EII’s Mangrove Action Project Ecotour to Sri Lanka and Thailand

Earth Island's Ecotourism Guide

After more than 20 years of civil war, Sri Lanka is at long last enjoying peace. From the steep fertile fields of tea plantations in the mountains to the untouched coastal beaches sprawled around its borders, Sri Lanka remains the fabled jewel of the Indian Ocean. Once called “Serendip” by the Greeks, who accidentally stumbled into its beauty, this island nation south of the Indian subcontinent offers truly unexpected beauty and pleasure to visitors with its abundance of national parks, nature and wildlife preserves, botanical gardens and wide, sandy beaches.

Sri Lanka may soon enjoy a resurgence of visitors. Balancing the desire to capitalize on the tourism industry with protecting national biological treasures is not an easy task. Still, the country seems poised to step forward on the right foot.

This January, Sri Lanka welcomed its first group of eco-tourists since the war ended. The group, 10 volunteers from the US and Australia, was organized and led by Earth Island Institute’s Mangrove Action Project (MAP). Each member of the tour paid to join a restoration and education group, replanting an area of degraded mangroves in the Pambala Lagoon near Chilaw and visiting places of environmental import throughout the country. Anuradha Wickramasinghe, director of the Small Fishers Federation of Sri Lanka (SFFL), invited the group to Pambala Lagoon to participate in ongoing efforts to save the lagoon from the damage by shrimp farms, and to demonstrate the culture and vitality of the fishing communities around the coast.

The mangrove replanting, led by Small Fishers Federation’s Restoration Expert, Douglas Tisera, took place over two days. Joined by a local group of fishermans’ widows and a group of school children, volunteers planted nearly 700 mangrove seedlings (Rhizophora apiculata and R. mucronata) along a one-kilometer stretch of Pambala Lagoon’s Dutch canal to help control erosion.

Small Fishers Federation Programs
During their 10-day visit to Sri Lanka, MAP volunteers traveled throughout the country, from Puttalam to Kandy, to the southern coast and along the western coast to Chilaw. The group visited several Small Fishers Federation (SFFL) projects that have been developed to help villages, fishermen, and their families who have been hurt by the decline of fisheries in their country.

In Nakudugamuwa, the study-tour sampled tuna sausages, dried tuna, and fish pastries from SFFL’s Kudawella Fisheries Tuna Processing Center. The center has developed these products as alternatives to unprocessed fish for the wholesale market. By selling these value-added products, local fishers get improved marketing of their catch, along with longer shelf-life, ensuring less wastage from spoiling.

In Badagiriya, just north of Hambantota, the group visited SFFL’s Educational Center for youth who are unable to attend secondary school because of family fishing obligations (often due to death or injury to the family’s main provider). Young people are trained in home electrical wiring, small engine repair, or apparel making to provide them with job opportunities. Recently lauded by the government for benefiting the youth, SFFL will offer three-month certificates beginning in 2003. After three years, the center will become accredited, offering nine-month courses for students in various vocational technology programs.

Another SFFL project is the Tilapia and Ornamental Fish Hatcheries. The hatcheries provide tilapia fingerlings for inland fisheries to restock lakes and ponds. The center sells fingerlings on no-interest credit terms to local villages. These loans come due only when the tilapia have been successfully raised, harvested, and sold at market. Local inland fishers have access to affordable fish stocks. Ornamental fish are also raised in this hatchery to bring in supplemental income.

Near Hikkadua, the group toured the coral reef gardens via glass-bottom boats. The group learned about the fragile nature of the corals, and the ways corals and mangroves are interrelated. When corals and mangroves are found in close proximity, loss of one can mean the ultimate degradation or loss of the other. Mangroves filter water, holding back soil and silt that would otherwise destroy the reef. Reefs break waves, which would otherwise damage shorelines and mangrove seedlings.

That evening, Serendip proved to be serendipitous indeed. When the group gathered at a small beach restaurant to discuss the tour, the owner of the establishment pointed under their table on the beach. A nest of olive ridley sea turtles was hatching, struggling to reach the surface. The owner had no idea that he had pointed this out to Sri Lanka’s first eco-tourism group, nor had the group realized they were to witness one of the most mysterious and wondrous spectacles of the animal kingdom. Because the sand was compacted by human activity, these turtles were in danger. Normally exiting their nest at night, the turtles had struggled through hot compacted sand, arriving at the surface in the full blaze of the sun. The group was able to save about 50, but already, more than half had died in the nest of dehydration and suffocation. It was clear that tourism had already impacted the beaches of Sri Lanka.

Koh Yao, Thailand
After 10 days in Sri Lanka, the official work-study portion of the tour was completed. While three Australians and one American remained in Sri Lanka, the rest of the group traveled to south-central Thailand to continue studying the effects prawn farms and tourism have had on mangrove forests there. By 1996, Thailand’s prawn farm industry was responsible for the loss of more than 65,000 hectares (160,000 acres) of mangroves. Additionally, some 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of productive rice farms have been converted to shrimp farming, making Thailand one of the world’s largest shrimp producers. The impacts of these commercial farms are a major contributor to the loss of fisheries in Thailand.

The group traveled to the island of Koh Yao Noi where they stayed with local fisher families, as guests of the islander’s award-winning “Eco-tourism Club.” Opening their homes to eco-tourists, the island’s seven villages have recently been awarded Thailand’s Outstanding Tourism Award of 2002 by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Besides spending time with the families, eating and talking with them, the group was invited to go out to help with fishing nets and observe traditional fishing methods.

The villagers have had a tremendously positive effect on the fisheries near their islands. The mangrove conservation club was initiated in 1994, representing the seven villages on the island in aspects of coastal resource management. Through Community Managed Forests (CMF), nearly 80 percent of the mangroves lost during the past three decades have been recovered. The club also patrols the island to prevent trawlers and other outside fishing boats from encroaching on the islands’ fishing grounds. Using a boat built with help from the Social Investment Fund, the group has kept unauthorized trawling vessels and push-net boats from the waters around the island. Trawlers and push-net operators often carelessly destroy fishing gear and wreak havoc on sea-grass beds and coral reefs nearby.

John Gray Sea-Canoe
MAP’s 2003 volunteer group was privileged to be guests of the John Gray Sea-Canoe company. Mr. Gray, or “Caveman,” as he is known locally, has lived in Thailand for over 20 years, and has introduced tropical kayaking to Thailand. While kayaking (or sea-canoeing as it is known in Thailand) has become big business, John Gray Sea-Canoe maintains itself as Thailand’s only true eco-tourist kayaking company, featuring excellent guides who are knowledgeable about the issues surrounding tropical coastal environments. Unlike other tropical kayak companies in the area that rely on day workers to guide customers through the narrow caves and dangerous hongs (steep-walled lagoons), John Gray Sea Canoe guides are full-time, long-term employees who’ve been with the company for five years or more.

The MAP volunteers were invited to go on an overnight trip with John Gray Sea Canoe. After floating through some of the last remaining pristine areas of mangroves, going deep into the hongs and bays, the group viewed the impact of unrestricted tourism at James Bond Island. Hundreds of people were doing a half-day float into the small region of this famous tourist attraction. The MAP group removed enough discarded plastic and styrofoam from in and around the mangrove roots to fill six 55-gallon garbage bags. MAP is now working on a partnership with John Gray to develop a specialized program emphasizing mangrove conservation.

This year’s Mangrove Work Study tour was underwritten in part through funds from the Cottonwood Foundation.

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