a village to dig a community well. Yad Fon organizers noticed a marked change in the dynamics of village leadership. New individuals emerged in leadership roles, and the project was very successful. All that Yad Fon provided was the cement and other simple, low cost materials. The villagers provided all the rest– the well design and project work.

When such projects visibly succeed, the villagers feel empowered anew, and the surrounding communities pay heed. Even the government begins to take notice of such achievements, and cannot fail to recognize the new emerging voices which must now be heard. These types of low-intensity projects can have great impact, bringing the supporting NGOs into deeper contact with the involved communities, once local confidence and power have been boosted.

“We have the most powerful weapon,” says Khun Pisit softly, “Friendship!”

Local Wisdom

As Khun Pisit talked, a visiting group from Bangkok bought handicraft baskets and woven straw purses made by the local fishers from one of the villages associated with Yad Fon. Khun Pisit pointed out that this is another means of strengthening the traditional pursuits of coastal people. It offers them a way to earn extra income, while keeping alive their native arts and crafts. Traditions, economics, and environment all play a part here, since the traditional weaving of these baskets is developed from products harvested from the nearby mangrove forests. All of this is tied together, and, as Khun Pisit said, “lives through the fisherwomen’s handicraft, while encouraging local villagers to protect the surrounding mangroves.”

“This is an example of ‘political ecology!,'” Khun Pisit said, happily referring to the new terms economists were groping with to better describe a rapidly changing world view. Khun Pisit discovered this principle himself through his own work at the grassroots level. His organization, Yad Fon, begins its work by targeting a particular village. It sends representatives to live in this village for an extended period of time as observers. These people do not attempt to influence the villagers, nor do they offer advice to help improve organization within the village. They merely observe and take part in ongoing village activities. Perhaps a year or more later, when these Yad Fon organizers are accepted by the villagers, they begin, with the villagers consent, to initiate particular, low-intensity projects. These benefit the village in some way. This small-scale project would be the first organizational step for the Yad Fon worker, and usually this would lead to further involvement and trust between Yad Fon and the villagers.

One of the problems facing many of the fishing communities is a lack of real strength in internal organization. Though there is a visible village leadership–i.e., a village “headman” and assistants– there is no clear organizational vitality. By initiating community projects which benefit all, Yad Fon has been able to generate more cohesive community involvement.

When it first started, Yad Fon targeted four such villages for its project work. Five years later, successful with these, Yad Fon expanded its operations into five new communities. Actually, the first target villages became working models that expanded Yad Fon’s options with nearby villages. A relative from one village told a relation in a neighboring village, or a friend told a friend. Word spread fast. Also, word spread through the religious links offered by the Muslim gatherings for religious services in the community mosques, where many villagers would exchange the latest news. Soon, Yad Fon was working in 17 villages!

Khun Pisit talked about Yad Fon’s ability to encourage and tap existing local talents. An example of the “local wisdom”, as Khun Pisit liked to describe it, is that most coastal fishers know all of the mangrove varieties and their traditional uses for medicine, roofing material, poles, fuel wood, etc.. One reason that the fisherfolk don’t do more to protect their local resources is the feeling that they are powerless and really cannot protect their resource. One fisher once told Pisit, “If I protect this, someone else will merely come along, and destroy it!” This chance of being left out of the “profit pie” has led many to abandon their traditional ways of resource management which had once sustained countless coastal communities for many generations.

“Though they understand the value of their ecosystem, lack of village unity and open discussion among members leads to mistrust and inaction,” Khun Pisit remarked. “How can we bring people to reexamine and reapply their own ‘local wisdom’?”
Yad Fon obviously came to serious grips with this question. In just a few years of organizing, one of its target villages won a prestigious award for being a model for the rest of the country in managing its coastal resources in a sustainable way. Even the Royal Princess of Thailand visited the village, and gave an award to its members for their valuable accomplishment.

Khun Pisit is not one to ignore modern advances in science and technology. In fact, he believes that a well-planned mix of modern knowledge and local traditional wisdom can oftentimes offer better solutions. For instance, a modern understanding of the process of photosynthesis can help motivate villagers to prevent loss of seagrass beds from harmful siltation. A better scientific understanding of the relationship between mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs will help spur on more effective remedial measures to better protect the entire ecosystem.

A common saying among some fishers reveals their own grasp of these important interrelations: “Mangroves are like the kindergarten, seagrasses are the secondary schools, and coral reefs are the high schools and colleges for fishes!” Pisit lightly recited the final verse of this native adage , “And, once they (the fishes) graduate from university, they return to kindergarten to spawn!”

The Community Forest

Perhaps, only 40% to 60% of the villagers from any particular community agree to participate in Yad Fon’s programs; but, this is actually enough to generate overall good results. Khun Pisit explains the reason for this. “Democracy is actually sustained by only a small percent of the people. For instance, in an election, perhaps less than half the total citizenry votes. Most people don’t take the time to participate.”

