Another way

Happy with visitors: *Sompong Nunuwan* reeling in his catch off Koh Yao Noi.

Marwaan Macan-Markar

For nearly a year, Wanni Ruengsamut has been receiving a flow of visitors to her simple wooden house that stands on stilts and is surrounded by the calm waters of the Phang Nga Bay. They are not lost relatives attempting to restore broken family ties with the 38-year-old mother of two. Instead, they are tourists in search of a change from predictable destinations like the nearby island of Phuket, where mass-market tourism has triumphed. Wanni has hosted 10 groups of tourists so far. They include foreigners holidaying in Thailand and locals from places such as Bangkok.

‘They stay for two or three days in our home and learn how we live,’ she said on a recent Saturday afternoon after serving a home-cooked meal to two guests. The lunch was a feast of five dishes including steamed crab, shrimp and fish prepared with garlic and lime sauce. It was served in a room at the rear of her house that is open on three sides to take in the breeze that rolls off the bay. The dishes were laid out on mats, as is the style on the island Wanni calls home, Koh Yao Noi. Two rooms of the four in her home have been set aside for the guests and comfortable bedding is spread out on the wooden floors.

Wanni is a recent convert to this form of tourism, where visitors stay and participate in many facets of the life of this largely Muslim fishing community. ‘I decided to join after realizing there is much that my family can get and that we can give and share with our guests,’ she said of the community-based tourism programme. ‘This programme is not just about visiting Koh Yao Noi and experiencing a bit of home-stay. Showing how we try to protect our natural resources and sharing our fishing community’s culture are also important.’

In fact this unique venture, known as the Koh Yao Noi Community-based Ecotourism Club, has been around for over 12 years. There are currently 80 families who are part of the network, spread across this island of some 5,000 residents – 25 homes in seven villages have opened their doors to welcome guests. Most are either surrounded by rice fields and rubber trees or near gardens alive with brilliant orchids, bougainvillea and hibiscus. Three houses, like Wanni’s, face the sea.

Map of Thailand

‘Tourists who have heard about our programme are interested in learning about our fishing community and participating in our daily activities,’ said Samrung Raketh, a co-ordinator of the alternative tourism programme. ‘This is not about profit for us because the money the club’s members make is a second income. The first source is from fishing for most families. Last year we hosted about 800 people, most of them Thais.’

Worachat Kongkua is typical of Club members who welcome the curious to spend a day in their homes to learn traditional crafts. In the case of 39-year-old Worachat that means making tie-dye fabrics, and she goes about her business in a small shed under the shade of a sprawling tamarind tree. ‘This is a fun way for visitors to spend a day and learn how we use natural colours to make the patterns,’ she said. Worachat uses pigments from boiled ginger or the leaves of local trees. ‘We encourage them to make their own gifts rather than buy at a tourist shop,’ she adds.

The fisherfolk are equally open to sharing their skills and knowledge of the sea with guests who opt for an early morning expedition in the small, wooden single-motor boats. ‘We show them how we catch prawns and crabs and the different nets we use for each,’ said Sompong Nunuwan, as he pulled in a net that had trapped a fair number of prawns on a Sunday morning. Sompong explained what happens if a catch includes a female crab heavy with a cluster of eggs. ‘We drop those crabs in a crab bank we have set up in the bay to protect them. We don’t want to destroy them now. That is illegal for our members. We can benefit later.’

Respect for the environment has been a cornerstone of the island’s community-based tourism since it was founded in the mid-1990s. That’s when the small-scale fisherfolk of Koh Yao Noi began to battle the giant trawlers whose large nets destroyed the seabed as they scooped up marine life in the bay. The trawlers no longer come but the conservationist spirit that erupted in this fishing community is very much alive. Tourists are given pink brochures that include rules like ‘Do not litter’ and ‘Don’t collect any seashells or corals from the sea’.

The decision to open their homes to tourists also emerged during the conflict with the trawlers and the powerful political and business interests that backed such environmentally destructive fishing. At that time the Koh Yao Noi fisherfolk were supported by visiting students from the US who joined the flotilla of fishing boats in the bay confronting the large trawlers. Community leaders soon realized that the Thai authorities gave them more respect – and responded to their cause with more sympathy – after foreigners had joined them.

Small wonder that this community-based tourism project is viewed as a model for others who want to offer alternative travel options in Thailand.

‘Other communities should follow what we have achieved here because it has brought us together. We learn to co-operate and organize and there is some pleasure in tourists learning about our ways,’ said fisher Sompong Nunuwan. ‘But it is difficult to say if other communities will have success. Our selling points have been the sea and our work in conserving our natural resources.’

Even the problems faced by this venture offer lessons for other communities who want to follow Koh Yao Noi’s lead. The island still has a slow and quiet feel and gets only a trickle of visitors – especially when compared with Phuket, which attracted five million tourists last year.

‘This cannot work on a big scale,’ said the programme’s co-ordinator Samrung Raketh. ‘If too many tourists come, then we will lose control and it will create social problems. The interest can then shift to making money from our programme and nothing more. We have already had two families who left the Club because they were focused only on profit.’ •

Marwaan Macan-Markar is a journalist working for IPS, based in Bangkok.

