Indige­nous rights

Tourism and ma­rine parks threaten Thai­land’s ‘peo­ple of the sea

Global Times - Weekend - - TRAVEL -

When Sutem Lakkao’s grand­mother and fa­ther died, they were buried much as their an­ces­tors had been: on the beach, close to their beloved boats so they could lis­ten to the waves and watch over the Chao Lay com­mu­nity of fish­er­folk in their af­ter­life.

But when his time comes, Sutem will be laid to rest in a ceme­tery where all he will hear is the roar of traf­fic on Phuket, Thai­land’s largest is­land and a key tourism des­ti­na­tion.

The land in which Sutem’s an­ces­tors were buried now heaves with daytrip­pers tak­ing self­ies, while the Urak La­woi com­mu­nity of the Chao Lay are con­fined to a small patch of Phuket’s Rawai beach that is also claimed by de­vel­op­ers and in­di­vid­u­als.

“Our way of life of the olden days is gone – when we could fish any­where, and we had a con­nec­tion to the land be­cause of our an­ces­tors’ burial site and spir­i­tual shrines,” said Sutem.

“We do not have that con­nec­tion any­more,” he said stand­ing on the sandy beach of Koh He, a small is­land off Phuket’s south­ern coast, where his an­ces­tors were once buried.

The Chao Lay, or peo­ple of the sea, have lived on the shores of Thai­land and Myan­mar for gen­er­a­tions, fish­ing and for­ag­ing.

Some, like the Mo­ken, are no­madic, spend­ing weeks on the sea and free-div­ing to spear fish. Oth­ers, like the Urak La­woi on Rawai beach in Phuket, have a more set­tled life while fish­ing in the An­daman Sea with their traps of rat­tan and wire.

They grabbed the world’s at­ten­tion in 2004 when they es­caped the dev­as­tat­ing In­dian Ocean tsunami by flee­ing to higher ground when they saw the wa­ters re­cede.

But the com­mu­nity may now be fac­ing its great- est threat yet as ma­rine con­ser­va­tion ef­forts limit their tra­di­tional fish­ing grounds, and a tourism boom pits them against de­vel­op­ers keen on the patch of land that their boats, homes and shrines sit on.

Shared by many

At the heart of the strug­gles of the Chao Lay – also known as “Sea Gyp­sies” – is not just their right to the sea and land, but also a more fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of le­gal­ity and iden­tity, said Naru­mon Aruno­tai at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity in Bangkok.

“Their cul­ture and tra­di­tions are not pro­tected by the Con­sti­tu­tion, and they do not have ti­tle deeds and per­mits, so it is dif­fi­cult for them to as­sert their claim,” she said.

“But they were there long be­fore the tourists and the con­ser­va­tion­ists. If man­aged well, indige­nous rights can go well with con­ser­va­tion and tourism,” she said.

Across the world, indige­nous peo­ple are fight­ing for the recognition of their rights to land, for­est and wa­ter.

While they own more than half the world’s land un­der cus­tom­ary rights, they have se­cure le­gal rights to only 10 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Wash­ing­ton D.C.-based ad­vo­cacy group Rights and Re­sources Ini­tia­tive.

From Peru to In­done­sia, laws aimed at con­serv­ing forests are lead­ing to the evic­tions of indige­nous peo­ple.

The Chao Lay’s right to the sea is even more ten­u­ous as they of­ten lack per­mits and li­cences for fish­ing, and get ar­rested or fined for stray­ing into newly es­tab

lished ma­rine pro­tected ar­eas

or is­land parks that au­thor­i­ties say are key to con­ser­va­tion. The Chao Lay in Phuket, which lies about 700 kilo­me­ters south­west of Bangkok, face more than two dozen cases re­lated to en­croach­ment of land and tres­pass of na­tional parks. Two fam­i­lies on Rawai beach lost their cases, and have to leave the homes in which they had lived for about 40 years. Four cases have found in fa­vor of the Chao Lay on the ba­sis of DNA ev­i­dence culled from old bones, as well as pic­tures of a 1959 visit to Rawai by the revered late King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej. In a sep­a­rate case, dozens of Chao Lay were in­jured in 2016 in clashes on Rawai beach protest­ing a de­vel­oper who had a land ti­tle and a per­mit to build hol­i­day vil­las, which vil­lagers said would cut ac­cess to their boats and shrines.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials or­dered an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and a halt to con­struc­tion, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by ad­vo­cacy group Hu­man Rights Watch (HRW), which said the Chao Lay had suf­fered “decades of poverty, marginal­iza­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion.” “They gen­er­ally do not as­sert own­er­ship rights be­cause they be­lieve that land and wa­ter should not be owned or con­trolled by one per­son, but rather shared by many,” said Brad Adams at HRW

“Yet they them­selves face evic­tion from their an­ces­tral land,”he said. A 2010 Cab­i­net res­o­lu­tion to re­spect the tra­di­tions of Thai­land’s Karen indige­nous peo­ple and the Chao Lay, and to al­low them ac­cess to na­tional parks, has not been ef­fec­tively im­ple­mented,cam­paign­ers say

A draft law to es­tab­lish spe­cial so­cial and cul­tural zones for indige­nous groups could re­solve con­flicts over land and sea with shared rights, said Thanya­porn Chankra­jang, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity. “The small-scale, sea­sonal fish­ing that the Chao Lay prac­tise is not harm­ful to ma­rine life or the en­vi­ron­ment,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foun­da­tion “Shared rights in ma­rine na­tional parks can be eas­ily im­ple­mented, mon­i­tored and eval­u­ated, and help pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment, as well as their in­come.

Changed lives

At the small vil­lage in Rawai, the open drains and mod­est tin-and-wood homes of the Urak La­woi stand in sharp con­trast to Phuket’s plush ho­tels.

Their wooden boats and old-fash­ioned fish­ing traps – which can be as big as a small car – are an anom­aly amidst the speed-boats car­ry­ing tourists for snor­kel­ing and para­sail­ing.

Faced with re­stricted ar­eas and a dwin­dling catch be­cause of pol­lu­tion and over­fish­ing by com­mer­cial fleets, more Chao Lay are seek­ing jobs on land in con­struc­tion and in ho­tels, said Ri Fong­saithan, an Urak La­woi com­mu­nity el­der.

“Our lives have changed. We have to go far­ther and dive deeper to catch fish, and that is af­fect­ing our health,” he said, look­ing at chil­dren play­ing nois­ily in the sea.

“Tourism is boom­ing, but we are ex­cluded. And we are wor­ried that we will lose the cases and be re­moved from here.”

A spokesman at the gover­nor’s of­fice in Phuket said the au­thor­i­ties had al­lo­cated a site on a nearby is­land for the Urak La­woi to move to, but that they were not will­ing to re­lo­cate.

The site is far from the beach and their shrines, said Ni­ran Yang­pan, an as­sis­tant to the vil­lage leader.

“We have al­ready adapted to many changes and chal­lenges, and we are will­ing to adapt fur­ther and re­spect the law,” he said.

“But they must also re­spect our right to the land and to the sea. It is all we have.”

Pho­tos: IC

Seashore of the indige­nous Chao Lay Vil­lage in Phuket, Thai­land In­set: A tra­di­tional fi­fi­fi­fi­fi­fish fish trap at Rawai Beach in Phuket

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