29 October 2003

SGP logoThe Indo-China Intersection Development Institute is trying to reduce pollution of the Nan River at the source, by convincing farmers in 29 communities along the river to decrease their dependency on agrochemicals. The unusual thing about Institute's Nan River Project, though, is that much of the work is done by Buddhist monks. Those saffron-robed activists have trained their neighbors in the use of organic fertilizers, organized efforts to protect the river, and imparted environmental education.

Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, and there are consequently temple complexes, known locally as wats, distributed along most of the Nan River's course. Monasteries scattered along 40 kilometers of the river are participating in the Nan River Project, which has received input from several organizations and funding from the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP), implemented by the UNDP.

The Nan River flows through one of the country's principal rice growing regions: an area that produces three harvests per year, and consumes massive amounts of agrochemicals in the process. Thailand is Southeast Asia's biggest rice producer, harvesting more than 15 million tons per year. According to the government Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, Thai farmers applied 31,000 tons of pesticides and 3.5 million tons of chemical fertilizers to their crops in 2001. Regular rains wash a significant portion of those agrochemicals into the nation's waterways, most of which drain into the beleaguered Gulf of Thailand.

According to Poonsin Sreesangkom, SGP national coordinator for Thailand, those numbers mean that "everybody lives down stream." He noted that the Nan River was designated a 'pollution hotspot' in the UN Environment Programme's Strategic Action Programme for the South China Sea. Sreesangkom also cited a World Resources Institute report on "Reefs at Risk in Southeast Asia," which shows coral reefs in the Gulf of Thailand - in both Thai and Cambodian waters - to be in danger. The report explains that chemical fertilizers dumped into the ocean by rivers can damage coral reefs by initiating toxic algal blooms and facilitating the growth of algae that inhibit coral colonization.

"We have to work on land to protect the sea," said Sreesankom.

Agricultural Economist Makhasiri Chavakul, of Bangkok's Naresuan University, said that getting farmers to use less pesticides and fertilizers is hard because it implies either smaller harvests or more work. She explained that because of the intensive nature of rice farming in the Nam River Basin, the river is especially susceptible to agrochemical pollution. She described flying over the point where the Nam River joins the Ping River to form the Chaophaya - whereas the water from the Ping is green, the Nan is red with the sediment, which is mixed with agrochemicals.

"Everyone is concerned with the problems caused by agrochemicals, but it takes a lot of time to produce bio-fertilizers," Chavakul said. "It's a very big step to get farmers to use organic fertilizers, because it is so time consuming."

Thaweesak Nopkasorn, Director of the Indo-China Development Institute, explained that one of the reason's the Nam River Project has been successful at getting farmers to cut the amount of agrochemicals they use is that the Buddhist monks who run it have so much moral authority. Sreesankom noted that in Thailand, a traditional town meeting is presided over by the headman, the schoolmaster and the abbot from the nearest monastery. The Institute has thus far worked with 33 monasteries in the Phrompiram District of the Nam River Valley.

Phra Atikan Chulan, an abbot at the Klap Puong Ngua Monastery who has been active in the project, said that he was initially skeptical about cooperating with the institute.

"At first I thought it would create too much conflict between the monks and the villagers," he said. "But after several meetings, I realized that the messages are very much in harmony with our religion, and that the monks are perhaps in the best position to teach environmental awareness to the villagers, because they are in constant contact with them, and come from amongst them."

Monks in Phrompiram District have formed a Network for Conservation of the Nan River and are working with community organizations to spread their message. They have adopted organic agriculture on their monastery farms, using those farms to demonstrate such techniques as composting to people in neighboring towns. They have also initiated campaigns to improve management of solid waste, established no-fishing zones near their wats and in other areas, and organized festivals to celebrate the importance of the river. Working with a local women's group, they are promoting the use of an electric aphid trap as an alternative to pesticides.

Thanks to coordination by the Institute and SGP office, several government agencies have provided technical assistance and other help for the project. The Ministry of Agriculture, Cooperatives, Fisheries and Local Development patrols the no-fishing zones and has provided fish fry to be released in the river. Phrompiram Hospital has given the monks materials on the dangers of pesticides, while the Provincial Public Health Office has started monitoring river water quality in the project area.

Though it would be impossible to measure what impact the project has had on the Gulf of Thailand, it has produced results for the communities of Phrompiram District. Nopkasorn noted that since the project began, there has been a decrease of more than 50 percent in the number of pesticide poisonings treated by Phrompiram Hospital. Farmers participating in the program are also saving money, since they spend less on fertilizers and pesticides than they used to.

According to Phra Surachin Chaya Yanasupho, abbot of the Suondron Barami Monastery, organic living is healthy living.

"We are teaching people to live cleaner lives without chemicals," he said.

Nopkasorn explained that the project has been such a success that the Australian Agency for International Development is interested in funding an expansion of it to cover an area flanking 120 kilometers of the river.

Phra Prasutin Samanglo, a monk in the monastery of Wungmasa, explained that he is teaching people to have more respect for the river, and to understand how the ecosystem is impacted by their actions. Though he and the other monks of Phrompiram District may not be thinking about Cambodian coral reefs, their work to protect the Nan River could have an impact far beyond their communities.

As Samanglo noted: "All is connected."

Article by: David Dudenhoefer