I just returned from a fabulous two week tastecation with two friends in Thailand. Realizing the potentially positive power of our tourist dollars, when we traveled to the beautiful beaches in the Southern peninsula of the country, we opted to stay at the ecotourism resort, Golden Buddha Beach Resort. Did the custom made vegetarian Thai food taste better because we knew it was locally sourced and helped to employ local villagers? Maybe a little.
It didn't hurt that we were on a beautiful island, barely touched by development. As I took my cold showers in the outdoor bathroom, I was surrounded by a plethora of gorgeous plants and animals such as mischievous macaques, Oriental Pied Hornbills (seen above), Streak-breasted Woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and a vast assortment of lizards and geckos.
In addition to the resort and local villagers, the island also houses a turtle conservation group (Naucrates) and an ecotourism dive shop (Blue Guru). While both are run entirely by non-Thais (farangs), their contributions are to the global conservation effort and the local Thai communities. Many of the volunteers and interns for both groups live among and interact with villagers in the post-tsunami built Baan Lions village so care deeply about the environment and the people who live in it.
Commercial fishing delivers a one-two punch to the local area. First, Dave, a member of the Naucrates' crew, told me that it is likely having a negative impact on the turtle population due to the heavy use of purse seines and trawlers. These boats turn the clear horizon (seen below) into what looks like an interstate highway when they turn on their squid-luring lights.
Second, commercial fishing boats, which often bring in cheaper labor from other countries, overfish the areas making it much harder for local fishermen who practice traditional and more environmentally sustainable fishing techniques.
The dive experts at Blue Guru have a number of education and conservation programs, but one of their most interesting is the working with local Thai educating them about the value of ecotourism and the environment. As a part of this effort, they've taught the twins Tam and Thoom to dive, giving these 19-year-old fishermen a different view of and appreciation for the waters they've known all their lives.
Images from http://www.blue-guru.org/
We did two days of diving with Blue Guru and the twins. The second day, the dive masters took us to a new dive spot that they'd discovered through the twins. We got to watch them tap into the fisherman community as they asked another fisherman to help them find the spot. When we got there, this spot was rich with fish and untouched coral - I've never had a better dive. This is an amazingly reciprocal relationship in which the dive masters teach the twins about the fragility of the ecosystems in the sea (something they understand anecdotally through declining fishing hauls) and the twins share their vast knowledge of the area with the dive masters.
This rewarding and relaxing experience served to remind me of the interconnectedness between the communities of people who grow, harvest, and hunt the food we each and the precariousness of the entire system.