Using activism and scientific research, a Thai community stopped a wetland forest from being turned into an industrial zone and is about to receive the UN Equator Prize for outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
The villagers of Ban Boon Rueang in northern Thailand had long known that they benefited from the community wetland forest that supplied them with fish and firewood, but it wasn't until devastating floods in 2010 that they realised just how much.
That year, flooding from the Ing river which often spills its banks in the annual rainy season, was particularly severe, inundating several villages. Ban Boon Rueang escaped the worst of it because the 236-hectare wetland forest served as a natural buffer.
"If it weren't for the wetland, our village would have also got flooded severely," said Srongpol Chantharueang, chairman of the Boon Rueang Wetland Forest Conservation Group (BRWFCG).
"We realised then how important it was for us. That made us more aware of the threats to the wetland, and more determined to protect it," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as he walked around the forest, pointing to edible mushrooms and honeycombs.
When the Thai government earmarked Chiang Khong district, where Ban Boon Rueang is located, as part of a Special Economic Zone, the villagers decided to oppose the plan to infill the wetland, with a novel approach. They set up BRWFCG, mobilised support from other conservation groups and academics in the local university, and appealed to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, saying their lives and livelihoods were at stake.
The good news is that it worked: in 2018 authorities withdrew the proposal and, next week, BRWFCG will receive the United Nations' Equator Prize for outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
"Convincing the government to conserve the wetland forest was a momentous achievement, made through advocacy and dialogue," said David Ganz, executive director of the Center for People and Forests, which backed the community. "Boon Rueang is a successful model for community forestry and showcases a nature-based solution to environmental injustice. The community's achievement is an inspiration to others who may be facing similar challenges," he added.