Reclaiming lives

The Khlong Khon community's inspirational battle over two decades to breathe life back into the local mangrove forests, once decimated by shrimp farming, has started to reap its rewards.

By: Chaiwat Satyaem

Bangkok Post
Communities in tambon Khlong Khon in Samut Songkhram's Muang district have finally been rewarded for their efforts in restoring the mangrove forests there.

Ski-boarding is another challenging activity for tourists in Khlong Khon. Photos by TAWATCHAI KEMGUMNERD

More than two decades ago, vast areas of mangrove forests in the area were cleared to make way for shrimp farms.
As a result, various forms of marine life that once thrived among the mangrove trees gradually disappeared. At the same time local people lost an important means of earning a livelihood.
Paiboon Rattanapongthara, 76, is a dedicated conservationist who vigorously campaigned to revive the dying forests.

A must-do activity for all tourists visiting Khlong Khon community is planting mangrove trees.

Samut Songkhram used to have about 80,000 rai of mangroves until 1984, when shrimp farming was introduced locally, he said.
But shrimp farming proved a highly profitable business at that time.

A young visitor shows off a baby small horseshoe crab he found on a muddy beach.

This attracted companies from Bangkok and other provinces who bought up, or took possession of, about 20,000 rai of mangrove around Ban Khlong Khon and turned them into shrimp farms.
Within a few years only 800 rai of mangroves were left standing.

Fiddler crabs areseen around the restored Khlong Khon mangrove forest.

Mr Paiboon said villagers rushed to sell their land to businessmen who offered them between 100,000 and 200,000 baht per rai. Before that, land would sell for only about 2,000 baht per rai.
Some villagers even set up their own shrimp farms in the hope of profiting from the booming trade.

Mud skippers are another kind of inhabitant of the abundant Khlong Khon forest.

But many people squandered the money they earned from selling their land. And before long they found themselves financially worse off than before, Mr Paiboon said.
By that time the mangrove forests, which were their main source of livelihood, had already been destroyed.
"Abundant stocks of marine life - fish, shrimps, shellfish and crabs - were severely depleted. Our livelihoods were ruined," the septuagenarian said.

Locals in KhlongKhon collect cockles during low tide.

On top of that, the three canals serving tambon Khlong Khon were badly polluted by the poorly-managed shrimp farms.
Late in 1988, outbreaks of shrimp diseases struck, which gradually forced many of the farmers out of business.
A year later, shrimp farming had died out in the area.
But it was the villagers who paid the heaviest price as the mangrove forests were all gone by then, taking away their primary source of livelihood.

Green mussels at a local farm.

"They began to migrate to the cities to look for jobs. Women mostly became factory hands in Samut Sakhon while the men served on deep-sea fishing trawlers.
"Most houses in the area were left empty," Mr Paiboon said.
This prompted community leaders to come together to find ways to restore the mangrove forests, and to enable local residents to once again earn a living.

A makeshift shelter in a cockle farm known to locals as krateng has been turned into a camping site of the community’s home stay services.

They were fortunate that in Khlong Khon, new stretches of soft ground emerged every year as a result of the build-up of sediment along the shorelines.
Community leaders agreed on a plan to re-plant young mangrove trees in the newly-emerging patches of land.
Initially, Mr Paiboon said it was very difficult to convince the locals to give away some of their land along the coastline to the public, so that it could be used for planting the new mangrove trees.
The inaugural reforestation ceremony for the scheme took place on Aug 12, 1991.

Paiboon Rattanapongthara, a dedicated conservationist who campaigned to revive the Khlong Khon mangrove forest.

Progress was not trouble-free as the young mangrove trees were vulnerable to seasonal monsoons and high waves. They could also be destroyed by large vessels passing through the forested areas.

However, with a strong determination, local people managed to overcome the obstacles and their efforts began to bear fruit.
"Late in 1993, about 300 rai of mangrove forests were recovered," he said. "Everyone involved was delighted."

The new provincial governor also tried to do all he could to raise money to support the reforestation effort, Mr Paiboon said.
In 1996, Land Department officials surveyed the area in Khlong Khong and confirmed that about 1,880 rai of mangroves had been restored.
Before long, marine life reappeared, while the villagers who migrated to other provinces returned home and rebuilt their lives.

Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has visited Khlong Khon and planted mangrove trees five times, Mr Paiboon said.

About 6,000 rai of mangrove forests have now been planted and stocks of marine life are as plentiful as before, he said.
The community has also become an eco-tourism attraction. This provides additional help for the local economy by pulling extra income for the locals, he said.