Conservation or photo op?

Earlier this month Thailand named two new Ramsar sites. One of these sites — the Koh Phra Thong and Koh Ra Archipelago — is just a few miles from the Andaman Discoveries office. AD conducts tours and supports community development and conservation projects with four villages in the new Ramsar site.

Ramsar sites are wetlands deemed to have international importance. These sites are named for the 1971 intergovernmental treaty on wetlands that was signed in Ramsar, Iran. Participating governments commit to “wise use” of the wetland areas.

Such recognition of the abundant and fairly pristine mangroves and seagrass beds of nearby islands is always welcome. However I am skeptical of anything concrete occurring based upon this Ramsar designation. At a 1987 conference the vague term “wise use”  was spelled out for Ramsar wetlands as “the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development.” While this new definition might be slightly more informative than simply “wise use”, it still allows an unfortunate broadness of interpretation. Further, as I’ve mentioned before, fishing boats and developers in Thailand tend to ignore regulations, so there’s no guarantee Ramsar status will do much good, especially without enforcement.

Here's a little more information in where exactly in Thailand I'm working, and where the new Ramsar site is located. (Hint: it's the small purple box.)

Here’s a little more information in where exactly in Thailand I’m working, and where the new Ramsar site is located. (Hint: it’s the small purple box.)
The AD office and the New Ramsar Site.
The AD office and the New Ramsar Site.

August 12th, the Queen’s Birthday, is the official designation date for both new Ramsar Sites. The Queen’s Birthday is also Thai Mother’s Day, and important environmental or “conservation” events are often scheduled to coincide with royal birthdays. I use the designation “conservation” loosely for these spectacles. A few years ago someone decided that clownfish are cute and decided to release several hundred of them in honor of the King’s Birthday and to “repopulate” Koh Phi Phi’s reefs (they were fine). These brilliant “scientists” dumped hundreds of aquarium clownfish into the water around Koh Phi Phi. Fantastically unplanned “rewilding” efforts are conducted for photo-ops all the time around here (see also: turtles around Koh Tao and seahorses at Richelieu Rock) .


Actually a Clark's Anemonefish -- not a proper clownfish. They might be cute, but these guys bite!
Actually a Clark’s Anemonefish — not a proper clownfish. They might be cute, but these guys bite!

The official notice on the Ramsar website names unsustainable tourism as a key threat to the Koh Phra Thong and Koh Ra. My work this summer is based around reducing impacts from the developing community-based tourism. Right now the biggest debate on Koh Phra Thong is whether to connect to mainland electricity. In order to get electricity some mangrove would need to be cleared. Some argue that the few hours of electricity from generators and solar power in the evening are sufficient. Other locals would like to get refrigerators, a luxury only possible with electricity. On Koh Phra Thong locally caught fish is the main dietary staple. One local woman said she would like a refrigerator so she could preserve vegetables from the mainland longer and have a more varied diet.

Currently, connecting to mainland power is strongly favored by nearly everyone on Koh Phra Thong. Now we need to work out how we can get electricity while doing the least damage to the mangrove.  As an environmentalist I am all for saving the mangroves, but I live in a house with electricity and a fridge. While providing local people with electricity might damage some of their environment, these people participate in seagrass monitoring and mangrove restoration. Keeping track of seagrass beds doesn’t allow many photo ops, but it does more good than dumping hundreds of unnecessary clownfish into the ocean.

It is easy to grow cynical with large scale government “conservation”. So while I love increased recognition for the gorgeous habitats of Koh Ra and Koh Phra Thong, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that recognition to actually conserve anything. I’m going to continue talking to the local people about better ways to dispose of their garbage.