in coastal regions and in small islands
Coastal region and small
island papers 8
Indigenous people and parks 1
The challenge to complex conservation problems lies in seeking solutions that are sustainable, mutually agreed upon and equitable to all of the stakeholders involved.
Such solutions require an approach which integrates cultural, social and
natural resource concerns. The need for an integrated approach is aptly
demonstrated by the negative impact of tourism on the environment of many
coastal regions and small islands throughout the world, and by the replacement
of many traditional and environmentally-sound occupations by unsustainable
tourism-related activities. Oftentimes migrants attracted to new jobs in tourism
have displaced entire indigenous populations. This highlights the dilemma that
faces this type of tourism development in environmentally fragile areas. How can
we reconcile the intertwined yet conflicting interests of tourism development,
cultural heritage preservation and environmental conservation?
Thailand offers a case in point. The environmental resources of Thailand,
like that of the rest of Southeast Asia, are being rapidly degraded under severe
pressure from expanding populations and economic development strategies, which
often consider natural and cultural landscapes only as commodities to be
exploited in the pursuit of tourism dollars.
Action for the conservation of natural areas, where it does exist, is
often justified by the tourist revenues it generates through the promotion of
exotic and spectacular landscapes as fashionable ecotourism destinations. The
west coast of Southern Thailand is one area where the conservation of the marine
environment is part of the national tourism development plan.
Despite this awareness of the role of conservation, there is reason for
concern. Attracted by pristine landscapes, tourists arrive in large numbers in
the town and island of Phuket where the local tourism industry is based. While
tourism brings prosperity to the island, its ecological and social impacts are
vividly demonstrated in and around Phuket, home to a number of Chao Lay (or
‘sea gypsy’) communities. The demand for seafood to cater for the tourism
industry causes the seas to become rapidly depleted of once-plentiful fish and
shellfish. Tourist numbers also exceed the carrying capacity of many of the
marine protected areas. Moreover, the ecology and spectacular beauty of many of
the unprotected coastal beaches has been disrupted by large-scale hotel
construction and the indigenous population of Chao Lay have been pushed farther
and farther into the unproductive margins of the most remote islands.
Clearly tourism development is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it is
based on the promotion of the unique natural and cultural resources of a
destination. On the other hand, overexploitation of these resources has the
potential to destroy the very things on which tourism development is based.
Worse yet, a degraded environment can no longer sustain the unique human
societies that have developed in close association with these ecological
Of increasing concern is the negative impact of the regulations for
environmental conservation on the people living in or near protected areas.
Often they suffer from both the tourism development as well as from the
enforcement of conservation regulations. This problem is particularly acute for
indigenous communities in unique and often remote cultural landscapes.
For two decades, rapid tourism development has impacted significantly on
the nomadic lifestyles of the indigenous Chao Lay who inhabit the islands and
coastal sites of Surin, Rawai, Tukay, Lanta, and Adang. Their subsistence
lifestyle, based on the careful exploitation of marine resources, is now rapidly
changing and in grave danger of disappearing altogether because of externally
imposed pressures on their traditional environment. The continued survival of
the Chao Lay cultures is further exacerbated by the fact that, as minorities,
their official status – and thus their right to own land or other property –
is ambiguous under Thai law. This places the Chao Lay at an even greater risk of
unscrupulous exploitation by external competitors.
Yet this situation need not lead to the disappearance of the Chao Lay from
the world’s cultures. The Thai Government has placed large areas of the Andaman
Sea coast and territorial waters under the environmental protection of the
Royal Thai Forest Department (Marine Parks Division). There are plans to
create a marine biosphere reserve, supported by UNESCO, stretching along the
entire length of the coast from the border with Myanmar in the north to Malaysia
in the south. Within this large protected reserve, there are further plans to
nominate one or more areas as
UNESCO World Heritage sites.
One of the areas designated to become a World Heritage site is a group of
islands called the Surin Islands. The islands are already classified as a marine
national park under Thai law. The islands are home to the indigenous Moken
people, one of the three distinct groups of the Chao Lay, who form an integral
part of the island’s ecosystem. But their continued survival is at odds with
the demands set by environmental conservation and increasing tourism.
