Ecotourism’s role in helping to protect a small coastal community
Many people dream of having their own resort – a great lifestyle and financial independence. For me, the dream was a more personal one – finding a place to live and work with my husband Surin.
I am a New Zealander and he is Thai. He said my country was too cold and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in Bangkok.
So I said, let’s look for a place near the sea, with mountains and hills, not too far from Bangkok. “Impossible!” Surin said “We couldn’t possibly afford a place like that.” With my stubborn nature - that was the best kind of encouragement.
Of course it was not easy to find such a location but one day we visited Kao Kijagut, in the Cardamom ranges on the border with Cambodia. The road up the mountain was lined with forest trees draped with mosses and lianas, and it twisted and turned, reminding me of my home in New Zealand. The path to the top was strewn with marigold petals and incense. “They call this the road to heaven,” Surin said.
At the top, a giant boulder perched on the edge of a cliff, beside a footstep of the Buddha. Since this province, Chanthaburi, bordered the coast it became the focus of my search.
One day I heard about a mortgagee auction at a place called Kung Wiman. This rocky little bay with forest covered hills and a fishing village was beautiful, unspoiled and even its name meant paradise.
We lost the bid in the auction but we bought some other land nearby. The gently sloping site backed onto a hill and it had a view of Kao Kitjagut.
Tourism had not yet arrived in this sleepy peninsula, where the villagers still lived off the forest and the sea. They welcomed us but my conscience troubled me - having found paradise, our challenge was to sustain it, not spoil it. My misgivings were outweighed by hopes and optimism and so we plunged ahead.
On the 1st of November 2003 – an auspicious date selected by Surin – we paid homage to the spirits and requested their permission to proceed. At 9 minutes past 9 we put in the first posts for our house. About 18 months later we had some guest rooms and were ready to start our business in a tentative way, with the arrival of our first staff Sittichok and Sula, Surin’s brother and sister in law.
I wrote down our goals in a little notebook – “Grace, harmony and natural beauty.” Harmony with the local community and nature, beauty which draws on nature, and grace…we were there thanks to the grace of others; we too must be gracious and generous in return.
For us there were three aspects to sustaining paradise. How we developed the resort, how we promoted it and how we interacted with the local community. We kept it small, with lots of space, encouraged biodiversity, conserved resources with solar energy and encouraged nature.
We wanted to provide an atmosphere of tranquility and be responsible. I talked about this in my promotion of the resort and found there was a demand for what we offered. People sought us out – and they were wonderful - sensitive, caring and interested.
Our guests seemed to pose no threat to paradise, but threats were coming from other quarters. Land was rapidly changing hands, new owners were blocking off traditional fishing areas, trees were being cut down and new buildings were going up. On our boundary was a grand old “brakok” tree, otherwise known as Barking Deer Mango or Irvingia Malayana. The largest tree in the neighborhood, it was around 80 years old and home to hundreds of small animals, birds and bats which came to feast on the fruit, an edible nut something like an almond. Sadly, it was on the neighbor’s side of the boundary and one day they cut it down.
I realized then the importance of private property for conservation and so in order to protect a small corner of paradise from development, we decided to buy an area of wetlands, about half a kilometer from the resort.
A natural watershed, its original name was “Nong Nam Kao” meaning White Water Lake but all that remained of the lake was a couple of shallow ponds, where nets had been strung up by hunters to catch birds. At one time it had been used for rice, then shrimp farming but by the time we found it, it had been abandoned to the reeds and tussock. What little good agricultural land that once was there, had been dug up and sold as landfill.
To restore it, we dug out a lake and encircled the wetlands with a stream and walkway where we planted native and flowering trees as well as vetiver grasses to stabilise the banks and keep the water pure. On the land which had been dug out for fill, we planted a small orchard - although the soil was thin, we would build it up with compost and manure.
While we were digging the lake we encountered a family of pythons – sadly one ended up in the neighbor’s pot, after being accidentally killed by the digger, but the others slithered away into the watery sanctuary.
The purchase of this land intrigued our staff and neighbors.
“What are you buying this for? It’s just water? Are you going to build another resort?”
“No,” I said, “it is for the snakes and frogs and birds,” prompting snorts of derision.
One of the people who was mystified by our purchase was a local speculator who had bought up many pieces of land, in anticipation of a future boom.One day he rushed up to see us –
“Why are you buying that land?” As usual I said it was to conserve it.
