The first stop of this learning exchange was Koh Yao Noi. Villagers here have a created a strong and very well-known ecotourism program. In the past, traditional fishing techniques used by more than 85% of the villagers were threatened by larger scale commercial fisheries. The Koh Yao Noi community joined together and created island to island networks which fought to abolish trawls and drift nets. This example of villagers successfully conserving coastal resources and retaining in their traditional lifestyles made Koh Yao Noi a popular study site for those interested in community development and natural resource protection. The increased number of researchers and tourists in turn gave locals the idea of hosting visitors in home stays as a way of generating income for their conservation goals.
The home stay program ensures money being brought to the island via tourism stays in the community and is not lost to large corporate hotel chains. Currently, there are 25 home stays and both on and off island trips are guided by the villagers. Tourists experience the day-to day atmosphere and nature of villagers working on para rubber farms, crop fields, local fishery and local conservation activities. Part of the income that comes from each tourist is contributed to an environmental fund which is used for a plant nursery and conservation education for children and youth of the island.
Montchai Solakij, of the Lumkaen Administrative Office says “The success of ecotourism depends on the readiness of the community and the richness of the available natural resources. From this study trip, we must take the ideas we get from each other and use it to improve ecotourism, whether in the push for nature trails or in the formation of a committee to oversee the community resources one restoration of a habitat has been completed.”
The next stop was Krabi River estuary to study the management of Krabi Gulf Wetland, a wetland of national significance that is managed through the participatory efforts of local governments, villagers and local NGOs. Previously, the mangrove forest of Krabi Gulf was blanketed by cans and bottles. Through a grant from Wetlands International a Garbage Bank was established which has reduced the amount of litter appearing throughout the mangrove forest and along the coast. The Garbage Bank provides additional income for the community. People are paid for each piece of solid waste that they deposit to the bank and the material is then resold. The income generated by this enterprise is managed by a committee and a small amount is retained to ensure the ongoing management of the project and after this, any profits are then shared equally between community members.
Today, a large amount of solid waste is being returned and then resold, making a visible difference to the cleanliness of the surrounding wetlands. However problems involving waste trapped in fishery equipment, most of which fishermen remove and return back to the water such as plastic bags, have yet to be solved. Nevertheless, the Garbage Bank group continues to be dedicated to the cause. Prarop Plangngam, Supervisor of Had Tai Muang-Kao Lumphi National Park says, “I am very interested in waste management especially one that increases the value of such products. I will pass what I’ve learned to other park officials so that they can receive additional income as well as improve their natural surroundings.”
The trip concluded at Bahn Laem Makham, Bahn Tung Ta Sae, Trang province. In this 1000 rai mangrove forest, every single tree is owned by a Thai, and the villagers act as caretakers of the forest. This community conservation effort has triumphed through persistent battles with local government for the rights to manage the area. From a small starting point, with support from only a handful of villagers, the community now holds elections for alternating committee members who are dedicated to forest management, the development of ecotourism, and committed to long term conservation. Pimsanit Suksaard, President of the Marine and Coastal Environmental Protection Group says with a smile “Success of every area has been possible due to extensive struggles, which gives us the power and encouragement to push forward the community and conservation. From this trip, I realize that our problems are smaller than they are large and that the solution is to create a network of those who fight for the same cause. This network will allow the battle for natural resources conservation to not be so lonely”.
The richness of a mangrove forest derives from the persistence to protect and maintain integrated community lifestyles, which can be used to outline the local ecotourism management. However, in doing so, collaboration from all stakeholders of coastal resources is necessary. From community members to conservation policies, change can only happen through complete participation, focusing in the smart and sustainable use of nature’s treasures.