The Big Picture and the Sustainable Development Foundation

Sitting on the prow of a Thai longboat the color of fire and just as hot because of the unsympathetic April sun, I gazed into the abundant mangrove trees, my eyes unfocused, seeing my surroundings more fully. With the red hawks soaring on thermals, fish bouncing along the river surface like skipped rocks, local fishermen hydroplaning by in rainbow mini-boats, and the hypnotizing mangroves with roots like perfectly frayed rope, I can see more if I do not look specifically at any one part of the scene, but let my perception expand to acknowledge the scene as a whole.

Danny on boat Photo: SDF

And this scene that I am acknowledging is Bang Chan Sub-district, a nationally protected mangrove forest that Thai people are believed to have inhabited for a couple of hundred years. In the Thai longboat are twenty-six Bangkok officials from the National Reform Committee, the Community Land Title Office, the National Health Foundation and multiple universities. We, the Sustainable Development Foundation, are taking them on a ‘fact-finding’ mission to give them some real-life exposure to the land the nation is protecting and the citizens the nation is unsure what to do about. Because even though the law says that they should not be allowed to live in the mangrove forest, each case is context dependent and there is always a bigger picture to consider. This big picture perspective was central to working with the Sustainable Development Foundation because it is an NGO building resilience in coastal communities of Thailand. And to be effective in this effort, one must understand the workings of small systems, like salinity’s effects on crab migration, and how they relate to the functioning of large systems like the long term welfare of communities and provinces.

In my three months as an intern, I worked with SDF on their project in Trat and Chanthaburi Provinces, bordering Cambodia. The goal of this project is to build resilience in coastal communities threatened by the uncertain effects of global warming. Building resilience is a process involving identifying a community’s adaptive capacities and vulnerabilities, generating a conversation between the community members and government officials through which information can be shared and reflected upon, and ultimately carrying out projects that increase the community’s adaptive capacity and reduce its vulnerability. Each case is different because a community’s adaptive capacities and vulnerabilities depend on their natural resources, which vary depending on location. In the case of the villages I worked with in Trat, the main issues that I dealt with were crab fishing and mangrove assessment.

Blue swimming crab fishing is the main livelihood in the villages where we were working. However, factors like dwindling crab populations, encroaching large scale fishing operations, coastal erosion, and lack of community cooperation are making the livelihood more tenuous. Crab populations have been declining mainly as a result of two factors: selling mother crabs with eggs, and the destruction of the ecosystems in which the juvenile crabs grow. The practice of selling mother crabs is motivated by the higher price these egg-bearing crabs fetch on the market. This situation embodies Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. The benefit realized by the fisher-folk selling the marginally more expensive mother crab is paid for by the community, as a whole, in the loss of future crabs. However, over the year or so, as a result of increased communication and cooperation between fishing families in Mai Root Sub-district, a crab bank has been set up. The crab bank functions on the selflessness of individual fishermen who donate the mother crabs that they catch to the community as a whole. Instead of selling these mother crabs, fishermen give them to a collective crab bank, run by the villagers. The crab bank keeps the mother crabs in aerated tubs until they release their eggs. The eggs are then funneled back into the river and the egg-less mother crabs are sold. The profits from these sales go to the upkeep of the crab bank (aerating tubs is the main expense).

In the villages that have started crab banks, the crab count has increased by significantly. However, these gains could be further increased if the community were to put effort into protecting and sustaining the ecosystem that the crabs inhabit. It is at this point that community energies can be expanded to encompass a bigger-picture issue like the upkeep of local ecosystems. This is the ultimate goal of SDF: to motivate villagers to be stewards of the ecosystems that they inhabit, and to employ sustainable methods of development in their use of natural resources, like the blue swimming crabs.

Initially, community interest is generated by working on a project with an obvious impact on locals, like increasing the population of crabs. Then the people involved are led to see that the success of the project they have been working on is intertwined with larger and more complex systems, like the overall health of the ecosystem. After investing the time and receiving the initial, tangible benefits, local participants are likely to want to continue work. By slowly increasing their awareness through work on different small projects and sharing knowledge, the complex systems that affect local’s lives become more sensible. Ultimately, the people that inhabit the land and fish the sea will come to understand the complex network of producers and consumers upon which they depend and become stewards of the environment in which they live. 

Another effort we led to increase local’s awareness was the Shoreline Video Assessment Method (S-VAM) to review and monitor the condition of the villages’ mangroves. Mangroves play a critical role in ecosystem health as a result of the many services they provide. Their roots function as an effective nursery for small fish and shellfish as well as slowing down incoming wind and waves. This buffering action reduces coastal erosion and prevents fine silt particles from being suspended in the water and blocking nourishing sunlight from reaching underwater plants. In addition, microorganisms that break down pollutants thrive in the aerobic mini-environments generated by their root systems. Finally, their fallen leaves provide nutrients for all organisms.

