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Fishers Among the Mangroves


The inhabitants of the small villages of Thailand's mangrove swamps, who have fished for thousands of years, have recently initiated several efforts to restore their environment and safeguard their fish supply. However, since the early 1970s a seemingly innocuous creature - the black tiger prawn - has threatened their way of life.

As the prawn industry has expanded through Asia and Latin America,d it has destroyed large tracts of mangrove forests, which are ideal sites for prawn farms. In Thailand, prawn production topped 160,000 tons in 1991, generating over 20 billion bhat (about $800 million). Over 230,000 acres of coastal lands have been converted to prawn farms. Although nearly half the farm are in protected forests, the Thai government does little to dissuade violators.

A similar pattern characterizes prawn industries in Taiwan, Indonesia, China, India, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, and elsewhere, with Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Yemen, and Iran as future targets. Prawn industries are growing at an average rate of 25 percent a year, and three-quarters of world prawn production occurs in Asia.

Wherever the prawn industry establishes itself, displacement of the local populations follows. Self-sufficient peoples, rooted in traditional culture, soon find themselves residing in shantytowns on the fringes of cities.

The best farm sites, like many mangroves forests, are close to the sea and on level ground, making it easier to dig shallow ponds to hold the prawns. First, the land is cleared of trees and excavated for ponds. Soon, astounding profits are realized, and more prawn ponds appear. Yet the dominant "intensive production" method can't sustain itself for long. It depends on hatchery-bred larvae, manufactured feed, and chemical and medical water treatments, all maintained in controlled artificial ponds. To ensure a stable environment, the ponds are regularly refreshed with sea water, while fouled waters containing toxic prawn excrement and additives from the feed and water treatments are pumped out.

No adequate method exists for disposing of pond effluents without contaminating surrounding land and ground water. The salty sea water also poisons ground water and farm land, while waste water kills coastal sea life and destroys fisheries. In any case, after one to three years, the ponds can no longer sustain prawn life, so indebted prawn farmers take out new loans, until finally bankruptcy corners them. Often they sell their lands and homes to the wealthy investors who encouraged them to convert their lands to prawn farms in the first place. Later, the investors can sell the land as sites for industrial plants, cold-storage facilities for fisheries products, and future housing or tourist developments. Having paid off their investment, the big prawn businesses begin the process anew elsewhere.

One former prawn industry businessman says the big firms further increase profits by selling their own brands of feed, additives, and specialized equipment to the prawn farms. Even if a small farm loses money, the big companies can still make a killing.


In April 1992, some friends and I visited Trang Province, on the southwest coast of Thailand. We met with villagers from three small fishing communities bordering the Andaman Sea. The people of Bahn Laemmakkan, Bahn Laemsai, and Bahn Toong cooperate in land use but worry constantly about the encroaching tiger prawn industry.

We arrived in Bahn Laemmakkan by small motor boat, moving past the mangroves that line the neighboring channel. Our guide, Dot Chatrit Reutreemontree, works with the Yad Fon (Rain Drop) Association and has lived in these villages for three years, building the relationships necessary for grassroots organizing.

Though immature, the mangroves along the channel were impressive. At high tide, brackish sea floods the trees, allowing small boats to wander among spreading branches where shore birds perch. By contrast, a little further on we approached a prawn farm: extensive land had been cleared of trees, and shallow pits held water for black tiger prawns. The farm occupies land protected by laws the government hasn't enforced.

On Thailand's east coast, in the provinces of Songkhla and Nakhon Sri Tammarat, lies a wasteland of prawn farms that saw their heyday come - and go - in the late 1980s. Many had gone bankrupt. Mortgaged homes and lands left thousands of villagers with little choice: migrate to the cities or stay and work for the wealthy investors. The area now resembles a scarred battlefield: abandoned ponds, dead trees, and contaminated land and water.

"Some are beginning to see that prawn farming is not a good thing," says one prawn farmer in Songkhla Province. "One to two years of profit, after that losses. If I had it to do over again, I'd stay in mixed agriculture. But the incentives were greater than the warnings, and so people took chances."

