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Phangan resident Brian Gruber published an oral history of the island earlier this year titled “Full Moon over Koh Phangan: What Adventurers, Dancers, and Freaks Seek and Find on Thailand's Magic Island.” Phanganist is publishing an exclusive series of interview excerpts. This week, we feature a conversation with eco activist John Fitton.
The ebook is available for 150 baht ($4.95) at https://amzn.to/3B75ssb or directly from the author for PDF or ePUB versions. An expanded version with chapters on each island village and favorite local spots will be released later this year.
From Full Moon over Koh Phangan:
John Fitton, a retired British scientist, is co-founder of the island’s most ambitious and successful Thai/ farang environmental protection project. And he is a relentless advocate for spending real time experiencing Thai culture, first by getting off the island and spending time on the mainland, and second by getting past superficial commercial transactions and showing up where Thai celebrate and pray and interact. John and EcoThailand co-founder Jintamard Sinlapaprommard (Jinta) shared Thai perspectives on environmental and cultural issues and organized conversations with a Phangan phuyaiban and a relative of the revered monk who established the island’s national park.
What is EcoThailand?
I was in Surat Thani and met up with Jinta, who is, for a southern Thai, quite cosmopolitan; she's studied in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, her English is excellent. And she was works for the Department of Environment in Surat Thani, for the regional office, which has responsibility for four of the Southern Thai provinces. The central government gave Regional Environments Office 14 a grant to look at various aspects relating to the environment on Koh Phangan, primarily to do with community engagement, not beach cleaning or trash removal, etcetera. It was trying to engage the local communities to become more aware of the natural environment, and for the communities to then actually do something about it. That was a five-year project and it was coming to an end. Several members of REO 14 wanted to build on the successes that they had. My background is in biology and project management. Thais are not overly good at projects management. A long-term plan to a Thai is one year; my plans went out to 20 years.
From discussions about how could we continue to do something for Koh Phangan, we decided to form an environmental foundation. We registered that with the Thai government, which is an inordinately difficult and expensive thing to do. So, essentially, Jinta and I are co-founders and co-benefactors of EcoThailand.
Our objectives are multifaceted. Around 40 percent of our work is educational, 60 percent community-based. We go into the 10 Koh Phangan Thai schools and engage with the kids, both formal teaching in classrooms but also taking them out onto the beaches, collecting and quantitating plastic; they can make a good bit of a game of it. We take them out on mangrove walks and birdwatching expeditions. We also go along to the Moo Baan, the monthly village meetings, and give presentations and lead discussions as well round the island. “Why shouldn't I throw plastic on the beach? The sea will wash it away, what's the problem?” It's trying to get through that sort of mentality and it's quite difficult.
What is a Moo Baan?
A Moo Baan is essentially a village, but from long ago. Quite often there are several Moo Baan now within a town. In the UK, it's the parish council centered around the church. In Thailand, it's centered around the local wat.
Westerners on the island, because they are quite environmentally engaged, try to say to Thai people, “No, don't do this.” Thais see that as being lectured by a farang. “Why should a foreigner be telling me what I should or shouldn't do?” Thais are very communal, you invariably have to go round a long-winded argument to actually make a point; you can't just come out with it face-to-face in a direct line, it is not the Thai way. So quite often, the farangs on the island do more damage than good.
EcoThailand primarily works with the Thai communities, probably 95 percent. I'm their only farang so my job is a bit of a liaison job, and with my biological background, I do the English for international grants. The second component is building on the community engagement. More than 95 percent of our local funding has come from the Thai community and 98 percent of the human resources that we deal with also comes from the Thai community. It's engaging communities and getting them to work together in a coherent fashion. Thais are community-based but quite insular; it might be a family, it might be a Moo Baan, but Moo Baans don't often speak to each other.
What people forget is that they’ve (visitors) had 20 or 30 years of environmental education, which the Thais haven't had. It's an educational issue, not a fundamental problem with Thailand or indeed Asia. Koh Phangan is somewhere in the middle. It's nowhere near as bad environmentally as Koh Samui. There's trash everywhere because it's a highly developed island without good trash disposal systems. It's also got a much higher headcount, so is far worse than Koh Phangan. At least we have an incinerator on the island that works. Samui does not. Their incinerator has been broken for years. Koh Tao is more environmentally aware because of the focus on scuba diving, which attracts people that have an interest in the environment.
Some of the smaller islands like Koh Lanta are much better because they’re less commercialized and compact; they don’t have the Haad Rin and the Full Moon Party-type issues that we have. But Koh Phangan is coming along. And the Thai government is as well; they are passing increasingly stringent environmental laws which, as with all their laws, are not always followed. But the hearts are in the right place.
What would your advice be for expats and tourists on being environmentally friendly?
You’ve seen segregated bin collection points – PET plastic bottles, glass bottles, cans, hazardous waste – but everybody just throws anything in any bin. There is actually no segregation at the point of receipt. One of our projects is to teach Thai about segregation.
When it's taken away, there are eight Thai businesses on the island that recycle waste; there's a map on our website. You can take along your segregated trash to those, you can take them to the recycle companies and they will quite happily take them off your hands and indeed pay for them. They'll pay you a few baht per kilos for the PET plastic. Anything you put in Tessabaan, the municipality bins, gets mixed up on the truck, and is probably mixed up in the bins as well. If you segregate and put segregated stuff next to a bin, it will be scavenged. There are scavengers that go around at nighttime picking up PET plastic waste out of the Tessabaan bins.
What doesn't get scavenged goes to a private company, an incinerator plant on the island. And they have about 20 or 30 Burmese workers that physically segregate the waste.
“Full Moon over Koh Phangan: What Adventurers, Dancers, and Freaks Seek and Find on Thailand's Magic Island” is available for $4.95 at https://amzn.to/3B75ssb or directly from the author for PDF or ePUB versions. The Phanganist will publish new interview excerpts in the weeks ahead.