The slow, but effective, development process, which Yad Fon initiates, creates the friendships which are important for Yad Fon’s continued work. And, Yad Fon’s village participants have shown great promise in taking the initiative in both learning and action. For instance, in one village, 50 fishing boats went out to confront an intruding trawler, which was wreaking havoc within their village’s protected, near-shore fishing grounds. They managed to repulse the illegal invader without much of a fight.

Yad Fon hopes to expand its effectiveness and its work by linking villages along the coastline to their common goals. It took almost four years for Yad Fon to begin receiving due public notice as an effective grassroots non-governmental organization (NGO). Now, Yad Fon’s reputation is spreading. and new villages are approaching them for advice and intervention. Once, when a local corporation spilled poisonous palm oil into a nearby waterway, many fish were killed. Anguished villagers approached Yad Fon to ask for assistance. Yad Fon advised them to take the issue to the provincial authorities along with documentation of the recent fish kill. Yad Fon sent its own members to take photos, and help record relevant information. With such a united front, the local government could not help but be impressed with the severity of the situation. The offending corporation was reprimanded, and forced to pay a stiff fine which included compensating 100 village families for loss of two months’ wages resulting from the high fish kill. The organized fishers, along with Yad Fon, are forcing government officials to finally tackle the problems of managing public property more effectively.

One major, and exemplary, component of Yad Fon’s project work involves the creation and local management of “village community forests”. The “community forest” is, in fact, one of the cornerstones of Yad Fon’s important work. The local village is usually given the responsibility to manage and sustain a small area of mangrove forest, while still utilizing the forest resources. The provincial government, along with the Forest Service, had sanctioned the first community forest pilot project. This was set up in one of Yad Fon’s early target villages. The village began managing only a small stretch of mangrove forest, but succeeded in replanting a degraded area at the same time. Within two months, the villagers began noticing an increase in their near-shore fish catch, and species of fish which had disappeared, or become rare in the area, began to reappear.

“As the fertility of the sea increases, villagers have been able to capture greater quantities of marine animals for food and trade. From 1991 to 1994, there has been a 40% increase in total catch. At the same time, there has been a substantial decrease in risk, time spent on the water, and fishing expenses because the fishers are no longer forced to travel long distances or venture into the open sea. By the end of this 3 year period, fishers, on average, spent 3 to 4 fewer hours per day in their boat and had a daily cost savings of 30 to 40 Baht (of $1.20 to $1.60). Over the 500 families in the target area, the projects have provided a net increase in the community income of 150,000 to 200,000 Baht per day (6 to 8 hundred dollars), an increase of over 200 percent…”

This series of events bolstered both Yad Fon’s reputation and the villagers’ confidence in their work. Also, a greater understanding of the importance of a healthy, restored ecosystem made the villagers more firmly committed to further protecting their surrounding coastal resources and environment.

Committees are selected to help manage the community forest. These members provide leadership and direction in how the community forest functions. Strict guidelines are set to which all members of the community must adhere. Community members were satisfied with this new, self-governing model, and the skills utilized for the management of forest have overflowed into other areas of community life. More importantly, villagers who once felt powerless to direct their futures, are now fully aware of their own great self-governing potential. Their success sent positive waves of recognition reverberating among neighboring villages. Soon, village leaders were invited to visit neighbors and explain their new process. Word began to spread.

“Community forest,” Khun Pisit explains, “encourages people to harvest the ‘byproducts’ of that forest, rather than cut the trees themselves. No cutting of mangrove trees is allowed beyond a certain limit– just enough to meet one’s needs.” Byproducts might include limited fuel-wood gathered from fallen or dead branches, fruits or leafy plants from the forest, medicinal herbs, sturdy poles for building, and other useful materials that the healthy mangrove forest produces. Also, there are always the plentiful crabs, shellfish and fish which naturally abound within the sheltering prop roots of the mangrove forest.

Ten to twenty people may serve on a community forest managing committee. They are elected to represent the 80 to 200 families which might comprise the village. (Usually, from 600 to 1500 people live in a village.) The community forest acts as sort of a village insurance, or welfare system, whereby the most needy villagers may obtain permission to extract a limited quantity of the forest resource to supplement their livings.

Often, widows, or families with problems such as illness, are allowed access to community forest resources. But, again, to manage these forests sustainably, what is extracted must be replaced, or allowed to naturally replenish itself. So, even this type of limited resource extraction is closely monitored. And, what is taken out of the community forest must be only for that family’s, or person’s, immediate needs, not for sale within or outside the community. By encouraging community members to use only the byproducts, and not cut the mangrove plants themselves, the community forest is more assuredly sustained, and those byproducts ensured into the limitless future.

