Pisit Charnsnoh, 58, lives and works in Thailand's southern province of Trang, on the Malay Peninsula. In 1985, he and his wife founded the Yadfon Association to work with impoverished coastal villages in Trang. He is on the board of the international Mangrove Action Project, based in Seattle, and is affiliated with the Industrial Shrimp Action Network.
The mangrove forests of Thailand's coast are a biologically diverse ecosystem providing the transition zone between the ocean and the rainforests. Rich in micro-organisms, the mangroves nurture fish, mollusks, crustaceans and even marine mammals. The sea life in Thailand's mangrove forests has sustained coastal communities for generations. In Trang, the fishers along the coast are primarily Muslims, a religious minority in Thailand, where Buddhism dominates.
The coastal ecosystems of Thailand have been devastated by logging, burning of mangroves for charcoal and commercial shrimp farms. (Thailand is the world's largest exporter of cultivated shrimp.) Today, over half the country's mangrove forests have been lost, and many of the remaining have been burned to produce charcoal. The loss of the mangroves, coral reefs and sea grass beds destroys habitat for sea life and threatens the livelihood of subsistence coastal communities. Additional damage to the inland waters is caused by commercial fishing boats that use a wide variety of harmful practices including explosives, over-fishing, trawling, and drag and push nets that tear up coral reefs and sea grass beds.
The Struggle and Success
After working for years on rural development, Pisit established the Yadfon Association in 1985 to work with marginalized coastal fishers in Trang. (In Thai, Yadfon means raindrop, a symbol of renewal.) It took Pisit, who is a Buddhist, time and patience to gain credibility with the Muslim villagers. In the 17 years he has worked in this region, he has become known for his understated but firm and effective manner.
Yadfon's work, which began in a few villages, eventually spread to 30 communities. The organization encouraged villages to unite in protecting the coastal fisheries and mangroves. In 1986, under Yadfon's leadership, communities began restoring a 240-acre mangrove forest. In 1989, with the area restored, the Thai Forest Service and the provincial government declared it the country's first community-managed mangrove forest. The restoration results were dramatic. From 1991 to 1994, there was a 40 percent increase in total catch, resulting in increased income levels in the local villages. Co-management became a government-sanctioned model in other communities. At least nine community-managed forests have been created since, and Pisit continues to work for the growth of this strategy.
Pisit's approach acknowledges that top-down management of fragile resources has failed. Successful conservation must involve and sustain resident communities, and the approach requires education, decentralized decision-making and hands-on strategies. The dramatic results and the organizing lessons of Yadfon have attracted agencies and village leaders from other provinces to travel to Trang and learn about sustainable resource development.
The dominant change that Yadfon brought to Trang was to empower a population that had been shut-out from decisions that affected their daily lives. This unified effort has led to other important victories, including:
Restoration by villagers of sea grass beds, habitat for the endangered dugong manatee. Villagers used dugong conservation to pressure the government to ban trawlers and destructive push nets in a protected 133 square kilometer sea grass area.
Curtailing the number of commercial shrimp farms.
Defeat of a proposed deep-sea port that would have been funded by the World Bank.
Enforcing boundaries intended to keep trawlers out of the area as villagers took responsibility for confronting the trawlers at sea.
Encouraging better watershed management and overturning a proposed dam in a national park in Trang that would have irrevocably degraded the watershed.
Pisit has developed grassroots organizing workshops called "In the Hands of the Fishers," which advocate the involvement of local residents to secure long-term protection of natural resources. The workshops, which he has helped lead since 1999, have brought fishers together from throughout Asia and as far away as Africa.
Watch in high resolution on YouTube.