In the Hands of the Fishers: The Yad Fon Story

Thanks to an innovative grassroots organization called Yad Fon, southern Thailand's Trang Province is home to an inspiring example of ecosystem restoration.

Not long ago, Thailand's Andaman coast was lined with mangroves, the extraordinary trees and shrubs that dominate tropical shorelines because of their unique ability to thrive at the edge of the sea. The local people fished these productive wetlands with traditional hand nets, catching enough fish and crabs to support their families. The seafood stocks replenished themselves. The system was sustainable.

But starting in the early 1970s, a booming shrimp farming industry began bulldozing mangrove forests to make way for artificial ponds, which produce waste that pollutes the land and water. Big trawlers began fishing within the legal three-kilometer limit with push nets. These nets scrape the ocean bottom, doing great damage, especially when used near the shore. As catches dwindled, the villagers themselves began to scramble for what was left, resorting to cyanide poisoning and dynamite to kill or stun fish, and to their own version of push-net fishing. Coastal communities struggled or collapsed as fishermen could no longer support their families. Some villagers began cutting down mangroves for the local charcoal industry, while others migrated to an uncertain future in urban areas.

Yad Fon Steps In

In 1985 a small nonprofit organization called Yad Fon ("raindrop" in Thai) was founded in Trang, in southwestern Thailand. Targeting the very poorest villages in the area, Yad Fon set out to restore the healthy mangrove ecosystems that had sustained families for thousands of years by encouraging the villagers to manage their own natural resources. Yad Fon's motto, "In the hands of the fishers," reflects their goal: self-sufficient rural populations whose livelihoods and traditional cultures are ensured.

The obstacles were formidable. Decades of focus on economic development in Thailand had fostered a culture that tolerated environmental crimes like illegal logging, poaching, illegal fishing, and industrial dumping. Environmental laws are poorly enforced, and corruption is rampant. A credit-based wholesale fish distribution network made it impossible for fishermen to negotiate fair prices for their catch and difficult for them to get out of debt. Few villagers had legal title to land they had worked for generations. Convincing people to question authority—especially illiterate villagers confronting powerful industrial and government interests—was difficult in a hierarchical culture like Thailand's, where people tend to avoid conflict.

The First Step: Learning From Each Other

Yad Fon began with four villages. Yad Fon staff members lived in each village for extended periods, building the relationships that grassroots organizing depends on, and learning about the problems each community faced. Next, they proposed small-scale projects that everyone agreed would be of benefit, such as building a community well. Leaders came forward, local skills were tapped, and villagers began to work together to apply a combination of local wisdom and modern knowledge to solve common problems.

Dealing Some Economic Cards

Yad Fon also undertook some fiscal programs to give the villagers some breathing room. They set up a group savings program that loaned people small amounts of money at low interest and provided a kind of collective insurance against hard times. A "revolving fund" offered small interest-free loans to the extremely poor, helping them extricate themselves from a spiral towards bankruptcy. A cooperative buying program enabled fishers to purchase supplies like diesel, netting, lines, and tackle at reduced rates. And collective bargaining allowed fishermen to receive fair market prices for their catch, thus bypassing unfavorable pricing structures of middlemen.

Learning to Think Collectively

One of the cornerstones of Yad Fon's work is the creation of "community forests": mangrove stands that are managed communally by a village or group of villages. The community forests act as buffers against hard times and safeguard the future of villagers who depend on forest resources. Members agree on rules for using the forest. For example, in one community forest, members are allowed to cut trees for lumber and fuel in one area as long as they replant accordingly; another area is designated for the harvest of medicinal plants and herbs; a third is for the education of schoolchildren; and a fourth area is reserved for traditional fishing and crabbing. Because everyone benefits, everyone is motivated to patrol and protect the forest. Cooperative ownership gives the villagers legal recourse against commercial exploitation, and the program set an important precedent by winning the support of the Thai Forestry Department.

Healthy Ecosystem Pay Their Way…And More

One of Yad Fon's early target villages began managing only a small stretch of mangrove forest while also replanting a degraded area. Within months, near-shore fishing improved, and within three years the total catch improved by 40 percent. As mangroves were replanted and protected, seagrasses and coral reefs regenerated. Marine species that had become rare or absent entirely, such as whale sharks, dolphins, and dugongs (relatives of the manatee), began to reappear. Fishermen spent less time in their boats, their expenses went down, and community income increased. Villagers also benefited from small-scale aquaculture projects, in which individual families reared milkfish, grouper, and mussels in floating pens just offshore. These economic payoffs strengthened the villagers' commitment to protecting their fragile land and water.

Power to the People

The success of the community forests has sharpened the villagers' sense of political empowerment. One village sent 50 fishing boats out to confront a trawler that was fishing within what they had established as a protected near-shore area and banished the intruder. When palm oil spilled into a waterway near another village, Yad Fon helped the villagers document the resulting fish kill and bring it to the attention of the provincial government. The offending corporation had to pay a fine and compensate the villagers for the loss of fishing income. In a third case, a village community forest representative confronted the owner of a nearby charcoal factory who had been sending his workers there to collect wood. The villager demanded that the violations stop and organized a work group to set up boundary markers. Because it was clear that the village leader meant business and represented a whole community, the illegal collecting ended. Again, the local government took note.

Word Spreads

Word of Yad Fon's effective organizing spread between neighbors and relatives and through gatherings in the community mosques. Before long, the Yad Fon model spread up and down the coast to include 30 villages in a network with serious clout. As villagers share successful strategies and acquire the confidence to take collective action, the coast is gaining protection from unprincipled farming and fishing operations. People have regained their self-sufficiency and learned to protect the resources their way of life depends on. The struggle is ongoing, with push netters continually tempted to trespass into the more bountiful protected areas. The future of these villagers lies in their own hands. Says Yad Fon founder Khun Pisit, “The forest sustains the people who sustain the forest.’