Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Wise Coastal Practices, ASEAN's Small Islands Raise Their Voice

by Warief Djajanto*

Khuraburi, Thailand (ASEAN Features) Mesia wants three things in life: a national citizenship identity card, health care, and a job at the local park. At the top of her wish list is a piece of paper that the local authorities in the southern Thai province of Phang-nga have denied her, presumably because she is a sea nomad. Mesia is a Moken.

"With a national ID card, we can go places," explains Mesia, a mother of three and grandmother to seven children.  Mesia who estimates she is 45 has coffee skin and deep lines on her face that betray her long exposure to the elements.

She sells mats and baskets woven from pandanus leaves but wants to work as well at the Surin Islands National Park where she and her fellow Moken live in traditional wooden huts on an island beach. 

The Moken, the Moklen and the Urak Lawoi are three groups of maritime hunter-gatherers in the Andaman Sea. Their foraging grounds are the coastal areas and islands off Myanmar running south along Thailand and to the Malay Peninsula.

Mesia and her community live in the Surin Islands, 60 kilometers due west from the port town of Khuraburi near the border with Myanmar. Khuraburi is a two-hour drive north of the popular tourist resort of Phuket.

Without ID cards, the Moken dread civil harassment when they go onshore. With ID cards, they can secure jobs and state-budgeted social rights. As sea nomads cross-national borders, the Thai authorities are reluctant to issue national ID cards to the Moken although they number only 160 in the Surin Islands. Why?
"With the current conflict situation in Myanmar, the Thai government with national security in mind wouldn't want to grant citizenship for fear of an influx (of more Moken from Myanmar)," says Dr. Narumon Hinshiranan, an anthropologist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok whose dissertation was on Moken social and environmental interrelationships.

Another Thai academic believes more of the Moken will turn to a sedentary way of life, stay in one place, and that will give them a better chance to get recognition. But he adds a precaution. "Once we ask them to stay in one place, we're changing their culture. Is that supposed to be something we impose on them?" asks Dr. Suraphol Sudara, an expert in ecology and culture and chairman of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, a Bangkok-based environment NGO.

Of late, the Moken have become less nomadic. Their foraging is perceived to run counter to mainstream conservation and lead to environmental damage. But the meagre income they earn from diving for seashells, selling handicraft to tourists, and working as boat keepers and waste collectors at the park barely meets subsistence needs.

 The plight of the Moken is one of several real life situations raised at a workshop in Khuraburi 25-28 Nov 2002 on wise coastal practices in Asia and the Pacific. Other than Thailand, the UNESCO-organized meeting also heard cases of two other ASEAN countries: the Philippines and Indonesia. ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and has 10 member states.

Participants presented to one another their country's case study on a conflict situation that affects the environment and communities in coastal areas and small islands.

They then explored means to manage that conflict with a tool called the wise practice agreement (WPA), a concept developed by UNESCO's coastal areas and small islands programme (CSI).

The WPA is a flexible, voluntary agreement among multiple users of a resource in an area and is characterized by mutual recognition of rights to the resource. It identifies and brings together all the stakeholders concerned, including the area's local community and the government. It aims to reach an agreement on the multiple uses of the resource and establishes the rules of compliance and the means to resolve disputes.

Concerning the Moken in the Surin Islands, what ideas did the workshop participants raise to meet the desire of the Moken for citizenship rights and the national security concerns of the Thai government?

Initially, a nongovernment organization working with a university research group could serve as a neutral facilitator to seek a way out for the Moken and the Surin Islands National Park on jobs and basic facilities. Local and national government can join in an agreement at a later phase on the more complex issue of citizenship, the workshop views.

Meanwhile in the Philippines case study, the issue also amounted to conflict between national security and citizens rights.

In Ulugan Bay, in the west central island of Palawan, the Macarascas  barangay (local community) is concerned about the intent of the Western Command of the Philippine military to build a naval base in the area. Ulugan Bay is strategically located 120 nautical miles due east of Mischief Reef, one of numerous reefs, shoals and islands in the South China Sea claimed by China, one of six claimant countries.

