Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Thailand’s sea nomads

The Moken make use of renewable resources such as fast-growing bamboo.

 


© Unesco/Narumon Hinshiranan

The Moken are one of the last sea tribes in Thailand which follow a traditional lifestyle.

Walking patiently into the beach forest day after day for months, Salama Khlathale finally found the right tree for making his kabang (boat). 

The choice is important. The boat will serve him as vehicle, home, fishing instrument, a place for giving birth and, on occasion, a place for dying for the next 20 years.  Only a few species of tree are suitable for the task, such as rakam (Salacca wallichiana) and a local tree called mai pan. Others would give the boat the wrong weight, says Salama, a sea-nomad and member of the Moken tribe which lives in the Surin Islands along Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast. 

The selected log will be crafted into a rough boat-like shape, then immersed in water and heated in order to enlarge it. It will then be “grilled” over a fire of tanai wood (an unidentified species of sapotaceae), which blackens the lower part of the boat, and protects it from damage by barnacles once it is in use. Its sail will be made from the toei naam’s (pandanus) leaves. 

Boat-making is both a science and an art for the tribe. The techniques used have been handed down from generation to generation, perpetuating the experience and skills of their ancestors.

The Moken also rely on many other forest products. According to Moken expert Dr Narumon Hinshiranan, an anthropologist Chulalongkorn University in the Thai capital, Bangkok, the tribe uses some 80 plant species for food, 28 medicinal plants, 53 species for housing and other 42 for other purposes including handicraft.

“A local plant, morloon is used to make a fire the heat of which is used to treat women who have just given birth. The yaa thale’s bark is mixed in boiled water and used for bathing sick kids,” says Aroon Thaewchatturat, a researcher studying the Moken. Plants are also used for entertainment:  the violin-like kating is made from bamboo for example. They also learn to select proper materials for house-building and use pandanus for weaving mats and boxes.

The Moken are one of the last sea tribes in Thailand which follow a traditional life-style.  Salama’s tribe settled in the Surin Islands three decades ago, when the political situation in Myanmar (then Burma) forced  them to quit their traditional sea-route along the coastline of both Myanmar and Thailand.

A decade later, in 1981, their new home was declared a national marine park and restrictions were placed on their fishing and foraging activities. Authorities perceived these traditional activities as a threat to the environment (although subsequent studies have refuted this). Tourism also began to develop there, bringing the Moken into contact with a world which, until then, had remained largely unknown to them. “Snacks, instant noodles, and condensed milk have become favourite foods and paracetamol a common medicine,” says Dr Narumon.


© Unesco/Narumon Hinshiranan

Gathering sand worms at low tide: the Moken’s knowledge of their environment could prove invaluable in managing it.

Once again, the lifestyle and culture was under threat. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Moken are not recognised as Thai citizens and therefore not allowed to own land or attend public schools. 

In 1997 UNESCO launched the Andaman Pilot Project, which seeks ways of integrating the traditional knowledge of the Moken into the region’s sustainable development, the pro-tection of its environment and the preservation of their distinct cultural heritage. A first phase of the project included extensive research on the Moken’s traditional knowledge and practices, their migration and sett-lement history. This knowledge is now being articulated with a number of marine science studies in the area to better understand the local ecology. The environmental impact of tourism activities is also being assessed, and the role the Moken could play in tourism deve-lopment is being looked at. 

Such involvement, and the recognition given to their skills and culture, will in turn, it’s hoped, allow the Moken to gain control over the changes that contact with the modern world has brought about for them, improving their standard of living while sustaining  their traditional lifestyle. 

Enough is now known about this indigenous community, that today number some 5,000, to convince Park officials that they should remain a significant force in the Surin Islands (which the Thai government is pro-posing for World Heritage listing), and eventually become partners in the area’s conservation.  This acknowledgement is only a first step towards a much bigger goal, but, says Dr Narumon, it’s a vital one.

Kamol Sukin, Bangkok
 
in UNESCO Sources, July-August 2000 - No. 125, p13-14

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