“I’m not going to buy any more,” he said. But then he tried to persuade the vendor to sell to him and the day the sale went through, he was sitting in the land office, ready to buy it for himself, if anything went wrong.
One of the worst effects of development is that it destroys natural ecosystems. Around here, one of the first thing new owners do is cut down trees and kill off the “weeds” with herbicide. In the despairing words of Pulitzer prize-winning ecologist E.O. Wilson -
“The natural world in the year 2001 is everywhere disappearing before our eyes – cut to pieces, mowed down, gobbled up, replaced by human artifacts.” 1.
He sees eco-tourism as one way to help the environment as placing an economic value on the protection of wildlife, habitat and areas of natural beauty. Indeed, that was a consideration for us – our little sanctuary would provide recreation, education and food for our guests.
The water, which came from underground springs, was its most important attribute as it is the main catchment area for fresh water in Kung Wiman and attracts wildlife. With its fresh water springs and swamps, mangroves, salt water marshes and rock pools, the special character of the area was recognized by the King of Thailand, who created a royal marine sanctuary in neighboring Kung Kraben Bay, one of only two such sanctuaries in the Kingdom. The mangroves around the bay are protected and scientists monitor water quality and have a breeding programme for marine life. The local fish stock appears to be stable and provides employment for local fishermen. The bay is even visited by rare dugongs, which, like stingrays feed on the sea grass. The scientists use the locals to monitor the dugongs and persuaded them to stop using multipronged hooks to catch the rays because they killed the dugongs – a potential tourist attraction in the future.
To add to the area’s eco interest, the hills around the bays are clothed in regenerating forests. Agar Wood or Aquilaria, which produces precious oil which is used for incense, was one of the rare plants to be found there, Unfortunately most of them were cut down by poachers but a couple of wild seedlings found refuge on our land and we have planted more than a thousand more in a plantation along the road, at the resort and the lake.
This area, with its rich soil, humidity and warm climate and abundance of water, has a thrilling diversity of plant life. It was once an important part of the spice trade with wild cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and peppers growing in the hills, along with many beautiful timber trees. Much biodiversity was lost when forests were cut down and replaced with fruit orchards, now even more is being lost as the orchards are being replaced by rubber plantations. By keeping wild pockets of bush on parts of our land and encouraging the self-seeding of local trees and plants we are trying to preserve what we can.
In front of our house we have a grove of tall striking trees, called “Mahaat”, Monkey Jack or Artocarpus Lakoocha. It is a beautiful hard wood, almost as rare and expensive as high quality teak. The golden fruit, somewhat like apricots, provides a delicious and nutritive food source for wildlife and the wood is a traditional herbal medicine which can be used to eliminate intestinal parasites.
In April and May the fruit ripens and splatters on the ground, much to the annoyance of our maids, so they were somewhat amazed when I scraped up some of the seeds off the ground and germinated the seedlings.
“What are you doing that for? They are everywhere!”
They haven’t noticed that there are now very few left in our area – most of the large trees have been cut down for timber.
It is a long slow process to restore a natural area but every day there are little joys such as our trees coming into fruit and flower, or new types of birds. So far we have counted over a hundred species of birds at the lake and the resort with the common species – drongo, barbets, coucals, cuckoos, bulbuls, sunbirds, lapwings, and, at the lake, bee-eaters, egrets, water hens, ducks and hawks. They seem to fly between the resort and the lake, perhaps following our truck as we go between the two places.
One Saturday we accidentally disturbed a nest of bulbuls at White Water Lake and the mother bird abandoned it. We brought the nest with the two chicks home, and on Sunday morning, as soon as it was light, I went hunting for their breakfast. Sula said they liked grasshoppers, expertly twisting their heads to kill them, as she spoke. But the grass was dry and sparse and all I could catch on the thinning lawn was a small blue butterfly. Over by the papayas however where I had been making compost the grass was luxuriant and the grasshoppers were bathing in the sparkling dew.
With Surin’s help I caught about a dozen and as we approached the nest which we had placed inside a box, the beaks of the baby birds clacked open. After each successful feed they squeezed out a white bubble of poo and fell into a nap. Moments later their beaks would clack open again.
