The impact of fishery law reforms on local communities: BCR progress in Trat Province

23 July 2013 | Article

As part of the Building Resilience to Climate Change (BCR) project, Trat Province in Thailand has been selected for strengthening local ability and piloting adaptation plans and activities to reduce vulnerability to climate change. The four-year BCR project, which started in 2011, aims to build capacity of local governments and people in eight coastal provinces across Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam to plan for, and adapt to, future climate risks. In Thailand, the partners for this project are the Sustainable Development Foundation (SDF) and the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. As the final year for implementation is fast approaching, the sustainability of the project is essential. We learn of SDF’s instrumental role in working on the field in Trat.

“In Thailand, SDF’s primary approach is to work with local communities first and strengthen their capacity, so that they can stand on their own two feet by the time they reach the provincial-level. This helps them to have better discussions with government agencies and interact on a more equitable basis”, says Jonathan Shott, Project Manager and Disaster Management Consultant at SDF. Since early 2013, SDF has consistently been synthesizing the information generated during the first two years of the BCR project. 

As adaptation initiatives are key for project implementation, there is a significant amount to be incorporated within the vulnerability and capacity assessment reports. The aim is to prepare this information, which will provide the basis for discussions at provincial level. In parallel, SDF has been increasing its level of interaction and collaboration with provincial-level government agencies. In Chanthaburi Province, where hard-to-tackle structural issues present the main challenge, provincial-level discussions are already underway but are more focused and limited in scope. In Trat Province, where there are less constraints and limitations, there exists the opportunity to engage provincial-level stakeholders in broader planning on a wide range of more strategic issues.

As the term of the project comes to an end in 2014, a key concern is its sustainability. The best way to ensure that the interest groups participate meaningfully and legitimately at provincial level is through the formation of a fisherfolk association. This is because around 90% of the population in the project’s target sites in Trat Province practice small-scale fishery, so there is a need for villagers to formally represent themselves as a small-scale fisherfolk community. Therefore, the main focus is setting up a provincial committee to look into marine coastal resource management and the management of fishery livelihoods.

SDF is using this mechanism to actively engage with the provincial governor, the Provincial Natural Resources and Environment Office, the Provincial Fisheries Office and other provincial level stakeholders. SDF is planning to hold a provincial workshop sometime during September or October, where different provincial-level stakeholders will be invited to engage in deliberations on strategic planning for climate change adaptation. If this forum can be organised in advance of the BCR Coastal Forum in October, the outcomes can potentially be shared with colleagues in Cambodia and Vietnam.

At present, there is only one fisher association in Trat Province, and it is not made explicit whether this body represents small-scale or commercial fishers. But based on observations, it seems that this association represents mainly the larger, more commercial fishers in the province. This effectively means that the voice of local small-scale fisherfolk remains unheard.

Under current law, if a group of fishers has an established fishery association, this allows them to request a seat in various provincial committees. This helps ensure that villagers’ issues and concerns are voiced in relevant public forums. A group of local leaders, including sub-district leaders that SDF has been working with in the project’s two target sub-districts, are currently working together to facilitate discussions, identify committee members and draft rules and regulations so that a small-scale fisherfolk association can be established at the provincial level in Trat Province. This process has to be community led – it must be the communities’ own desire and initiative to make their voice heard – but the BCR project has been able to support the process by providing opportunities for the local communities to meet and coordinate.

Currently there are two bills going through Parliament: the Marine Coastal Resources Management Bill and the Fishery Bill. The latter was enacted in the late 1940s, and this is the first time a major revision has been proposed. A recent fisherfolk meeting conducted in Laem Klat Sub-district,Trat Province was attended by Mr. Wichoksak Ronarongpairee, Coordinator for the Secretariat of the Thailand Federation of Small-scale Fisherfolk Association. His view was that it will take around 5 years for small-scale fisherfolk to adapt to changes brought about by the new law.

“Before, all power was concentrated at the ministerial level and provinces had a limited role. This will change with the new bill, which instead grants broad powers at the ministerial and provincial levels, leaving many of the finer points to be discussed and agreed upon by ‘provincial fishery committees’. This will directly impact small-scale fisherfolk, as the soon-to-be established provincial fishery communities will have a lot of say in how fishery activity is managed at provincial level. Vital information such as which fishing gears are permitted, acceptable mesh-sizes etc will be devolved to the provincial level. Therefore, representation at the provincial level is imperative”, says Jonathan Shott.

