Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
colbartn.gif (4535 octets)

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.

Tourism can provide an alternative source of income for the
Moken. Yet unrestricted tourism in such small islands 
may cause degradation to the fragile environment.

Tourists and cruise boats

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 systems.

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.

Volunteer health practitioners examine the physical health
of the Moken and provide urgent medical services.  

outdoor clinic

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 conservation regimes.

Moken woman gathering 
sand worms on a beach at 
low tide.  
Diving for fish, shellfish and 
other marine animals is an 
important source of livelihood
  for the Moken.  

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 development opportunities.

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 Lay.

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, the Intergovernmental 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.

Project objective

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

Start Introduction Activities Publications Search
Wise Practices Regions Themes