Pisit Charnsnoh is a veteran community activist in Thailand who founded Yadfon (Raindrop Association), a non-governmental organization (NGO), with his wife and two friends to help impoverished fishermen in southern Thailand while simultaneously protecting the coastal ecosystem.


There's been a series of laws passed in Thailand that's protecting coastal environments. How well have the laws been enforced?

In Thailand the law is okay; it's not quite so poor. But you asked about law enforcement -- that's the problem. Most of every law -- law of forestry and of fisheries and of narcotics -- enforcements are poor. So you look at the coastal resources management or coastal resources protection, we have a really good law -- that within 3 kilometers from the shore, it's declared as risky area.

Commercial fishing gears cannot allow use like a trawler push-net. But very often we see them operating in the area. There are many illegal fishing techniques still operate in the area. So I think that law enforcement, particularly in the fisheries, are poor, very poor.

Who is supposed to be enforcing these laws?

At least three departments -- the Department of Fisheries, Department of Forestry, and Department of Administration of the Ministry of the Interior. But for the modern issues, Department of Fisheries is the main actor to enforce. But not only Department of Fisheries. Once they arrest some case, they have to bring the case to the police and the Police Department is under the Ministry of Interior. So the police have to send the case to the court, that's another Ministry. So it's a very long-term process, long process.

Bob Rosenbury went on a US media tour of Thailand, and one of the things people were saying is that they are not cutting down the mangrove forests anymore because they moved to higher grounds to construct new shrimp ponds and because of disease. So they are no longer settling in mangroves and therefore there is no problem. How accurate is this argument?

I think that this trip is very interesting. What's the main purpose of this trip and where did he go, who did he meet? Because possibly, I think that this guy, this doctor is very important because to show the public the reality -- what's happening in Thailand about shrimp farm and mangrove forests or something.

Fifteen years ago there were many reports on destruction of the mangrove forests in Thailand, mainly by shrimp farming. And just a few years ago, because of many problems facing the shrimp farms, the price of the shrimp has dropped down so much that shrimp farmers cannot go on.

So the expansion of the size of the farm may be limited and many of small farmers stop and many shrimp farms left abandoned. So the destruction of the forests may be slow, or not so much now.

The other thing is that not only the government invited by and led by the government to visit places, but should go by themselves to look at wherever they want to, since they can get another information -- not one way, one group, you see. Because in many activity is not only in Thailand, in other countries too. They invite some group to say something positive, it is the important benefit of the host.

Is it true that in the Trang Province, there are still quite a few mangrove areas that are untouched?

In Trang area, the mangrove forests also damaged, not only by shrimp farm, but by other activities. But that is not so serious as many other provinces in the East and West Coast of the Gulf. In Trang, from the report of the Department of Forestry, about 4000 rai of shrimp farm that encroach on the forests. But in general mangrove forest in Trang is not so bad.

And Trang is located in the Andaman areas. We have six provinces. And about 80% of existing mangrove forests located in Andaman Sea coasts. Another 20% located in the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. So in Trang, it is not so much serious. But I don't know in the future, once the shrimp price is convincing, how can we enforce it properly?

But in Trang now, the fishermen that we are working with, they love the forest. They protect the forest. There are many mangrove social forests in Trang that can ensure that this forest is not destroyed by any person because people managed it. And I think that social forestry may be the answer to protect the mangrove forests by the local fishermen because they can get direct benefit from the forest and indirect benefit from the forest; direct -- from the wood; indirect -- like the fish, shrimp, crab, food products and wood products.

Can you explain the idea of social forestry?

The main concept is that the forest and the village, since long time ago they have a relationship, human and forest. And in some region in Thailand, has some deeper relation because people believe in some kind of spirits staying in that area to protect that community. Every year after harvest, people go to the forest to give rice to the spirit. And in that area, forests are kept right; they don't destroy the tree.

But in the south, the mangrove forest, people that are living there are Muslim. They have another belief in the forest, not spirit, but they realize their life totally depends on the mangrove forest for their income, their livelihood, their culture, whatever. So the main concept of the social forestry is that the tradition, the culture, livelihood, spirit, and the relationship of the religions and the forest should be in good harmony.

Look at the social forestry in Trang, in coastal area. People in many villages, they have a small part of the forest nearby the village. Since long time ago, this piece of forest was given to the community by the government, but no land title as such. But the past 10 years, this forest was degraded because people cut it, or outsiders came in and cut it, for some kind of home, house or even sell it. But now people understand that mangrove forest is very important for their livelihood, for their long-term fishing. So they are now replanting, reforesting, and protecting.

Besides the wood, what else do people gather from the forest and rely on for their livelihood?

Once the forest is rich, the direct product from the forest is the wood that can be used for construction. They can use it, if permitted by the committee, but not for sale. But once you cut it, you have to replant it. But the other important thing for their livelihood is that they can go into the forest to collect crabs, shellfish, or even the honey or some other kind of herbs for medicine. And so mangrove forests are like the supermarket for people like us. And they can go in wherever they cannot go out to the sea and collect some kind of things for food, so this is a necessity for the local fishermen.

Is there a good example of a town in the Trang Province that is kind of at the edge, still living in a traditional way, still has full access to it's forests, but is starting to be encroached upon by the shrimp farming industry and is starting to change?