In Bahn Laemmakkan, we landed at a makeshift, wooden dock and walked past fishermen who greeted Dot warmly. Weaving our way among children, hens and chicks, and wooden houses raised on stilts, we came to the home of Pa Sanee Nunsii, the assistant village headman. His wife, Ma Sanee Nunsii, and their daughter, both dressed in traditional sarongs, welcomed us.

About 70 families live in Bahn Laemmakken. The village has an elementary school, but students travel to the nearby mainland for higher education. Though mainly fishing people, the villagers farm some, tending vegetable gardens, a small amount of rice, banana, mango, jack-fruit, and papaya trees.

Both for diet and income, the villagers also raise grouper fish in offshore pens. Ma described recent problems raising grouper, mainly due to pollution from prawn farms and a rubber-processing factory. Since the arrival of the prawn farms, the channel is brackish, even at low tide, and many fish have died.

"No one in this village likes the prawn farms," Ma asserts. As yet, no farms have come to the peninsula where she lives, but prawn farmers have illegally cleared and occupied over 200 acres of mangrove forest nearby. These enterprises openly violate the law, but, Ma explains, the owners are influential people.

Pa Sanee Nunsii nearly succumbed to prawn fever himself when his younger brother, who lived in another village, asked for financial help in a farm. The brother mortgaged his home and land to initiate the venture, but needed more capital. Ma's husband couldn't mortgage their land, however. Soon afterwards, the brother went bankrupt, losing everything.

The reason Ma's husband couldn't sell his own land illustrates the need for Thailand to address indigenous land rights. Although Bahn Laemakkan has been at its present site for over 50 years, villagers never filed claims for land titles, assuming that occupation guaranteed rights to the land. The region was recently included in Buth Klong Galassy National Forest, giving the fisher people the right to occupy the land - but not to sell it.

Pa Sanee Nunsii explains that prawn farms came to the district a year ago, and already the pollutrants have had a noticeable effect. The villagers worry about potential damage to their fresh water supply and have asked the "influential people" who run the prawn farms to control their waste effluents, but to no avail. "We can deal with the small business people," ors host complains, "and we can deal with the middle-sized ones. But we can't deal with the big investors. At that level, there's nothing we can do."

The people of Bahn Laemakkan fear the repercussions of speaking out. "We can't even look at the abandoned prawn farms for fear of reprisals from the owner's private security guards," a fisherman says. Many villagers believe that high-ranking government officials, who have power over both forestry and fishery decisions, use their influence to favor the rapid expansion of the prawn industry. Such expansion can only spell disaster for coastal communities.


Over 70 percent of the territory of these three villages is mangrove forest. Years earlier, the villagers had harvested mangrove for charcoal. The business was profitable when trees were full grown, but as the forests were cut without giving trees time to mature, it became less so. Eventually, people returned to fishing, although two charcoal facilities remain. Outside workers - about 20 for each factory - come in to maintain operations, and mangrove stands continue to shrink.

Thai law reserves about 80 percent of this mangrove forest for charcoal production, although it lies within a national forest. Moreover, even the 15 percent of the forest with "full protection status" is sometimes violated. Finally, about 260 acres of mangrove forest comprise "community forest" - land the provincial government presented to the three villages for community use. The community forest acts as a buffer against hard times and a way to ensure a future for a village dependent on its resources. Each village lets its members in need of extra earnings use some of the community forest, with certain restrictions.

For the past three years, the villages have begun a program to manage their community forest, establishing strict rules for sustainable forest management. Recently, they replanted 23 acres of degraded forest, starting young mangroves from hanging shoots and pods harvested from mature trees.

Villagers have also begun to address troubles in the coastal fisheries. Trawlers and other destructive fishing method once widely practiced by local fishermen, such as "bombing" with kill or stun fish, have nearly destroyed sea grasses and coral reefs, which provide an important fish habitat. The villages are now collaborating to monitor coastal waters and, with the assistance of the Yad Fon Association, they are protecting sea grasses near the shore. For example, cinder blocks placed off the coast serve as artificial reefs. The villages are also attempting to halt the destructive fishing practices, further protecting sea grass beds and coral reefs. After two years, fish and other sea-life have started to recover, and some species missing for years are returning.

