Community conservation takes deep root in Thailand
Farmers, fishermen use local knowledge in ‘Thai Baan Research’
By: Liu Jun
Standing at the foot of a small-leafed tall tree called “koi,” Sakon Tommanan pointed at a branch about 3 meters from the ground: “When floods from the Mekong reach there, fish will be swimming in the forest.”
But it was hard to imagine such a water world as it was still a month before the monsoon rain pushes the water of the Mekong back into its tributaries in July and August.
All around, the forest surrounded by the Ing River, one of the Mekong’s main tributaries in northern Thailand, throbbed with life.
Firefly mushrooms that can glow at night were unfolding like gray umbrellas on a logged tree trunk; a troop of ants were busy among the carpet of shiny moss and decaying leaves covering the wet dark earth; birds chirped merrily in the multi-layered canopy. The path through the jungle-like forest was barely visible, often obstructed by branches.
When the floods come, however, fish that migrate from the lower reaches of the Mekong will be eating and spawning among the inundated grass, bamboos and trees.
Thanks to Sakon Tommanan and his 600 fellow villagers at Ban Muang Choom, the 500-rai (0.8 square kilometers) of flooded forest has remained a precious habitat for many species.
Ban Muang Choom, 19 kilometers upstream from the confluence of the Ing and the Mekong in the northernmost Thai province of Chiang Rai, established its forest conservation zone four years ago and prohibited fishing on a 400-meter length of the river.
Thai Baan Research
Over the past few decades, community conservation efforts have taken ever deeper roots throughout Thailand. Instead of waiting for help from the government, people have tapped into their local knowledge to preserve natural resources and cultural traditions.
“Farmers and fishermen initiated the research about their own lives. We call it ‘Thai Baan Research’,” said Pianporn Deetes with Southeast Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN), which helps locals to run six such projects in Southeast Asia.
“Baan” means “house” or “village” in Thai, so Thai Baan Research can be seen as “local knowledge research,” Pianporn explained.
A close partner with SEARIN is the Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network based in Chiang Khong.
The network is helping 39 villages in northern Thailand devise their own ways of managing development. Already 14 villages have set up conservation zones, said Somkiat Keungchiangsa, network coordinator.
In Ban Muang Choom, locals have been creative with Thai Baan Research and their conservation project is starting to bear fruit.
“We caught a 10-kilogram fish this morning,” said Sakon, beaming. The 56-year-old is one of the 10 members of the village’s Community Forest Committee.
The catch was big compared with 2000, when very few fish could be caught. Gone with the fish were a group of some 20 monkeys. About 50 years before that, elephants, wild boar and other larger animals had disappeared.
Six years ago, the villagers decided to stop exploiting their natural resources and rejected a few government-initiated projects such as digging a canal to irrigate the fields, which would have meant more logging.
During a survey that the villagers conducted from last December to this February, they recorded some 100 species of fish and 40 kinds of plants in the conservation area.
Pheasants and wild cats have found their way back, said Sakon, who studied the relation of the Ing with the flooded forest. Other village leaders discussed issues like food resources, conservation rules, herbs, fish and religious beliefs.
“We learned a lot from the village elders — the village’s history, how to gather and use the
Tree monk: Sakon Tommanan, 56, stands at the foot of a koi tree tied with a yellow robe in the forest conservation zone of Ban Muang Choom, Chiang Khong, northern Thailand
plants, when and how to catch what kinds of fish,” said Song Sachum, head of the Community Forest Committee.
The koi, which thrives in deep water, is one of the main arbors in the forest. For centuries, villagers have ground its leaves to clean their teeth.
But since 2004, the koi has taken on more significance. If all villagers agree, a ceremony is held to tie yellow saffron robes around any trees they choose on April 10, three days before Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year.
More than 200 koi and other trees have been ordained by venerable monks from the Buddhist temple at the village entrance, said Suay Sisom, headman of the village.
“A tree wrapped by a robe represents a monk; if someone dared to cut it, the demerit would equal that of killing a monk, and finally the destruction of the tree would lead to the end of his or her own life,” said Suay. “Since the trees have been ordained, no one has cut them or made charcoal in the forest.”
The concept of ordaining trees became popular in 1991, when a Thai Buddhist master named Phrakhru Pitak Nanthakhun initiated a “tree-ordination” project in Nan province of northeastern Thailand.
Close to the “tree monks” is an abandoned charcoal kiln about 2 meters in diameter and half a meter deep. Such kilns once brought 5,000 baht (US$130) a month for an average charcoal burner, said Peerapul Panpon, member of the sub-district council in charge of the village.
The average monthly income is now 2,000 baht (US$52), but the villagers are happy since “fish have returned, the lands are fertile, food resources like bamboo shoots are once more abundant,” said Peerapul in a thatched hut on the verge of the forest. A map of the conservation zone and names of the village forest committee are displayed here.
Forest’s gift: Somboon Luechai, 60, picks firefly mushrooms from a tree trunkin the forest conservation zone of Ban Muang Choom. He is a member of the village’s Community Forest Committee.
“Forest is a source of knowledge: We can educate our young on the benefits of forests,” said Peerapul, adding that six nearby schools regularly visit the forest.
Nineteen kilometers downstream from Ban Muang Choom, villagers at Pak Ing are trying to sustain their own way of life.
Six years ago, Boonkong Boonward was elected by fellow villagers at a time of crisis: Fish were declining sharply; people had to use more chemical fertilizers to get higher yields from rice, corn, tobacco and other crops, whose prices were nevertheless dropping in the market.
Boonkong and other village leaders attended gatherings held by environmental groups in search of solutions. After a tour to Nan province, he came back with the idea of banning fishing on a 200-meter section of the Ing River from its converging point with the Mekong.
“The water of the Ing is warm and that of the Mekong is cold. Fish like to lay eggs at the place where warm and cold water mix,” explained Boonward, who finished his first five-year term and was reelected last year.
To enforce the fishing ban, which started in 2000, the villagers decided that outsiders who violate the rule will be fined 3,000 to 10,000 baht (about US$65-213). Those from the village face double the fine.
The only one who entered the forbidden area in the past six years was a fisherman from the other side of the Mekong in Laos, home to the ancestors of the Pak Ing villagers.
For the one fish he caught, he had to pay a dear price of 3,000 baht (US$75).
Fishing break: Somphoye Souvandy (left), 42, and a fellow fisherman take a short break at noon after fishing outside the conservation zone on the Ing River at Pak Ing. Somphoye has been fishing for over 20 years.
“From then on, no one dared to enter the conservation zone,” said Pinkaew, wife of the village headman. She and other women in the village are in charge of preparing food and accommodation for the increasing number of visitors who come to learn from the conservation project.
Two years ago, a local environmental NGO called Love Chiang Khong Conservation Group helped the Pak Ing villagers study their fish stock. They found 125 fish species, including five alien species who escaped from upstream fish farms during floods.
Close to the conservation zone, a fisherman drew his net on a recent evening. Occasionally, a fish leaped up, leaving ripples on the water gilded by the setting sun.
“While there was no fish in the past, fish are everywhere,” Boonkong announced with a proud smile.
Daring leader: Boonkong Boonward, headman of Pak Ing village, stands at the confluence of the Ing and the Mekong where a conservation zone was set up in 2000 in Chiang Khong.