Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

THAILAND: Coastal Folk Flex Collective Muscle to Restore Mangroves

SAMUT PRAKAN, Thailand, Oct 12 2009 (IPS) - Looking across the bay while at a restaurant built on stilts over water, Bonchai Chayapat muses over the transformed landscape once lush with a mangrove forest that today has all but vanished.

“The land in this … coastal area (of) about 2,735 rai (1,094 acres) used to be (mangrove) forest. But now it’s all gone,” said the 53-year-old resident of Bangkhunthein district.

Kongsak Lerkngam, 52, casts the same forlorn glances at the spectacle of vanishing mangroves.

As a small boy, the headman of the Klong Pittayalong Community would wend his way through the mangrove forests to the seas. Today those are gone.

There may yet be hope for the return of these mangroves, or some of them anyway.

The non-governmental Kok Klam Conservation group is working together with six local communities in this province, located at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, to regenerate nearby coastal mangroves – which are shrubs or trees that grow on shallow waters.


The sight of these community workers crouching down in the mud near the shoreline village as they press the roots of mangrove seedlings into the grey soil inspires hope for the environment.

Each sapling, a metre in height, is tethered to a short bamboo pole for support – a crucial part of an effort to restore the plants that reclaim the land from the sea.

Just beyond the shoreline stand lines of four-metre bamboo poles, or fence-like structures that act as water breakers to stem the impact of wave erosion on the new saplings.

Mangroves forests play a key role in stabilising shorelines, trapping sediment and bolstering the shore. Scientists say that without them, the shoreline is easily exposed to the constant forces of the wind, waves and currents.

Narin Boonruam, who heads the conservation group, is spearheading the effort to protect 15,000 rai – some 6,000 acres – that have been lost to the sea along the coastline.

Narin said a muddy environment is necessary for the saplings to take root. He believes the collective efforts of the communities and his group toward the restoration of mangroves are not enough. “Government should do more to help,” he said.

“I would hope the government paid more attention to this kind of work to help protect the coastal resources more and more, and be supportive of local communities,” he said.

Kongsak said the government should urgently act to protect the coastline in the province, saying it was a key producer of agriculture and seafood for Bangkok. “We have not had success yet; we have to keep on going, or the government will no longer listen to us,” he said.

Here on the Gulf of Thailand – a wide stretch of water bordered by the provinces of Samut Sakorn and Samut Prakarn and located just two hours from Bangkok – communities have been paying a bitter price for Thailand’s drive toward rapid economic growth three decades ago.

The lure of growth led to the destruction of large swathes of mangrove forest, the vital protection against sea encroachment, to make way for shrimp farms.

Janaka de Silva, an environmental scientist and program coordinator with the environmental advocate International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said that in the rush to growth, few considered the wider impact on the environment.

“In the heydays of economic growth and that push to actually grow fast, there was an increase in development in coastal areas that was not planned in a systematic and organised way,” Dr De Silva said.

The result led to changes in society, including environmental damage, that were little understood at the time. “Now we see the consequences of those decisions that were made 25 or 30 years ago, almost,” he said.

The affected coastal communities are already experiencing what many scientists have been warning about since the advent of global climate change that has triggered rising sea levels.

Dr de Silva said such changes place enormous pressure on local communities. Coastal people, he added, are constantly struggling to adapt to live “in what we see as a very dynamic environment that’s changing and being influenced by many different forces.”

Mangrove forests are to be found in more than 20 coastal provinces in Thailand, covering an area of 240,000 hectares as of 2002. These forests used to cover 368,000 ha in Thailand in 1961. The steady loss of mangroves has been attributed to timber and charcoal industries as well as urbanisation, agriculture, and aquaculture, particularly shrimp farming.

The World Bank, in a 2007 report on the state of Thailand’s environment, warned that the coastline was being eroded at a rate of one to five metres a year, leading to an annual loss of an area equivalent to two square kilometres. The estimated loss in economic terms back then was at least six billion baht (150 million U.S. dollars).

The Bank also noted that over the past 30 years, erosion and subsidence have led to the village’s shoreline diminishing by more than one km.

As though heeding the calls of conservationists, the Thai government has made some progress in the recent years to halt the loss of mangroves. In 2004 it launched a five-year ‘Action Plan for Mangrove Management in the Gulf of Thailand’ to rehabilitate the mangroves along the coastline.

But more needs to be done.

Pinsak Surasavadi, the director of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, which currently oversees some 600,000 acres of coastal mangrove area in the country, said that while the level of mangrove cover is stable and “even increasing, 40 percent is still not in good condition,” including those which remain in shrimp farm areas.

Success at increasing the mangroves comes only after halting erosion. “If we can stop the erosion first, then we can increase the sediment layers – (and) that’s the time we can plant,” he said.

The province of Prachuap Khirikhan, 280 km south of Bangkok, has seen the restoration of 225 acres of land that was once left desolate by shrimp farming.

Nowadays, lush 15-metre tall mangrove trees have highlighted the success of the regeneration program, bringing with them an abundance of wildlife. The project, backed by major state power companies, has also been endorsed by the Thai Royal family.

Dr Pitiwong Tantichodok, a specialist in coastal oceanography, said the recognition of the role of mangroves as a critical component of the marine and coastal environment has marked a new way of appreciating the role of nature.

“Now we are turning into the period we call ecosystem-based management. . . . if we keep or maintain the ecosystem … the ecosystem will be healthy, and you can harvest in a sustainable way,” he assured.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).

 
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