Yes. There are many villages that started shrimp farming a few years ago. But the villages that we are working with, very, very few of them have a shrimp pond. Villagers who are working with young forests, none of them have shrimp ponds. But most of them protect the mangrove forests.

But the other villages that we cannot work with now, there are some shrimp ponds, but mostly not from the local people but from people outside. So this is very important that once the land around the villages is purchased shrimp farm was done around, they will discharge some kind of wastewater in the fishing ground. That's the problem.

But as I told you, people that we work with, do not agree. One person just came and talked to us that he has three ponds, but now no longer operated because of many problems and he said to me, how to do that to his abandoned pond. We have to discuss with them and find out how to solve the problem. This is happening but I can recommend that by now, villages that we are working with, local people, most of them do not agree to have shrimp farm, but they protect the resources.

Are you working with any villages that have been severely impacted by the industry, where the whole lifestyle of the community has changed?

There are some villages that have the impact from shrimp farm; like in one village they collect shellfish for the long time. But when shrimp farm is operating nearby, the water quality is poorer and poorer. And they said it is quite difficult to collect shellfish. Some others said that the drinking water in his shallow well, now cannot drink it because it's becoming wrecked. The other person say, once he can collect the crab in this mangrove area but now no longer, he has to go far two kilometers from village. This is the general impact of our livelihood, in terms of environment. It is similar to other places where shrimp is located-poor quality of water or fish that no longer catch in the area.

Or some seaweed, once they could use as some vegetable but no longer can use; disappear because of dirty water, something like that. In some other area, like in the Gulf Coast where shrimp farm is very dense, there are very serious problems if people some of them have to migrate out, some of them cost their livelihood. Some of them can plant the rice and though provided low income but is enough for consumption. But now no longer plant the rice because it changed because the seawater is coming in. The soil is becoming saline, cannot plant rice so they have to move out. There are many stories, many cases about the impact of the shrimp farm.

Shrimp farm, in many villages, some say that if you could have shrimp farms, you are no longer general villager, but you are somebody who has money, who's rich. But that's the value of the shrimp farm in the community. But the fact that after one year, you were in this position, but after that your shrimp farm is collapsed you have to pay to the bank for the loan, but you don't have enough money, you finally become bankrupt and you have to disappear from the village-this in many cases. This, you can see in the social impact, environmental impact, economical impact. The other thing that is important is cultural impact. They have to lose their land, they have to change from rice planting to the labor in the city or wherever.

For the commercial one that's run by the rich, may be okay, because they have enough money to manage that. But for me, I still doubt technology can solve the problem. But for the poor, or for the middle level farm owners, as they observed in Trang or nearby provinces, there are many ponds left abandoned. I ask why. Most of them because of disease. Because of poor environment.

So I do not think for the poor shrimp farmers can run their own farm because not enough money to buy those things -- technology, medicines, antibiotics, or so and so. So, I do not think this can solve the problems but for the commercial one--large scale--I doubt because I do not have enough experience to explore. But what we can see in the past three years, and too many problems, still now. There's still excess.

Are there a lot of ponds where the owners are absent and they have a local person managing it for them?

Local people can mange for them. I think there are some because shrimp pond owners, most of them are the city people, the rich person. They may hire some local people to mange for them. But management by the local people, as I have seen, not so successful. But if some other big commercial scale, they have their own management system, from field supply, technology, or some other engineering requirement. But for the villagers who manage for the rich from town, you know, it's not so much high quality, so much not so successful.

What would be your message to consumers in the US? And, is that part of the solution? How do you resolve the problems you've seen in your country now, and what role do consumers have?

I think that consumers have a freedom to select, to eat it or not. To eat shrimp, in general, is okay. People may have opportunity to eat it because not always from farm, shrimp, but there's from natural, white shrimp. But for me, I think that if the purpose of shrimp farm to supply to the world demand, that's higher and higher up each year. But this is very dangerous. How can we produce a lot of shrimp for the consumer? If we demand a lot year by year and the fact that we have to reduce consumption and for the fish, or some other seafood can be substituted, because one kilo of shrimp, you know how many kinds of other fish that they use for the shrimp feed. This is too much input that's destroyed by biodiversity, not only in forests, but in fisheries, small fish also destroyed. So I think that we should decrease the consumption in the moderate. It's like a not so extreme. Eating too much, consume too much, but have to decrease and substitute by other seafood.

Is there a way of making social forestry a political, governmental structure where communities have legal rights to manage their forests within that structure on their own?

I think that this is very important. In the past, centralization is very strong that people's participation is very limited. So I believe that if the government recognize the right of the people to manage the resources, that would be helpful to the government. But they need to provide the proper education to create more awareness among the local people before giving them the right to manage. Once people understand properly, they can start restoring and managing the resources.

I think that one thing that can support the government is that the budget should be reduced a lot, because people can do the job with very few money because they have their own wisdom and raw materials. They can go in the forest selecting mangrove seed instead of buying from the outside.

So at this moment the Thai government decided to stop looking in the mangrove forest, but it still not clear for the future management. The government will provide some area of the mangrove forest to the local people to manage or not? But we hope that we are trying to support this project and if 50% of mangrove forest in the country will be given to the community to restore it, to protect it, or to manage it, we can see the future of the mangrove forest. In Thailand, that will benefit directly to the local poor people.