The man who talks trash

The man who talks trash

Famed ecologist can rally public support on the environment at the stroke of a pen

When Asst Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat speaks, you know that marine life is in clear and present danger. (Photo by Apinya Wipatayotin)
When Asst Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat speaks, you know that marine life is in clear and present danger. (Photo by Apinya Wipatayotin)

Whenever problems about marine conservation -- garbage in national parks, slaughtering of sea creatures or problems with coral reefs -- have arisen, the first or perhaps only name which comes to mind is that of Asst Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat.

One of the country's most renowned marine ecologists, Mr Thon now works as a lecturer at Kasetsart University on marine ecology. But his career dovetails the roles of academic, policymaker and even public communicator.

He was a member of the military-installed National Reform Committee, overseeing the natural resource panel. He has been invited as adviser to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on marine resource conservation.

Inquirylines, published bi-weekly on Mondays is a Bangkok Post column to present in-depth details of a range of issues from politics and social interest to eye-catching everyday lives.

Mr Thon is also a published writer, with more 100 books and thousand of articles published in newspapers -- most of them on marine conservation and travel.

He has been known as an "influencer" among internet users in Thailand. His Facebook page and blogs have a huge number of fans. His comments, especially on problems in marine national parks or coral reefs, are shared widely and make a big impact.

For instance, his social media post about garbage problems on Satun's Phi Phi Island inspired the ministry to improve the system of garbage management.

His complaints about coral reef damage also influenced the authority to temporarily close some dive sites to protect the coral reefs.

Recently, his comment on Phuket municipality building a concrete sea wall at a beautiful beach in Phuket, helped raise public awareness against the idea and forced the municipality to shelve the project.

Such a national profile and popularity is understandable. His background seems to suggest he was meant to be a national guardian of Thai sea.

A son of Talerng Thamrongnawasawat, a former permanent secretary for agriculture and cooperatives, Thon, aka "Ajarn Thon'' spent his childhood accompanying his father to work at the ministry. His grandfather, Thawan Thamrongnawasawat, was the eighth prime minister of Thailand, serving from 1946-1947.

As other kids played with toys and playgrounds in the city, Ajarn Thon's "playground'' was national parks such as Surin National Park in Phang Nga, Tarutao National Park in Satun, and Hat Chao Mai National Park in Trang, which his father went to inspect. He was also able to spend time examining sea and diving.

Ajarn Thon said he observed the way his father worked, and at some point he helped his father collect information. The sea had become part of his life, ever since he studied at Chulalongkorn University Demonstration Elementary School as a young boy.

He said coral reefs in the Thai sea were more startling when he was a young boy diving under the sea. Complete coral reefs are hard to find and represent perhaps only 5% of what they once were, many years ago.

So it was no big surprise that he decided to study at the Marine Science Department, Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Science.

There, in his first year, he joined the Asean-Australia Coastal Marine Resources programme to survey coral reefs in the Thai sea.

The project was the country's first survey of the coral reef resource. He later pursued his masters and doctoral degree on marine ecology at James Cook University in Australia.

His writing career started when he was a freshman university student in Thailand. He started penning columns on marine life for the local Daily News newspaper.

Since then, he has become a regular columnist for other publications. But the internet and his social media outlets are what connect him to a wider audience.

Ajarn Thon said he was surprised about the public reaction to comments he has made on Facebook. Those responses made him realise Thais really love and care about the sea.

He denies being called an "influencer."

"I am not an influencer. I am just a person who has worked for the sea for over 30 years. Policymakers, senior officials, ministers come and go. But I am still here and never change. If you don't believe in me, who you will believe in,'' he said.

Ajarn Thon, 50, is now an adviser to Natural Resources and Environment Minister Gen Surasak Kanjanarat.

The ministry is striving to rehabilitate marine ecology. For example, last month, it launched a mission to deal with sea garbage.

He is the key person pushing for a pilot project called the "Pang-Nga model'' in Pang Nga Marine National Park. It involves banning the use of plastic bags in the park. If this project succeeds, the ministry will impose a plastic bag ban and launch garbage reduction campaigns on at least 200 islands, and the national parks could be the plastic-free by next year.

Thailand has been ranked as the world's 6th highest marine debris producer. It is estimated that 10.75 million tonnes of garbage are produced by the 23 coastal provinces, of which about 20% finds its way into the sea.

Ajarn Thon said much remains to be done such as tackling marine ecology problems which stem from tourism.

The big challenge for him is how to strike a balance between the tourism business and environmental conservation.

The Ministry of Tourism and Sports forecasts that it could have around 70 million visitors in the next 13 years and 75 % of them will visit the sea.

He raised the case of Koh Kai island, in Phuket. With a small area of 25 rai, there are around 1.4 million visitors each year. It has the highest density of tourists in the world.

"We have been trapped by the tourism industry, as 20.6% of GDP comes from tourism activity. How to make money with minimal impact on natural resources is a challenging question for the government,'' he said.

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