The village leaders who are responsible for community forest management take their responsibilities very seriously. Khun Pisit proudly told me the story of a village community forest representative who stopped a repeated violation of forest encroachment. An owner of a nearby charcoal factory twice directed his workers to extract wood from the village community forest. Each time, they were caught and lightly apologized for the violation. Finally, the village representative confronted the man in person. He refused monetary compensation for the cut wood. Instead, he demanded that such violations cease. The strength of his demands convinced the factory owner of this village’s commitment to protect their forest resource. To make the community’s point even clearer, its leader organized a work group to set out boundary markers. These define the community forest so clearly that little doubt remains as to its demarcation lines. Since that time, there have been no further outside infractions.

This was a big step for this village. In the past, their protests would not have been taken seriously. They were merely a nuisance to the factory owners. However, something has obviously changed within the community, and this new governing organization has become a force whose demands must be recognized.

Organizing at the Grassroots

When Yad Fon’s staff members go out into a new community, they try to discern which issues are most pressing in that village. Each village has its own unique issues which need addressing. One village might require a new well, while another may be troubled by “pushnet”* boats and/or trawlers operating too close to their protected shores. After pinpointing those problems peculiar to each target village, Yad Fon workers begin the task of directing the villagers’ attention to resolving them. Usually, the villagers themselves can come up with the solutions. They merely need to be made fully aware of persistent problems. Once villagers begin to address these issues, their internal organization begins to take firmer root and they awaken to their organizational potential.

*(Note: “Pushnet fishing” is a destructive technique which utilizes large netting attached by long poles at the bow of the boat which are literally pushed forward by the boat’s forward motion. This method, like trawling, causes heavy sea bottom damage and rapidly depletes local fisheries, especially when used illegally near shore.)

Yad Fon only acts as a guide, directing a beam to light the path more clearly. But the villagers themselves recognize the path, and, once on that path, confidently direct the light themselves. At that stage, Yad Fon may step back and watch, as the villagers continue their progress unaided. Yad Fon may still be called upon for advice, and will continue visiting the villages to follow their progress. It also shares news of developments as they occur in other villages.

Khun Pisit’s goal is to link village to neighboring village, and to establish a working network. These communities can respond more strongly to malevolent situations which might affect any one or more communities. Acting in concert, this village network will have much greater potential clout. Already, Yad Fon’s hopes are being realized and its 30 target villages are making those vital links possible.

“Because of the trust and understanding that has been created, Trang has now become a center where agencies and village leaders can learn techniques for initiating sustainable development activities in other provinces….

The success of these conservation measures has confirmed that villagers have the knowledge, dedication, and ability to manage coastal resources for sustainable development. Beginning with the work in Trang Province, similar approaches have been extended to ten other provinces in Southern Thailand..”

The work of Yad Fon and the associated villages has produced visible results, impressive battles have already been won. There are now recognizable achievements in sustainable mangrove forest and coastal resource management. The proof that such management was not only possible, but quite practical was laid out for anyone to see. Mangrove forests and their associated coastal resources are being managed sustainably at the village level by the “poor fishers who rescued the sea.”

“Local wisdom” had succeeded after all. Where government and unregulated industry schemes have failed miserably, small fishing communities have succeeded. Even the Central government of Thailand has noticed the great success of Yad Fon’s village communities. Three years ago, the Prime Minister of Thailand presented an award to Yad Fon for its accomplishments with the coastal villages.

These village communities have became shining examples for the Thai Forest Service, which is now trying to model its future coastal forest management schemes in accordance to some of Yad Fon’s principles. The Forest Service has even approached Yad Fon for advice, and now there is a more open and friendly discussion between the government and the NGOs and villagers. Before, the government officials were more distant and unapproachable. Now they have opened their doors and are ready for friendly dialogue.

Khun Pisit explains that Yad Fon’s approach is not confrontational, but more conciliatory, yet steadfast. And the government cannot ignore this NGOs successful programs, nor the non-threatening merit of Yad Fon’s approach. Now, Khun Pisit wonders if the government, or Forest Service, will try copying Yad Fon’s community forest model, then take all the credit by falsely claiming that the government, not Yad Fon or the villagers, had this “great idea!”

Yet success is never totally measured in past accomplishment. Personal resolve and empowerment are qualities which must themselves be nurtured and sustained. Khun Pisit believes that despite future government programs, or despite NGO involvement, it is really up to the villagers to carry themselves into the future. By learning to sustain their mangrove forests they have learned more about themselves. “The forest sustains the people who sustain the forest,” Khun Pisit proclaimed with a satisfied smile. Still, Yad Fon’s work will never end, for there are other battles to win on the winding road to future.