Ao Thong Kham: A port in a storm

Humble southern fishing folk are taking up arms against a US oil giant to save their livelihoods

Ao Thong Kham (Golden Bay) - a fitting name - in Tha Sala district of Nakhon Si Thammarat provides a valuable food source for local residents as well as a refuge for teeming shoals of marine animals.

A fisherman’s son sits on the prow of a boat as it heads into the Gulf of Thailand. Too young to help his family haul in the nets, the budding young fisherman is still learning about how to be a valuable member of the fishing team. PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER ALLBRITTON

The picturesque bay covers Muang, Tha Sala and Si Chon districts with its 190-km coastal area curving like a crescent moon.

But now the bay has been threatened by an influx of heavy industries and mega-development projects, particularly the Southern Seaboard, which have caused locals to fear that their little spot in paradise will become another Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong which is plagued with pollution problems.

For four years now, Tha Sala residents have campaigned against the Southern Seaboard project and other heavy industries such as oil exploration and oil drilling, and power plants.

Manit Klaharn, a villager at Ban Na Tab and leader of a group of local fishermen, tells of the bitter battle to protect the bay.

In September, he said, more than 5,000 people in Tha Sala publicly proclaimed Ao Thong Kham to be a protected food-producing area and demanded their right to refuse the construction of what they called "dirty" industries. It was the latest in a prolonged campaign to reject heavy industries and the construction of a large port owned by oil driller Chevron.

A vibrant local market in Tha Sala is a meeting point for residents. The local people trade their produce and their day’s catches at the market.

"This area is our heart and soul," Mr Manit said.

When local residents learned that Chevron, the giant US company listed on the New York Stock Exchange as having a market capitalisation of US$203 billion (6.3 trillion baht), would lay the foundations to create a port base to explore and drill for oil, they felt as if their lives were about to come to an end.

"If one day we cannot make a living from the sea, that will be the worst thing for us. What you see here is a culture of people who have developed a close bond with the sea, which is a heritage handed down from our ancestors. If the sea is ruined and if we cannot go to sea to make a living, how can we live?" he said.

Ao Thong Kham is rich in an undiminishing variety of sea life. In times past, fishermen could make 3,000 baht a day catching and selling fish and other aquatic creatures, and that caused the number of fishing boats to grow.

Some fishermen were able to make 10,000 baht a day per family, Mr Manit said. Such a bounty of food is captured, he believes, by the abundant coral reefs in the bay.

It is sustainable in its own right and treasured by the locals, giving a lie to a rumour that the locals are being paid to oppose the massive development projects.

They are "acting from the heart" because fishing is part of their culture.

The people of Ao Thong Kham are happy with their way of life and they do not want it to change.

"Whenever we hear that heavy industries are coming in, we feel like our livelihood is about to be destroyed, so we feel the need to safeguard Ao Thong Kham with our lives," he said.

Villagers have formed patrols to prevent trawlers from outside from entering Ao Thong Kham.

The villagers have also set their own rules that small sea animals that are caught must be released back into the water to allow them to grow.

They have created artificial coral reefs which serve as nurseries for small sea animals and this is the reason why the number of fish in the bay constantly grows, Mr Manit said.

Suporn Tohsen, a Ban Sa Bua villager in Tha Sala, says apprehension is tangible that a project to build an industrial port will affect the local fishing industry, particularly in the area of Ban Bangsarn in tambon Klai which is a construction site.

The area is used by local fishermen to catch and nurse fish. It is an upland area where fresh water and salty water meet, making it an ideal hatchery for marine life.

Villagers have designated the area as a protected food resource because fish and aquatic creatures from Ao Thong Kham are prized. Blue swimmer crabs from the bay have the most delicious meat, Mr Suporn said.

It will never be the same if the Southern Seaboard project materialises.

Residents join a ‘Fish for Life’ march. They are seeking a food protection zone for their area and have pledged to protect a 30km stretch of coastline from ‘dirty’ energy developments.

"Villagers here don't want to live like those in Map Ta Phut. The planned port will serve as a centre linking the international company's ports in Chon Buri and Songkhla, which make local people even more concerned," Mr Suporn said.

Charoen Toh-itae, a Ban Nai Thung villager, acknowledges the importance of ensuring the negative effects of the development projects are exposed.

Supporters of the project tend to provide one-sided information and never explain how the projects will jeopardise natural resources, he said.

Mr Charoen is concerned about the divisions that the projects have created among local residents, claiming "hush" money is being spread around.

Jariya Senpong, an energy and climate change campaigner with Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said "dirty" industry groups are creeping into Ao Thong Kham and will deplete the abundance of natural marine resources and harm the livelihoods of local fishermen.

He said 60% of its residents rely heavily on fishing which can generate 300 million baht a year for the province.

"Ruining the sea means ruining their lives," he said.

But some residents argue vociferously that their lives are already being ruined. They also accuse most opponents of the projects of being outsiders.

Somsak Salam, leader of a fishing group at tambon Klai, said the group has 200 fishing boats and its members have been fishermen for almost 40 years.

He said the bay has changed from what it was years ago despite efforts by local fishermen to protect the sea.

"Trawlers and industrial-scale fishing have come in and ruined the local fishing scene. It is hard for small marine creatures to grow and survive because they are being destroyed.

"Even though efforts are made to preserve fishing and to erect artificial coral reels, the sea is now different and it is difficult to find marine animals," Mr Somsak said.

The weather is another factor. Fishermen now go to sea for only 20 days a month. To survive, their catches have to be worth 600-800 baht each trip, which includes at least 300 baht in costs.

But it is not happening for all. Some earn less than 600 baht a day and have to find second jobs away from home to supplement their income.

Mr Somsak said the state and the private sector are working together to create second jobs for them locally.

"We have to move forward together and listen to the voice of the community's majority. Villagers must be allowed to participate. It is wrong to oppose and refuse to listen. Opponents do not live in the area," Mr Somsak said.

The port project's environmental health impact assessment (EHIA) report was approved in September by a committee of specialists.

If the report is forwarded to and approved by the Independent Commission on Environment and Health, it will be submitted to the Marine Department which will conduct a public hearing on the project, which could eventually pave the way for the port's construction.

Recently, the National Human Rights Commission held a forum to gather input from the general public and the parties involved, although no conclusion has yet been reached.

The opponents of the projects are asking the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (Onep) to declare the areas covering tambons Tha Sala, Tha Khuen, Klai and Sai Kaew as protected food-producing areas under the 1992 Environment Protection Act.

A boy and another family member sift through the catch to pull out small silver fish.

Local children prepare to set out one of several massive nylon fishing nets. They spend a couple of hours laying out a string of nets that will stretch for several kilometres in Golden Bay.

Youngsters and residents head up a ‘Fish for Life’ march in Tha Sala on Sept 28. The march, supported by Greenpeace, highlighted the dangers of a planned power plant.

A local family gather for a meal which is prepared entirely from the previous night’s catch.

About the author

Writer: Cholticha Lermtong