After weeks of talking with village leaders and fishermen and gathering boats, cameras, and local volunteers, we motored out into this verdant boundary between land and sea to become more familiar with these mangrove forests that play such a large role in these villagers’ lives. Following Dr. Norm Duke’s S-VAM methodology, we cruised along the shore for the entire length of the mangrove, videotaping, photographing, and taking notes on what we saw. My personal observations consist of the height and density of trees, the frequency of trash and human development, and a general mapping of the forest’s canals.

As expected, I found that the mangroves were healthiest when we were farthest away from human development. In the center of the villages, around 90% of mangrove coverage had been lost, and when we passed isolated groups of houses farther into the forest, the surrounding mangroves were noticeably shorter and the forest less dense. My guess is that a combination of cutting to make room for development and human-generated pollution that clogs the mangrove’s pores and disrupts general healthy functioning is the reason for the decrease in the health of the mangroves in close proximity to human development.

In the twenty-foot fishing boat that we took on this mangrove survey were students and a teacher from a local middle school, a local fisherman, a GPS specialist from a local university, and a fellow member of SDF staff. We were all squeezing together as closely as possible so as to keep in the shade provided by a tarp stretched between four bamboo poles in opposite corners of the boat. I was taking notes, the school children were operating the GPS devices, the school-teacher was filming with the video camera, and the fisherman was our knowledgeable guide through the forest.

We had spent the previous day teaching the students how to use the GPS devices and introducing them and the community to the S-VAM methodology. Since the idea is to increase the capacity of the local community to develop sustainably, it is important that we do not do the work ourselves. We are there in a support role and to help in the initial planning stages of projects, not to run the projects ourselves. The goal is to provide the community with the experience and rewards of caring for their own ecosystems. We hope that these students, whom we taught to use the GPS devices, will continue their enquiry in environmental conservation and work with their community to protect the local ecosystem. And funnily enough, when we interviewed one of the students and asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she answered that she wants to do what we, SDF, do. In addition, the overwhelming majority of locals with whom I came into contact were exceedingly helpful, hospitable, and willing to become involved (if they weren’t already) in the project.

My last day of fieldwork with SDF was like the finale of a fireworks show, but, in this case, mangroves replaced the fireworks. The air felt electric as I watched the officials from Bangkok get out of their air-conditioned mini-bus and wait for the local fishermen to maneuver a traditional Thai longboat into the shallows. It was another one of those moments where one is able to see tradition coming face to face with Westernization. However, in this encounter, the two distinct entities seemed to have similar sentiments. As a knowledgeable local guided us through the huge river and its canals, the officials paid close attention to what was being said about the land and the ways of the people who lived there. We saw the shrimp farms, considered one of the main threats to mangrove survival, and how the locals had worked to preserve as much of the forest as possible within their farms. We saw the villages of stilted huts that ringed the edges of the mangrove forest, and every now and then we saw, but mostly heard, a local fishermen skim by us in a flamboyantly colored speed boat. At the end of the day, there was a community meeting held on a large boat in the middle of the river. Although I was not able to understand most of what was being said, my colleagues who spoke Thai said that they were feeling optimistic about the future of the mangrove dwellers. The Bangkok officials seemed to be sympathetic to the plight of the Bang Chan residents, and were broadly supportive of their efforts to secure their rights in managing local land and natural resources together with other stakeholders.

Through working with SDF I learned about the steps necessary to accomplish sustainability. Sustainability is not donations from rich, foreign celebrities. Sustainability is not a few mangrove trees planted by a huge corporation trying to appear ‘green’. These acts are transient and provide false images of help. Like prescription drugs that mask the symptoms of a deadly disease, these quick fixes do not deal with the real problems. SDF’s community approach of generating local interest in environmental problems is real sustainability. SDF’s mission is ultimately to create self-regulating systems. To do this, the people who are intimately connected with the environment are helped to better understand their role in the web of fine ecological threads that enable a community to thrive. In better understanding the relationships that enable them to live, locals are more likely to take care of their local environment by themselves. Therefore, instead of constantly requiring outside assistance, a community can help itself, sustainably.

In addition to learning about sustainability in coastal regions in Thailand, I also just had a lot of fun. The people that I worked with at SDF are intelligent, caring, and hardworking. They have innovative solutions to complex problems and have the patience to explain them to communities, individual fishermen, and foreigners over and over again. They are constantly on the move, trying to tackle every issue that is presented, big or small. Their conferences are not boring and awkward, but filled with lively discussion and funny anecdotes from work in the field. SDF is a sustainable organization inside and out, and I feel honored to have worked with them.

Note: This article was written by Danny Hemingway, an undergraduate student currently majoring in Conservation and Resource Studies at the University of California, Berkeley Campus (UC Berkeley). Danny interned with SDF last spring semester, and this article represents his personal viewpoint on his time with the Foundation.


Work area: 
Climate Change
Project and Initiatives: 
Building Coastal Resilience
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