What sympathy I felt for the mother bird – trying to feed this hungry crew! The little fertile patch of grass by the papayas was a helpful lesson in biodiversity - inside the soil, micro-organisms, earthworms and termites were burrowing away, and not only were the grasshoppers thriving, but so were spiders, earwigs, beetles, ants and small butterflies - a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
“Now the value of the little things in the natural world has become compellingly clear. The more species that live in an ecosystem, the higher its productivity and the greater its ability to withstand drought and other kinds of environmental stress. Since we rely on functioning ecosystems to cleanse our water, enrich our soil, and create the very air we breathe, biodiversity is clearly not something to discard carelessly.” 2.
Around our house, a little forest is growing up. The hundreds of plant species include seedlings of a native fig tree Ficus Glomerata, which, when mature has figs sprouting out of the trunk, Agar Wood, Rain Trees or Samanea Samen, with long pods that have a sweet edible sap inside, Lakoocha, "Sadao" - the Thai Neem, a prized medicine in Ayurvedic healing and a natural insect repellent, cashew nuts, papayas, limes, jackfruit, mangoes, tamarinds, bananas and two small “Brakok” trees which one day I hope will be as tall and beautiful as the one the neighbors cut down.
There are also many other wild trees growing up on the land next to our resort, which is an overgrown cashew nut orchard. We bought that land too, when the owner told us he would dig it up for landfill.
Among the flowering trees around our house, we have fragrant “Jumpee” or Michelia and “Khae” or Sesbania Grandiflora – Thais eat the flowers as a vegetable while sunbirds drink the nectar. Soft fluffy seeds of the Giant Indian Milkweed - crown flowers, or Calotropis Gigantea, are used by birds to line their nests and our staff use the flowers to make garlands. Grasses such as vetiver, tussock and edible bamboo help to stabilize the soil and provide shelter for the birds, while lemongrass is used in our daily cooking.
The mornings are filled with birdsong and there is a constant rustle of movement from the butterflies, birds and transient insects such as mayflies, bees or flying termites. Sometimes we spot squirrels scampering through the trees or along the fence – they are shy here but every morning we hear them chattering high up in the branches of the trees.
In the evenings the calls of owls and nightjars are interspersed with the chorus of frogs and cicadas, while in the early mornings a long legged frog sits silently on our terrace, watching for passing insects.
Our gardening method is neither that of the agriculturalist nor the hunter-gatherer, but the type of forest gardening traditional in Asia. With its many tiered layers and diversity of plants, it encourages wildlife and as a boy Surin caught the frogs, lizards, birds, insects, snakes, rodents which thrive in such an environment to help feed his family.
Forest gardening seems particularly suited to the warmth of the tropics, where many plants thrive under the shade of the larger trees. On our southern boundary we have an orchard of spreading fruit and nut trees, such as mango, mangosteen, rambutan, jackfruit, pomelo, pomegranate and cashew nuts. In the spaces in between there are oranges, limes, rose apples, papaya and bananas and below them, bushy herbs such as galangal, lemongrass, zedoary and turmeric, as well as pineapples. For flowers, we have shade tolerant plants such as Torch Ginger - Etlingera Elatiro and Siam Tulips - Curcuma, which are also edible, while in the sun, a hedge of Ixora and ornamentals is interspersed with marigolds, cosmos and zinnias, attracting the butterflies. Flowering trees such as jacaranda and “Chaiyapruek” - Golden Shower or Cassia Fistula - provide splashes of colour, while “Kenanga” - Ylang Ylang gives a burst of intense fragrance. Forest trees such as Agar Wood, Teak and Lakoocha, will provide the canopy and I am training beans, peppercorns to climb up them. Little patches of tomatoes, basils, Brahmi and chilies fill in the gaps. Guests love to see such exotic plants and have the opportunity to pick the fruit and herbs.
Apart from creating a healthy ecological balance, one of the major benefits of this type of gardening is that it is vertical and so more productive. Some writers such as Masanobu Fukuoka promoted it as an easy, no dig gardening method, but for us, the early stages of development was back breaking work, preparing the soil, adding compost and manure and mulch, planting, weeding and pruning. But it is getting easier, especially with the help of volunteers from around the world.
Creating a forest garden may be hard but it feels like one of the nicest things to do – producing food, beauty and shelter for wildlife. My own great grandfather Mordecai Cubitt Cooke, a noted botanist who worked at Kew Gardens in London, eulogized the beauties of ancient forests and lamented their passing:
“Not only does the destruction of forests alter the climate, diminish permanent springs, render inundations common, but it consequently reduces productive cultivation, and is the forerunner of scarcity and famine.” 3.
