Fellow Since 1993
Southern Thailand Environmental Plan (STEP)
This description of Manop Pratoomthong's work was prepared when Manop Pratoomthong was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993.
Songkhla Lake, Thailand's largest freshwater lake covering over 400 square miles, has steadily become polluted and now threatens both the marine life within it and the human life around it. Manop Prathomthong is working to mobilize the people who are most affected by this problemthose who depend on the lake for a livingto take charge of cleaning up the lake and managing it in a sustainable way. Learning from the Songkhla Lake experience forms the basis of a model for national and regional citizen mobilization for ecosystem protection and sustainable development.
The New Idea
When Manop Pratoomthong worked in an urban slum project for eight years most of the people he met had moved to the city only because the lake that had supported their families for generations had deteriorated and lost significant amounts of its marine life. This depletion was the result of over fishing, pollution from urban and industrial sources and soil erosion. As a consequence, the lake became increasingly shallow and inhospitable to life.It occurred to Manop that those who live around the lake who are most threatened by its deterioration, should have a voice in deciding how this resource is to be allocated among them and also have some responsibility for its management. To facilitate such a transformation, he founded the Southern Thailand Environmental Plan (STEP) as a people's action group. Its main activities have been to mobilize individual villages to create sanctuaries of 360 acres each in their sections of lake, protect the marine life there and return to traditional fishing practices in the remainder of the lake to help replenish the fish. The group also encourages governmental agencies in the three provinces which share lake frontage to stop polluting the lake and recognize its value as a natural resource for city dwellers as well. STEP has become an effective advocate in the three lake provinces for rationalizing and even unifiying the pubic administration of the lake, including such activities such as industrial clean-up, lake dredging, and fish hatcheries to help return the lake, and others like it, to a healthy state. Manop is methodically learning from the Songkhla Lake experience to build a model for national and South East Asia regional level citizen mobilization for ecosystem protection and sustainable development.
The 160 villages bordering the Songkhla Lake, with over 79,700 inhabitants, depend on the lake for food. The effects of providing for such large numbers of people have become apparent over the past decade. The annual harvest yield of fish, once 9,000 tons, has dropped to 2,000, and the variety of fish species has been drastically diminished. During the past thirty years, the depth of the lake has lowered by three to five meters. Over-fishing and environmental degradation have also caused the standard of living in the area to deteriorate significantly and precipitated a mass out migration.The flow of villagers into the neighboring provinces has also had its consequences. Cities in the Songkhla and Had Yai provinces now rank among the ten most populated in Thailand. Urbanization has spawned social problems, including the rapid growth of slums. However the more pressing issue is that the overcrowded municipalities' increasing use of the lake as an industrial and wastewater dumping ground, further hastening the lake's decline. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there has been little coordination among the provinces that border the lake to address the problems of their area's most important natural resource.
Manop strategy is simple and may be summed up in the organizer's maxim: Let he or she who has the greatest interest at stake lead. Through his nongovermental organization, STEP, Manop mobilizes local villages to form action committees to begin to act to clean up and preserve the lake. The tangible decline in fish and other resources from the lake and visible pollution make the basic call to organize a powerful one. The critical challenge, worked through by trial and error over an intial exploration period, is finding the right mix of activities to yield results and sustain villager participation.Having acquired much helpful information about how to involve villagers, and with some successes to report, the initial committees are beginning to proyletize to other villages and have become articulate in expressing the lake inhabitants' point of view to government and industry. Leaders who will be capable of sustaining STEP have emerged and Manop gives them training and encouragement. He has also increased interaction between the lake's rural and city dwellers to build their appreciation of Songkhla Lake as a resource and an amenity they must manage together. Manop also plans to continue working closely with other groups interested in preserving the lake, including academicians from Prince of Songkhla University and business associations. His main challenge here is to "educate" the educated to listen and learn how to follow the villagers' lead. Presently there are approximately 200 people in twenty villages who are working actively to restore Songkhla Lake and have formed groups to deal with savings, youth participation, and channel dredging. Common training activities include meetings, seminars and study tours. Their work efforts have led to the extension of a "conservation area" of the lake to nineteen zones. Currently, there are nine savings groups with 2,000 members and deposits totaling 3 million baht (US $93,750), to be used for a number of needs that arise during the transition period back to sustainable usage of the lake. The channel-dredging groups works in coordination with the community service organizations and the villagers who are carrying out several projects for lake restoration.Government bodies that have witnessed the popular mobilization for Lake Songkhla have also become more motivated to do their part. Inspired by STEP's progress and experiencing pressure from other citizen organizations, the municipality of Songkhla has now allocated funds and purchased land to build a waste-water treatment facility, and the fishery department has stocked millions of fish in the lake. In the three years of STEP's existence, the combined efforts of the fishing villages and government agencies have resulted in a noticeable improvement in the lake's ecology.The success of this combined effort has encouraged people living in the villages who are not yet mobilized to create their own aquatic sanctuaries. Correspondingly, city dwellers and industries have also become more involved in fundraising for lake-preservation activities. Momentum must be maintained if they are to realize significant and sustainable preservation. Manop's short-term goal, therefore, is to engage all 160 villages around the lake in the fight to preserve it. This experience will then constitute the basis for the extension of the movement for sustainable resource use on a national and South East Asia basis.
Manop is a native of Songkhla, the sixth of seven children in a family with a 30-acre rubber plantation. He graduated from the Faculty of Management with a major in Science of Administration and did his Masters degree work in the Faculty of Environmental Management, Prince of Songkhla University. For eight years after graduation, Manop worked in the field of urban slum development before establishing STEP and focusing on preserving Songkhla Lake. He expresses the hope of seeing some of the urban slum dwellers realize their oft-expressed dream of returning to a rejuvenated lake and to take up their former occupations as fishermen.