In 2015

The Conservation of Koh Chang

Conservation on Koh Chang

A Green Ideal

If you’re flying on Bangkok Airways in Nov / Dec 2015 then you’ll be able to read this article in the in-flight magazine.  It’s much more balanced than I expected when i was first contacted about it.

How serious and how far reaching the local authority’s efforts have been can be summed up by the fact that pretty much all the combined might of government and non-government organisations can come up with in the past few years is an annual, one off, cleaning day. Which doesn’t last a full day, it lasts a morning.  And that starts late as there has to be an opening ceremony. And then everyone heads off for a big free lunch. As my comments in the article show, I just feel that providing bins and employing a few more people to empty them would be a better way to spend funds earmarked for turning the island into an eco-paradise.

By Rebecca Van Vliet ( Fah Thai Magazine )

Already one of the most scenic,unspoilt island utopias in Thailand, Koh Chang is now bidding to become the country’s most sustainable destination – but can it truly succeed?

While visitor numbers rise and hotels shoot up, homegrown initiatives prove that the impetus for environmental change is already in place

Koh Chang during the throes of the monsoon gives true meaning to the term “green season”. Rain pummels the island for hours on end, coating it in a deep emerald veneer. Grass sprouts in dirt patches. Leaves turn almost luminous. The soil becomes a sticky red clay, hungry for flip-flops.That the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has now earmarked KohChang as the country’s flagship destination for “green” tourism seems delightfully apropos.

The TAT launched its “ Go Green on Koh Chang ” project in 2012. Koh Chang was a logical choice: back in 2009, a coalition of local nongovernmental organisations and government bodies had already launched a climate-protection program. The backers included the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), Thailand’s Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (DASTA) and the Thai Trat Tourism Association (TTA) –bodies still active today in promoting sustainability and environmental protection in the region.

A regular island wide clean-up day involving hotels and local businesses is undoubtedly their most visible eco-initiative yet. To the casual observer, Koh Chang already seems fairly green – at least, as far as Thai destinations go. It is relatively undeveloped, free of high-rises, comprises 70 to 80% national park land, and implements an unofficial ban on jetskis and bananaboats.

Its sole access road also limits rampant development; it is too narrow and precarious for large trucks, and is regularly blocked by floods, mudslides and fallen trees. On paper, such a sleepy, verdant isle should be ideal for developing into Thailand’s premier eco-haven. And indeed, a recent article in the Bangkok Post –Thailand’s English-language broadsheet – indicated positive change in the region, highlighting some of the island’s successes over the years, such as eco-tours in the mangroves and a focus on locally made products and souvenirs.

However, it neglected to mention that an official report measuring the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions – from DASTA or GIZ, or any other independent or government body– is still to come. KohChang resident IanMcNamara is not holding his breath for any such follow-up.

The owner of Baan Rim Nam guesthouse –a quaint, converted fisherman’s house flanking a peaceful estuary on the west coast –and the voice behind the popular website iamkohchang.com, his views are shared openly on his blog.

Three years ago, when the Go Green pilot project was launched,McNamara considered it to be“PR-friendly”and“small-scale”. “While their projects are commendable, one can’t help feeling that it would be more beneficial to get the basics right – such as providing an efficient, effective garbage collection service–before pouring money into more ambitious plans.” Others on the island believe the highly publicised efforts to “Go Green” on Koh Chang are essentially cosmetic.

Though most resorts conduct beach cleaning in front of their own properties, this is often the extent of their commitment to protecting the environment. Scepticism ran particularly high in the middle of this year,when one luxury resort was caught scattering trash on the beach in order to give a well-intentioned group of visitors something to cleanup.

Nevertheless, a PR stunt is designed to raise awareness, so even misguided clean-up events are better than none at all. Infusing “green” philosophies into the island’s flourishing hospitality industry can only happen gradually, and the longer local operators are exposed to them, the more likely they are to become common practice.

Some larger resorts, such as Kacha Resort &Spa on White Sand Beach, are doing more than just going through the motions. One of seven hotels on the island to earn “GreenLeaf” certification, Kacha implements energy- and cost-saving programs in its day-to-day operations.

The hotel has gone smoke-free, separates and recycles kitchen waste, and encourages guests to save energy through practising habits such as reusing linen. Kacha is installing electricity meters around the property and looking at ways to reduce energy consumption in rooms. It has also turned its focus to suppliers and packaging. “We order [a lot of] seafood, and really prefer that the packages are reusable. Some suppliers don’t understand what we are doing and don’t do their best for the environment, but many others are starting to care now. It’s a trend that is coming up,” says the resort’s assistant manager Parunyuu Lawtrakulngam, nicknamed Boyd. The hotel, a 200-plus-room establishment with a largely European clientele, also recognises the scourge of plastic waste, and has switched plastic water bottles for recyclable glass. Like some other resorts, Boyd says they also have their own hydroponic garden,which provides vegetables to their kitchen. They also source produce locally where possible, minimising transportation costs.