The warnings from him and others, weren’t heeded, and now, more than 130 years later, there is increasing alarm, as the world is becomes a more dangerous place due to global warming - competition for resources is intensifying, political instability is increasing and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. James Lovelock, author of the Vanishing Face of Gaia, believes it may already be too late to save our existence as a species.
“We are trying to undo some of the harm we have done, as climate change worsens we will try harder, even desperately, but until we see that the earth is more than a mere ball of rock we are unlikely to succeed. It is not simply too much carbon dioxide in the air or the loss of biodiversity as forests are cleared; the root cause is too many people, their pets and their livestock – more than the Earth can carry.” 4.
Surin tells me that the massive storms and earthquakes, we are now experiencing were forecast long ago by the Buddha. Some Buddhists describe this as The Age of Maitreya (the next Buddha) an era in which massive flooding and Tsumanis will swallow up much of the earth’s landmass.
These forebodings of destruction perhaps reflect a similar way of thinking between the Buddhists and the Ecologist - a deep awareness of cause and effect, a rigorous investigation of phenomena, an interest in and sensitivity to, the sufferings of living creatures and a long term perspective on time.
The aeons of the Buddhists correspond to the ecologist’s geological time – and as Wilson beautifully describes it – taking such a long term perspective, makes everything looks different.
In ecological time: “Day blends with night into continuous twilight as the flicker-fusion frequency of our organismic-time vision is exceeded. (A human) grows old, he dies. His children grow old, they die. Nearby the rainforest is changing. Clearings appear as great trees fall, saplings spring up, the gaps close.” In evolutionary time: “Individual persons and other organisms are no longer distinguishable, only blurred populations …seen across the passage of generations. A century of their time collapses into a minute of ours. Some of their genes are changing, in both kind and relative frequency. Detached from other human beings and shorn of their emotions, godlike at last, we witness the world in evolutionary time and space.” 5.
With our long term future hanging in the balance, I hope that economics will come to the assistance of the environment. Just as markets created perverse and destructive incentives, they can also create positive incentives such as a demand for eco-tourism from the type of people who are our guests.
At the lake we have set aside an area for tree planting by our guests and in May we planted the first group of 20 forest trees on behalf of one of our guests Dan Goodwin, who wished to create a carbon offset. We planted Lakoocha, Thai plum - Eugenia Cumini, Cinnamon, Bulletwood - Mimusops Elengi, Moon Tree - Diospyros Decandra, “Pradu” - Phyllocarpus Septentrionalis, Bombay Blackwood - Aglaia Odorata and Fish Tail Palm or Toddy Palm - Caryota Urens – all trees which can live to a considerable age and which provide nourishment for humans and wildlife. Guests' income also helps to support the local shops and suppliers and pay the wages of our staff. Some make donations to help support local community projects such as restoring the local temple and our volunteers too are part of this global movement – providing their labour to help society and the environment.
As a small boy, Surin says he was naked for most of the first five years of his life. At school he had to wear pants but they were soon threadbare – he only had one pair. There was no electricity in his village, no cars, nor even a bicycle. One of his chores was to get the resin from the “Yang Na” - Dipterocarpus Alatus tree, which served as a torch in their home. Money was a novelty, so there were no sweets – his treats were wild fruits. Yet he describes his childhood as idyllic and feels sorry for today’s kids who grow up in the impoverished environment of the city.
This urban poverty was well described in Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, who coined the expression “nature-deficit disorder” with symptoms such as alienation, diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of mental and emotional illnesses. Some city kids are spooked when they come to our place, the experience of quietness and nature is so alien to them.
Since she was a tiny baby, our grand-daughter Cat has been coming to the resort. Now she is a confident, talkative seven years old. When she is here, she is utterly relaxed, confident and bubbling with happiness, enjoying simple things like swimming, picking fruit and feeding the fish. I hope that whatever tough experiences life throws at her in the future, this richness of experience she has gained from growing up amidst nature, will mean she will always have an inner calmness and self-reliance that gives her strength. And I am glad too, that we are able to give this experience to other children.
I cannot say with confidence that we can save this paradise – after all White Water Lake is only about two metres above sea level, so the rising sea will probably turn the water brackish one day. But it is good to be providing a home to so many wild creatures now and planting trees that may become forest giants of the future. And it is one of the beauties of tourism that travel creates a community of like-minded people who want to learn and help each other.
1. The Future of Life. E.O. Wilson
3. The Woodlands. M.C. Cooke
4. The Vanishing Face of Gaia. James Lovelock
5. Consilience. E.O. Wilson