The proposed provincial committees will consist of 19 persons; wherein 11 are from Thai government agencies and 8 are members of the public (representing ‘fishery community organizations’). Of the 8 public seats, 2 seats each will represent coastal fishery, offshore fishery, aquaculture and freshwater fishery respectively. To request one of these 8 seats, fishers must first organize themselves into registered fishery community organizations. Under the existent law, if one has a fishery association, then one may get a seat at certain provincial level committees, but often the authority or rights granted to such committees are unclear. This will change drastically under the new bill, as fishery community organizations have the chance to acquire a total of 8 seats, and the powers devolved to the provincial fishery committees are much clearer and also enshrined in law.

The recommendation from the Thailand Federation of Small-scale Fisherfolk Association is that the more organizations and associations that can be established at the provincial level now, the better the chance of competing for the 8 public seats in the provincial fishery committees once the new bill is enacted. Each fishery community organization needs to demonstrate that it is able to effectively represent its community; and therefore it requires a management committee, rules, regular meetings and ongoing activities. SDF is working to better organize the BCR target communities, so that their interests are effectively represented.

If many fishery associations are established at the district or sub-district levels, then more than a single seat can be requested at provincial level. Jonathan Shott adds, “as time is of the essence, fishers will try to organize themselves as quickly as they can into multiple associations. Under the new law, the associations at and below the provincial level can be changed to a new entity called ‘fishery community organizations’. If small-scale fisherfolk associations do not act quickly enough, commercial fishery associations may well split themselves into smaller groups in an attempt to take up all of the public seats at the provincial level. This makes the issue all the more urgent”.

In Trat Province, the current goal is for the small-scale fisherfolk communities to organise themselves into a single association. SDF has suggested that the communities should not stop at just one association, but endeavour to form several smaller ones. There is, additionally, a need to increase interactions between different sub-districts and districts, and between the fisherfolk associations themselves, so that they can form a stronger network. Progress is gradually being made on this front. The new law gives small-scale fisherfolk greater incentive than ever before to work to secure seats at provincial level, because otherwise commercial fishers may well try to take them all.

Another salient change, as part of the new law, is the very definition of what constitutes ‘fishery’. Previously, ‘fishery’ was predominantly limited to the catching of fish and aquaculture activities. Now, the definition has been expanded to include the handling and transport of marine produce after it has been caught as well as the processing of marine produce. Everything pertaining to catching and processing fish and marine animals now constitutes ‘fishery’. Furthermore, the new bill makes registration mandatory for all those who make a living which is in some way dependent upon fish or marine produce. The only exceptions are where fishery is practiced solely for subsistence only, with no monetary income however small.

The new law also requires those who start or stop a particular fishery activity to report this to the relevant authorities each and every time. This immediately gives rise to questions and concerns, because small-scale fisherfolk often employ several different modes fishing throughout the year, changing their gears and practices with the seaons. The Thailand Federation of Small-scale Fisherfolk Association is recommending that small-scale fisherfolk consider some form of blanket registration, for example registering several different fishing practices at once, or simply registering the main fishing practice carried out for the greater part of the year.

The new fishery law proposes to extend the coastal fishery zone from 3,000 m to 5,400 m (3 nautical miles). “Superficially, it looks as if extending the coastal fishery zone will be good for small-scale fisherfolk, because it will demarcate an area intended exclusively for their use. But in actual fact this proposal is resulting in confusion and conflict, because some fishers classify themselves as small-scale when in reality their activities are more commercially oriented. At the same time, push nets and drag nets would be outlawed in the extended 5,400 m coastal fishery zone, but a considerable number of small-scale fishers also make use of these fishing gears too", comments Jonathan Shott.

Last month, a large protest was organised outside the town hall in Trat Province. People came to protest against the extension of the coastal zone, as they feared it would put their livelihoods under threat. As part of an ongoing process, Provincial Fishery Offices are conducting local consultation meetings to learn more about communities’ views regarding the prospective new fishery law. If the provincial fishery committees come into being in their currently anticipated form, they are likely to be able to decide exactly which fishing gears and fishing practices are and are not permitted within the extended 5,400 m coastal fishery zone. Through the revised fishery law, there is reason to hope that decision-making authority can be increasingly devolved to bring it closer local communities.