On an island like Koh Chang,where produce is shipped in on fossil-fuel-burning car ferries, limiting imported items is key to reducing CO2 emissions. “Eastern and southern Koh Chang are totally different to the western side,” says Olivier Quesneau, a lithe, 49-year-old Frenchman with salt-and-pepper stubble and the resident manager of The Mangrove Hideaway, located in the quiet fishing village of SalakPhet. Nestled between the jungle and the marine national park on the very tip of the island, this verdant sanctuary demonstrates what independent resorts can do to effectively work towards sustainability.

With 12 rooms, it keeps its carbon footprint to a minimum by recycling waste, reusing linen, using biodegradable cleaning products and providing 100%natural and recyclable bathroom amenities. Most of its produce is sourced from community gardens and orchards,with seafood provided by the local fishing village. Quesneau inhabits a world immersed in the elements: the whir of invisible insects, the gentle lapping of estuary waters. Rather than forcing the surrounding environment to conform to some preconceived tropical island idyll, The Mangrove Hideaway works with the landscape, inviting guests to experience its alluring setting: a velvet carpet of palm trees and mangroves that tumbledown to flat, shimmering estuary waters.

The resort also supports the local community by operating, says Quesneau, “in deference to Thai traditions and culture”– employing local staff and actively taking part in community projects. It also encourages nature-based activities such as hiking and kayaking, and invites travellers to volunteer their time joining local reef rehabilitation and mangrove reforestation projects.As far as eco-tourism goes in Koh Chang, this is one establishment leading the way. Quesneau explains how Koh Chang is governed by two separate administrative bodies, and while local families on the eastern side have fought to protect the borders of the national park, outside investors on the western side have funded unchecked development.

Hundreds of low-rise hotels and resorts have sprouted along the once-pristine western shore; few, if any, of them are built with environmental protection in mind. In more alarming cases, resorts on the western side have been known to encroach on national park land, or allow their untreated wastewater to drain into the sea. Large shrimp farms have been caught by authorities releasing dangerous chemicals into Koh Chang’s mangroves and killing native marine life.

Though corruption and greed are significant challenges to the environmental protection of the island, Quesneau has hope for the future of Koh Chang’s natural attributes –at least in the eastern and southern regions. “I am not saying that everything is perfect here, but considering we started almost from scratch, it will be easier for us to develop eco-tourism with good habits and practices,” he says.

The west coast isn’t a lost cause, however. In particular, one group of local residents and business owners is determined to make a positive impact. Keep Koh Chang Clean has been together for roughly two years, conducting ongoing clean-up days around the island and in the surrounding marine parks. Its Facebook page documents various projects –a marine clean-up of Koh Rang’s rich, kaleidoscopic coral reefs, a trash-clearing day in a local parking lot, the erection of signs warning against feeding macaques –and allows members to share pictures of dumping grounds and areas of concern. The group has both Thai and foreign members, residents and visitors, and has received the support of the Royal Thai Navy as well as the local government which oversees Koh Chang’s national park.

David Hinchliffe, a local business owner and Keep Koh Chang Clean member, explains that travellers can also play a big part in determining the success of environmental practices on the island. “What tourists say and do can have an enormous influence. If a business owner feels that it is financially beneficial to adopt more green strategies, then they are more likely to do so,” he says.While the development that comes hand in hand with mass tourism is the biggest ecological threat, it’s only the tourist baht that can influence hotel policy.

Thus, if travellers show a preference for properties with GreenLeaf certification, or those that conduct regular beach-cleaning sessions or offer organic produce, then competing resorts are more likely to follow suit. Hinchliffe thinks that that it’s also useful for travellers to share their concerns and ideas with influential figures. “Complimenting businesses on what they get right, as well as mentioning failings, are great ways to help progress,”he says. “Getting in touch with organisations such as the TAT, with specific observations about green practices on Koh Chang, is a good way to get government attention paid to these issues. Every little bit helps.”

Koh Chang will soon be welcoming tourists by the ferry load, now that the wet season has lifted its moody veil. Hinchliffe hopes most of them will respect the island’s pristine entanglement of jungle and spectacular coastlines by employing their own personal eco-practices. Perhaps some will even join Keep Koh Chang Clean’s clean-up days.

Likewise,Quesneau believes travellers should start “thinking green” before they even leave home. “They should be attentive about environmental concerns when planning their trip. And while on site, comply with green policies and support local initiatives,”he says. “Dramatic tourism expansion has simply destroyed our tropical sanctuary. It’s a real shame–and it is time to react.”

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