Patent busting

Demanding fair treatment: protestors outside the US emabassy in Bangkok, May 2007.

Adrees Latif / Reuters

Until he was appointed Minister of Public Health last October, Mongkol na Songkla was known among sections of Thailand’s medical community for his work among the poor. He had spent over 10 years as a doctor healing patients in the country’s remote north and northeast provinces, where poverty abounds. And this experience informs the way he has approached his new job, as a defiant champion for sick people. His mission: to secure affordable generic drugs for patients desperately in need of treatment for HIV/AIDS and heart disease.

By May, the success of his drive was winning praise across the world. His list of admirers included former US President Bill Clinton, the Government of Brazil and, most recently, the public health officials who endorsed Bangkok’s fight for cheaper generic drugs at the World Health Assembly in Geneva. Most vocal have been a growing chorus of grassroots and civil society groups who have come to the defence of Thailand by mounting boycotts of Big Pharma and concerted media campaigns. They see Bangkok’s achievement in the same light as some do revolutions: it has the potential to reshape the global public health landscape as we know it – in this case, the poor in the South being denied essential drugs by the pharmaceutical giants in the North.

Since late last year Thailand has invoked a clause in the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) called ‘compulsory licences’. This feature grants developing countries the flexibility to break patents on drugs produced by Big Pharma when faced with a national health crisis. Until now, developing countries had been forced to stay clear of this public health option due to pressure from economic powerhouses like the United States. History, though, is replete with rich nations doing otherwise; most recently, when the West forced the Swiss producer of a drug to counter the deadly avian influenza to give up its patent so that generic alternatives could be produced.

The pharmaceutical giants targeted in Bangkok’s ground-breaking attempt are Abbott, which produces the anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs Kaletra and Aluvia; Merck Sharp and Dhome, which produces the ARV Efavirenz; and Sanofi-Aventis, which holds the patent for Palvis, a blood-thinner. Abbott tried to force Thailand to backtrack by refusing to register seven new drugs there, including treatments for HIV, kidney disease and blood clots. A hostile Thai-bashing campaign by pro-pharma lobbies ensued. Even the US Government got into the act, placing Thailand on a watchlist of countries that violated intellectual property rights.

Yet Bangkok has not blinked. It believes that the power of the pharmaceutical lobby to secure profits over public health is out of step with WTO provisions for the developing world. Washington, for all its tough talk, said as much in early May. ‘While the US acknowledges a country’s ability to issue such licences in accordance with WTO rules, the lack of transparency and due process exhibited in Thailand represents a serious concern,’ stated a report by the US Trade Representative’s Office.

Boripat Dornmon, a 40-year-old who has been living with HIV for 11 years, has reason to feel more hopeful. Voicing a sentiment that the other 600,000 Thais infected with the killer disease will also share, he says: ‘We need the new, cheap drugs to live longer.’

Write vs Wrong

A handwritten letter to a military dictator may sound like an ineffective and risky way of conveying defiance, especially in this internet age where emails, blogs and websites have combined to threaten political authority in a number of countries. But in Burma, where a strict censorship regime is in force and access to IT is limited, the good, old-fashioned letter is being used by the country’s long-suffering people to express growing dissatisfaction with Rangoon’s incompetent, corrupt and oppressive junta. A letter-writing campaign, launched in the first week of the New Year, has involved tens of thousands of people in and around Rangoon. ‘This is an effort to break the silence. To get people to write openly about their grievances to the military government,’ explains Naing Aung from the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a group of Burmese political exiles. ‘It is not enough just to complain. This is to get people to show their courage by standing up and openly identifying themselves as critics.’ The month-long letter-writing drive, known as the ‘Open Heart’ campaign, is the latest effort by an organization of former university students known as the ‘88-Generation’. ‘It is a peaceful way of expressing the public’s views,’ says Naing Aung, ‘because protests are banned, the media is censored and there are no elections.’ The 88-Generation comprises people who, as students, led a 1988 pro-democracy protest that was brutally crushed. This effort builds on the success of their other recent campaigns – such as the petition in October 2006 calling for the junta to release all political prisoners, including detained opposition leader (elected prime minister before her arrest) Aung San Suu Kyi. An estimated 60,000 people signed it. Yet the act of directly addressing Burma’s leader, Than Shwe, involves high personal risk – including a prison term – if it provokes the ire of the regime. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known, currently holds over 1,100 political prisoners in jail including opposition parliamentarians, Buddhist monks, journalists, writers, students and political activists. ‘The people want to co-operate in this campaign because of the growing suffering. Some people don’t care what will happen to them because they are just angry,’ says Zaw Min, spokesperson for the banned Democratic Party for a New Society. Last year the price of rice, a staple dish in the Burmese diet, rose by 30 per cent. At the same time Than Shwe’s daughter was married in a lavish event where champagne flowed, the bride was decked in diamonds and pearls and the newlyweds received gifts reportedly worth millions of dollars. Another factor triggering this rising tide of discontent was the arrest of Burma’s former Prime Minister and intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt and his allies. Khin Nyunt, who received a 44-year suspended sentence in July 2005, had close contacts with the country’s business community and was viewed by many as a moderate.