With the support of UNESCO, the
Marine Parks Division of the Royal Thai Forest Department is teaming up
with anthropologists from Chulalongkorn University
to explore ways in which the Moken, with their indigenous knowledge, can become
partners in the conservation of the coastal marine environment of Southern Thailand.
This project will help provide livelihood opportunities for the Moken, based
on traditional practices and values, which will allow them to remain in their
home territories while contributing to their increased social and economic well-being
as part of Thai society.
During the initial stages of this project, various concerned stakeholders
came together for a series of on-site workshops to negotiate an ‘in
principle’ cooperation agreement designed to articulate indigenous
practitioners and their traditional practices with mainstream marine
Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, it has been recognized that local
people must be involved in the development of conservation regulations and be
party to their implementation if the regulations are to be successfully
enforced. This also implies that there must be recognizable benefits for the
local population that offset the constraints imposed by regulations. For the
Moken of the Surin Islands, their continued presence and use of natural
resources within the park area will be facilitated by receiving and accepting
their shared responsibility for safeguarding heritage values, so that together
with local authorities and government departments, they can explore sustainable
This project began in the Surin Islands, home of one group of Moken
people. It will in the future be adapted to the needs and conditions of other
Chao Lay communities throughout the Andaman Sea region. The strategy to be
employed is to build upon regional models and impart to the indigenous Chao Lay
populations the economic means and the political skills necessary for their
continued presence in protected landscapes. Moreover, the project aims to
provide other stakeholders with the ethno-environmental understanding and the
motivation to cooperate in creating a management regime that will both protect
the natural environment and ensure the cultural survival of Thailand’s Chao
Entitled ‘A place for indigenous
people in protected areas, Surin Islands, Andaman Sea, Thailand’, the project
is implemented by the
Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute, and supported by the
UNESCO Bangkok Office,
Oceanographic Commission, and the interdisciplinary and intersectoral platform
for ‘Environment and Development in Coastal Regions
and in Small Islands’ (CSI). It is one of 23 CSI
projects, distributed round the globe, which seek to provide collaborative
on-the-ground action and showcase the positive impacts of wise practices in
sustainable coastal management. Linking these projects with each other and with
the complementary modalities of university chair/twinning
activities in sustainable coastal development, and the internet-based discussion
forum on ‘Wise Coastal
Practices for Sustainable Human Development’ (WiCoP forum; user name = csi,
password = wise), the CSI platform seeks to reduce conflicts over resources
and values in small islands and coastal regions. It is planned to achieve this
through the elaboration of wise practices, guidelines and principles, and ethical
codes of practice for specific domains, thereby promoting the equitable sharing
of coastal resources.
Overall objective and strategic approach
The overall objective of this project is to ensure the continued
well-being of the indigenous Moken culture, in conjunction with the conservation
of the marine coastal environment that is the traditional home of the Moken.
The project aims to conserve this unique ecological milieu and ensure
that the Moken continue to have access to, and the right to use their
traditional homeland. This will be accomplished by empowering the Moken to play
a principal role in the future conservation and management of the coastal area,
through the recognition of Moken traditional knowledge and practices and its
articulation with science-based conservation concepts.
Specific goals and project outputs
Identification and systematic documentation of the traditional knowledge
and practices of the Moken in such a way as to ensure their continued
transmission as well as their articulation with the existing official management
regime of the marine national park .
Strengthen the dialogue between members of the Moken community and park
biologists and officials in order to develop mutual respect and appreciation for
each other’s set of knowledge, practices and representations of the natural
Empowerment of the indigenous population by imparting the knowledge and
providing training in the skills and tools necessary to negotiate an integrated
traditional/scientific management strategy for the area, and to take on
the role of primary caretakers responsible for the management of this area
in conjunction with the
Royal Forest Department.
Development of sustainable livelihood opportunities for the Moken that
ensure the conservation of the area’s environment and the safeguarding of
cultural values and ways of life of the indigenous inhabitants.