In 1992, the Yad Fon Association, the Wildlife Fund of Thailand, and Bahn Toong are co-sponsoring a program to monitor and protect sea-turtle eggs, which otherwise might be lost through predation or human impact. Turtle eggs recently hatched at a high rate, to the satisfaction of both environmentalists and villagers.

To help villagers attain more autonomy and perhaps resist the expanding prawn industry, Yad Fon has worked with community leaders to establish grassroots structures to deal with local problems. Village cooperatives help people with interest-free loans, and a central warehouse provides spare boat-engine parts and fishing equipment. These collective efforts help coop members stay out of debt and avoid high-interest loans, and strengthen the villagers' resolve to hold their own against intruding interests.


On the way to Bahn Toong, we met a father and son setting traps on the swamp mud flats to catch crabs among the mangroves. The father was explaining how to place traps, using his knowledge of the moon and tide cycles. Constructed of ribbed bamboo cages, the traps let crabs enter but not exit. The father and son camouflaged the devices with leafy branches to foil crab-eating monkeys.

Until recently, the two caught fish here with traps, but since prawn farms were built up the channel, fewer suitable fish are to be had. Now they go mainly after crabs, earning barely enough to survive. They fear it will soon be impossible to earn a living by the sea. When asked about prawn farms, the boy answers, "We don't like them!"

In Bahn Laemsai, village headman Mad-Ha Ranwasii is against prawn farms, too, saying that only a few people benefit while most lose everything when the fish are gone. His village lies within the national forest and so is ostensibly protected, but provincial government plans to construct a road make him wonder if prawn farms will follow.

Mad-Ha is committed to resisting the prawn industry. "If there are no mangrove forests, then the sea will have no meaning," he says. "It is like having a tree with no roots, for the mangroves are the roots of the sea."

A fisherman standing nearby adds that the villagers are concerned over the encroaching prawn industry. "We only know how to catch fish," he says. "If we couldn't catch fish, we wouldn't know what else to do."


The coastal waters around mangrove forests sustain fish, dolphins, otter, custaceans, sea birds, sea turtles, and mantees and their are relative, dugong. Mangrove swamps provide breeding grounds for much of the world's fish shrimp, crabs, and shellfish. Mangrove forests, the "ocean's rain forests," offer a habitat for crab-eating mascaques, fishing casts, giant monitor lizards, a variety of shorebirds, and many other plant and animal species.

Worldwide, there are over 75 mangrove species found near river esturaries, sheltered shores, and inland tidal zones. The trees thrive in brackish waters. Where most plants would sccumb to the salinity, mangroves flourish because their unique tap roots filter out salt and provide fresh water to the rest of the plant. A thirsty traveler could, in fact, cut into the root and find fresh water.


When other communities are clamoring for pipe-borne water, women of all ages in Udappuwa, Sri Lanka,s till walk morning and evening a kilometer or more to the beach site where their ancestors found a perpetual spring of fresh water only meters from the ocean…

The delicate ecological balance long maintained by Udappawa's fisherfolk, however, is today visibly endangered thanks to... commercial operations encroaching from all sides. Thanks to mechanized trawlers that give a daily socuring to their traditional shallow water fishing grounds, Udappuwa's tradition-conscious fishermen are netting fewer and fewer fish to maintain their families... They are being forced to abandon their ancestral livelihood and to take up casual or menial labor wherever they can find it.

Meanwhile, every available acre of the adjoining Mude Lagoon region together with its primordial mangrove swamp land is fast being covered into saltwater tanks for commercial prawnfarming operations.

Apart from the devastation caused to the lagoon area's flora and fauna, the lifting of vast quantities of saltwater has upset the region's water table to the extent that villagers are now complaining of saltwater seepage into local wells.

The major Colombo firm that has the biggest investment in Udappuwa for the simple reason that the highly-mechanized operations hire few local villagers and then only the most menial and lowpaying tasks.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.