The barangay's concern relates to perceived restricted access, tenure rights, biodiversity loss, and marine pollution. Residents are also perturbed that the navy has not consulted them with regard to building the base.

"Ulugan Bay will die. The biodiversity will die because of the many ships and different projects involved," says Romia Labrador, kapitana (leader) of the Macarascas barangay, about her concern if the Western Command got its way.

To get public approval of its actions, the navy should undertake the EIA (environmental impact assessment) process, says an environment lawyer familiar with the issue. "As conceived by Philippine law, the EIA is a participatory process. All stakeholders should be consulted," says Gerthie Mayo-Anda of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center, ELAC, in Puerto Princesa City, the main town in Palawan.

A marine ecologist of the University of the Philippines agrees.

"I don't think that there will be really much of a problem if the navy only complies with what we have in the law. They have to comply to the EIA," says Prof Miguel D. Fortes of U.P.'s Marine Science Institute.

What can the navy do at the least to satisfy the people of Macarascas?

"Transparency. Very simple," answers Fortes who also is a strategic studies group fellow in the National Defense College of the Philippines that advises the defense secretary. To the same question, Kapitana Romia's reply is terse: "Leave Ulugan Bay."

In this sensitive give-and-take between the national security interests of the government and the human rights of citizens, the workshop suggests local government should play a central role. Residents could petition the mayor of Puerto Princesa City to initiate a meeting of the barangays, the military and other stakeholders affected by the proposed naval base. An independent inquiry should be conducted, the workshop attendees say.

Unlike the first two, national security dos not appear in the Indonesian case study. The dominating issue is environmental damage: Jakarta Bay and the Seribu Islands are threatened by a multitude of environmental impacts. These range from fishing with explosives and poison, sand and coral mining, to pollution from land-based sources. Every day the 20 million people of greater Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, produce 25,000 cubic meters of solid waste. One thousand cubic meters of that end up in the Bay and the Seribu Islands just north of Jakarta every 24 hours.

To reduce the amount of sewage that winds up in the Bay, the people of Banjarsari in South Jakarta show how community-based waste management has helped. This low to middle income kampung (small community) of some 290 households keeps a clean and green neighbourhood by applying the 4R principle in managing their waste: reduce, reuse, recycle and replant. Wet waste like kitchen leftovers is turned into compost to fertilize home-grown medicinal plants. Old paper is recycled. Key to this effort is public participation with the drive coming from committed community leaders.

A strong consistent leader and the same understanding by the major stakeholders on the big picture of the main problems are crucial, says Christien Ismuranty in underscoring what lessons were learned from the Jakarta Bay case study.

Given the complexity of the Bay with its multitude of issues and stakeholders, resolving its problems is like picking the right pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and placing them in the right place at the right time, says Ismuranty, a marine biologist with Kehati, the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation in Jakarta that has supported fieldwork in the Seribu Islands.

The workshop attendees see Banjarsari as a model for community-based waste management. It was suggested that a conceptual framework could be designed to identify and address the wider issues and stakeholders of Jakarta Bay and the Seribu Islands in an integrated manner.

Using the Banjarsari experience on how to motivate people, demonstration plots could be set up to deal with specific issues based on the causal relationships identified by the conceptual framework. One plot at a coastal kampung could deal with coastal construction or waste management problems. Another plot could be established on the Seribu Islands to cope with island capacity for freshwater supply, for instance.  

The Surin Islands, Ulugan Bay, and Jakarta Bay with the Seribu Islands are a few of numerous flashpoints worldwide of what United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan calls front-line zones where many of the main problems of environment and development are unfolding. Mesia and Romia are voices in a growing chorus from the world's small islands whose volume cannot be lowered. Ends

* Warief Djajanto is an independent writer commissioned by the ASEAN Secretariat

Source: Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), 21 January 2003





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