'The world is watching'

Fishermen in Krabi face off against a planned coal-fired power plant to save their livelihood and quite possibly the ecosystem of Phang Nga bay

Ariane Kupferman-Sutthavong

Come late afternoon, just before the close of day, Bang Ma-neng sets out to sea. As always, he will ready his fishing gear on his boat -- slice some pla too into small pieces to bait his hooks, cast his nets and longlines -- before settling in for the night.

For the past 41 years, Bang Ma-neng -- the friendly name everyone calls Korad Eedkerd -- has performed the same ritual on an almost daily basis. A seasoned sailor, he knows the Andaman Sea like the back of his tan, leathery hand.

What has changed since the day he started fishing is his revenue. Two years ago, Bang Ma-neng began selling his chemical-free produce to customers in Bangkok, through a non-profit group aiming to change the lives of small-scale fishermen.

With no middleman fees required, his income more than tripled on days that he sold to his Bangkok clients. Quickly, other fishermen in Krabi's Laem Sak followed his lead.

Today, they have an organic certification, co-own a seafood-processing shed and their produce is prepared by chefs and served in trendy restaurants and five-stars hotels.

But this success story could easily unravel. In the past few years, the threat of a coal-fired power plant to be built in Krabi has loomed over the fishermen. If the project really takes place, all what they have built will be lost.

"We'll lose our certification for sure," Bang Ma-neng says, with worry.

Although the chosen site for the power plant is some 70km away from Laem Sak, water currents flow in such a direction that the chemicals and residue from the plant will theoretically affect the ecology in Phang Nga bay.

Moreover, the desired location sits on a traditional marine stock breeding area and the chemicals will find their way into the fish and all marine life could be contaminated, locals fear.

Despite authorities' reassurances, the fishermen can perfectly visualise the large vessels transporting coal scraping the seabed, killing species that live at the bottom of the Andaman Sea.

While the plan has been put on hold since February, many Krabi residents remain anxious. The 800MW power plant was first given the go-ahead with construction set to begin as early as next year.

Tension mounted in February, when environmental protesters from the South took to Bangkok and five protest leaders were briefly detained.

Then, in an unexpected turn of events, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered the Environmental and Health Impact Assessment (EHIA) for the project to be reviewed from scratch.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand said last month that the studies would take two years to complete and cause further delays in developing the facilities.

At the end of March, the National Council of Peace and Order organised energy forums held separately in Krabi, Songkhla and Surat Thani, with participants from 14 provinces in the South taking part in each forum.

The aim, according to Fourth Army chief Lt Gen Piyawat Nakwanich, was to promote better understanding of the energy situation in the region.

The families in Laem Sak were relieved, to an extent. The fact is that the planned power plant has caused such anxiety and division among the communities in the area, and Bang Ma-neng suspects that the project won't be forgotten so easily. "Not when people in high-ranking positions could benefit from it."

The fisherman, now well in his 50s, already has a long history of fighting the good fight. In the 1990s, he took part in patrols to catch illegal trawlers, exposing himself -- and his family -- to many risks and reprisals.

Fishermen in Laem Sak say they have never used any illegal fishing equipment.

"Our fishing practice is responsible. We don't over-catch and respect the marine ecosystem," Bang Ma-neng explains.

Their livelihood depends on it. Responsible fishing allows young marine life to grow and, thus, for resources to multiply over the years.

When the Laem Sak residents were first approached with the "small-scale fishery -- organic fishery products" project a few years ago, they gave it little interest.

The project -- funded by the European Union -- helps local fishermen improve their businesses and manage coastal and marine resources in several areas in Thailand.

Bang Ma-neng's family was the first to join. "The first time I saw that a pla kok, that's worth 60 baht in a local market, could earn me 500 baht, I nearly jumped."

Today, 25 families in Laem Sak take part in the project and Bang Ma-neng's daughter, Nongnoot Keawyodchow, is heading the local organic fishing group.

The group is managed in a way that resembles a cooperative, Nongnoot explains. Thirty percent of the revenue is deducted for management purposes. Then, at the end of each year, group members divide up the dividends.

Last year, they inaugurated their air-conditioned, seafood-processing shed, complete with a stainless table and wares.

Villagers eagerly explain that the shed meets official standard requirements, while certificates from the Organic Agriculture Certification of Thailand are framed and hung on its walls.

"Most importantly, the shed gives employment and a steady income to the local women," Nongnoot adds.

She can't resolve herself to think that all those efforts will be undone once the coal power plant is built. In a province as rich as Krabi, authorities ought to be developing other areas, such as culture and eco-tourism, she argues.

Krabi Tourism Council Head Amarit Siripontakul agrees. "The coal power plant will only drive tourists away and businesses will suffer as a result."

Achievements made under a previous government policy, "Krabi Go Green", will amount to nothing, he adds.

Krabi is a top tourist destination in Thailand, attracting several million visitors. "Stakeholders of Krabi aren't just locals or even Thais -- people from all corners of the world are watching us."

According to Prasitichai Nunuan, a representative of the Save Andaman From Coal group, if authorities manage to set up a coal power plant in Krabi, then all other mega-projects in the government's pipeline will follow.

Prasitichai, who is campaigning for a fair and transparent EHIA process that includes public participation, keeps his hopes high nonetheless.

Krabi today isn't the same as four or five years ago. "Today, most of residents protest the power plant," he says.

Rocking back and forth as he sits, crouched, on a stone, Bang Ma-neng smiles wistfully. "If I had learned about this organic fishing group earlier, I would be a rich man now," he laughs.

While he is happy to see his daughter lead the way for future generations, the fisherman regrets that the project began only a couple years ago. Who knows what the future will be made of. Pristine water or coal?

A fisherman is spooning koey (baby shrimp). Ariane Kupferman-Sutthavong

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