A Youth-Powered Tsunami Recovery: After the 2004 Boxing Day Tidal Wave Brought a Halt to Traditional Life, Villages in South-Western Thailand Are Being Led by an Innovative Student-Driven Learning Program to Recover Their Livelihoods and Develop Solution-Finding Skills to Better Manage Local Natural Resources

Article excerpt

In an open studio space just a few blocks from Bangkok's pulsing Khao San Road, Chaluaywan Panya--known simply to her friends as Tui--sits and talks with a quiet contentedness. She's pleased with the recent progress of 'Youth Leverage', the program she set up with partner Dr Opart Panya in mid-2005 to help remote southern Thai villages recover from the devastation of the tsunami.

The walls of the studio are plastered with photos of young students working with local groups--the smiles belie the incredible difficulties the villagers have faced since the disaster, but they also highlight a new positiveness, thanks to the local students that Tui's team has trained to find self-help solutions to the livelihood, environmental and social challenges facing these people.

From Ranong, just beneath Myanmar's lowest border, Thailand stretches 600 km south towards Malaysia in a leg-like, verdant peninsula. Its spectacular western coast, which took the brunt of the tsunami, is world-renowned for the archipelagos of near-shore islands that bejewel the Straight of Malacca.

But the remoteness of these more southerly islands and shores also makes life hard for the poor, mainly Muslim communities that have subsisted in the region for generations.

The tsunami destroyed whole villages and killed working family members, taking with it occupational tools, equipment and the means crucial to food and income--such as fishing boats and gear, or vegetable gardens--and in many cases permanently altered the coastal ecosystems. Some marine species important to the communities, such as crabs, were irreparably depleted, and in other places the traditional balance of habitats has now changed, reducing productivity.

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These effects have doubly compounded the difficulties of life and made the psychological impact of the disaster difficult to surmount.

'We felt that these isolated villagers needed a much more empowering alternative to the direct material tsunami aid that was getting through,' Tui says, revealing her motivations. 'We had to try to find a way to actually reunite the community, to restore a sense of purposefulness and pride around new livelihood options--that's the only way to really heal from something like this.'

'We also wanted to take the chance to build new skills and knowledge while working on cultural and research learning activities, and we felt that training the young people, to empower the rest of the village or town, was the answer for the long term. They have the enthusiasm.'

Although local and international agencies rushed to assist in the region by providing basic relief as well as replacing essential equipment, the well-intentioned efforts caused unexpected issues. Generally the relief was free, but some required villagers to pay for supplies over time. And where affected villages were closer to main access towns, multiple aid efforts actually became overwhelming and failed to consider any development plans already being run by the locals themselves. In many cases, the remoteness of affected communities meant relief didn't reach them effectively, or at all.

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This caused further tensions and disappointment, and left communities feeling disempowered. Beyond that, there was little assistance given to restoring or dealing with environmental damage.

It was against this background that the Youth Leverage project was designed and then proposed for funding, through Mahidol University in Bangkok, where Tui and Opart teach community based natural resource management.

Dr Panya, who is also Board Chairman of Greenpeace South-East Asia, said that funding for the project came from the Thai Health Authority after Mahidol University had already run projects, in conjunction with the Undergraduate Volunteers Foundation, to collect data on the tsunami's effects on ecosystems in the region. …