By Marwaan Macan-Markar, IPS News, March 8, 2012
As fingers of morning light slip through the mango and banana orchards of his village, Suchin Utanarat heads out in a boat to net a fresh catch from the nearby canals teeming with shrimp.
But there is more to this idyllic, riverine scene. By stirring the waters through his daily routine, this 40-year-old fisher is showing the advantages of a sustainable local economy that is small, simple and green.
A few hours in the brackish waters and Suchin has netted catches worth 1,000 baht (33 dollars). "This is my main income and it is enough for our family," he says, sorting the shrimp, seated in his boat of carved teak. "This shrimp goes to seafood restaurants, even in Bangkok.
"Most of the families in our village catch shrimp in the canals all year and depend on it for a livelihood," he adds. "It is a small economy but it is a safe one. And we want to keep it that way," he says.
Suchin’s sentiments are shared by many who live in Baan Loong Sumlan and other villages spread across a province bountiful with fruit orchards and crisscrossed by a network of canals.
What has steeled the determination of people like Suchin was Samut Songhkram province’s disastrous experiment with industrial-scale shrimp farming.
Large swathes of mangroves were levelled to make way for the big shrimp farms, and a province that had 8,000 hectares of mangroves in 1986 now has only 256 hectares of the protective vegetation.
Samut Songkhram's aquaculture ambitions took a when a virus, first detected in 1992, swept through shrimp farms across this marshy delta. Fear of the virus has kept the villagers from going back to industrial shrimp farming of the type that dot other southern provinces.
It is a choice that makes villagers like Wong Takrudthong, 70, beam with an air of community pride, knowing that it sets communities here apart from those making a killing from the large shrimp farms.
In 2011, the southern provinces produced over 600,000 tonnes of shrimp, guaranteeing Thailand’s place as the world’s largest shrimp exporter.
"We learnt our lesson once. Families lost a lot. And we will not take another risk," says Wong, a respected village elder. "People would like to see Samut Songkhram remain a small place with a sustainable economy."
But the province’s location 63 km south of Bangkok has brought new challenges. Investors want to covert some of the barren tracts into industrial zones like the Map Ta Phut industrial estate in the nearby province of Rayong.
"A lot of land was bought up after the shrimp farms closed and now these new landowners want to convert them into industrial zones," says Amonsak Chatratin, deputy chairman of a village council. "We are against it because of the pollution.
"We have learnt lessons from the industrial parks in the neighbouring provinces," he told IPS. "We do not want another Map Ta Phut here."
Map Ta Phut, home to 117 industrial plants that include 45 petrochemical factories, eight coal-fired power plants and 12 chemical factories, dominated the national news in 2009 and 2010 following a successful court case by a local environmentalist to shut the estate.
Community-based small-scale tourism, a new money-spinner for the province, will be affected if big industries move in, warns Surajit Chirawet, former head of the province’s chamber of commerce. "This has become an important lifeline for us. Many families drive down here from Bangkok for the weekends."
The riverine lifestyle offers a welcome contrast to Thailand’s sprawling modern capital. Among the reminders of quieter, less bustling times are scenes of Buddhist monks paddling in boats at dawn on their daily rounds to collect food.
Consequently, local concerns have seen the emergence of a grassroots movement rallying around twin causes – respecting the local sentiment for small, environment-friendly economic policies and keeping away large-scale, polluting industries.
"Local people are against the big projects and are applying pressure on the provincial authorities to have public hearings," revealed Manop Yanpisitkul, environmentalist at the provincial office of resources and environment. "They only support eco-friendly projects".
This eco-friendly initiative is supported by the United Nations Development Programe (UNDP) and the U.N. Environment Programme. "We are helping the local communities to make their case to the provincial and national government," says Sutharin Koonphol, programme analyst at the UNDP’s environment division.
Assistance under the Poverty-Environment Initiative (PEI) of the U.N. agencies helps lobby the grassroots cause with Thailand’s powerful interior ministry, which controls Thailand’s development planning.
"We are trying to convince the ministry to strengthen the public participation process and see the merits of a bottom-up development approach," Sutharin told IPS. "The green growth vision of Samut Songkhram is particularly important for Thailand."
Suchin, the shrimp fisher, will settle for no other. "They may like industrialisation in other provinces, but we prefer to make a living from fishing in the canals, our fruit orchards and home-stay tourism."