Learning from gender roles to improve mangrove forest management of the Ranong Biosphere Reserve
Trained in environmental management and with a background in social forestry, sociology and anthropology, Disaorn Aitthiariyasunthon, MSc, is an expert in mangrove communities and participative processes. Her research addresses several aspects of mangrove management, such as the socio-economic dependency of communities on mangroves, the opinion and participation of communities on the applications of bamboo walls in coastal erosion management, gender roles in the management of Ranong Biosphere Reserve and the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on coastal communities.
In 2016, she received the UNESCO MAB Young Scientist Award for her research project on gender roles in the management of Ranong Biosphere Reserve, Thailand.
She is currently working as a Forestry Technical Officer at the Division of Mangrove Conservation, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR), Bangkok, Thailand.
How did you first hear about the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme?
I have known about the MAB Programme ever since working with Dr Wijarn Mepool in 2012. He is a manager of the Ranong Biosphere Reserve and an expert on mangroves. So, I got to know about the MAB Programme from working in a biosphere reserve!
At that time, I was assigned to study mangrove socio-economic dependency in Ranong Biosphere Reserve, because we wanted to update our information about the community. In order to do that job, I went off searching for information in the biosphere reserve and sought the conditions for a ‘declaration of understanding’ on mangrove use by the local community.
Why did you apply for the MAB Young Scientist Awards?
I applied for the MAB Young Scientist Awards in 2015. I had just finished my Master’s. I did not really have a budget to do research. As a Forestry Technical Officer, I was looking to do more research and I was interested in carrying on studying the Ranong Biosphere Reserve.
My ex-chief knew about a call for applications for the 2016 MAB Young Scientist Awards. It had been disseminated by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, which is the national focal point for the MAB Programme in Thailand. She encouraged me to apply. So, I did!
How did you use the grant in your work?
So, I used the grant for my transportation to Ranong to collect research data. I went there maybe four or five times, and I was staying there four to six days each time and paid for my assistant researcher.
Besides that, the grant helped with data collection, such as questionnaires, equipment, focus group discussions, and to organise workshops to share and check information results. I also used part of the grant to pay for the translation of the final report into English.
You now work at the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR), on protecting mangrove forests in Thailand. MAB is currently working to promote mangrove restoration as a nature-based solution to biodiversity loss and climate change, in the context of the twin UN Decades 2021-2030 (Ecosystem Restoration & Ocean Science for Sustainable Development).
Why are mangroves so important?
Mangroves are ecosystems that connect land and sea in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. So, mangroves are therefore very important to coastal ecosystems, not only as a large habitat and food source for coastal and marine life, but also as a ‘natural super-market’ for people.
They are also a natural barrier to coastal disasters. Mangroves help protect against coastal erosion. They help trap and filter waste and toxins from water flowing into the sea. They help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
We rely on them. They are a source of fishery resources, a source of fuel, and a source of vegetables and herbs. They are also a tourist attraction and a source of knowledge. Mangroves are really important to humans both economically and socially. A lot depends on mangrove restoration and healthy ecosystems.
So, your research project was on gender roles in the management of Ranong Biosphere Reserve. How did you come to this topic?
In 2015, I had participated in a workshop on ‘Applying Gender Integrated Planning in Mangroves’, some five months before I applied. I wanted to apply my knowledge and tools from this training to do research. Also, when I reviewed the literature, I found that we did not have information about gender roles in Ranong. That is how I found my topic!
When I started studying gender roles in the communities, the first thing I saw as important was to assess how well they were doing looking at them from a global perspective. Gender equality is an important topic, with much interest and concern globally. Gender equality has got its own a Sustainable Development Goal: SDG 5, to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Importantly too, the strategic objectives of the MAB Programme’s Lima Action Plan (2016-2025) emphasizes equitable societies in biosphere reserve.
In my opinion, studying gender roles, such as in the management of Ranong Biosphere Reserve, will help benefit activities and plans to achieve these goals - biosphere reserves, SDGs and national policies - which are the duties of my department.
In Thailand, gender equality has been enshrined in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand since 2017, and by extension in the National Economic and Social Development Plan, including the strategic plan for natural resource management, which takes us back to mangrove communities. So, my research was happening at that time, a lot was happening
Ranong is a really special area, for one it has the biosphere reserve status, but it is also the only biosphere reserve in Thailand that has mangrove areas.
I am very keen on social forestry and participatory processes. I like to talk with local communities to learn how they behave and what they need. In terms of natural resources management, we have to know what suitable direction can be taken, for them and for a sustainable society.
What did you learn from studying gender roles in Ranong?
In my view, gender inequality is an inconspicuous problem in Thailand. We generally think that it is not a problem because we live together, share work voluntarily and support each other’s work where each other’s skills are needed.
From my study in Ranong, I found that was the case in many ways. Both men and women in the communities get access to education, health services, infrastructure and news. They have equal access to group conversations. I found women have the same opportunities to lead the group as men, although the ratio was 70% for male leaders to 30% female leaders.
This relative equality is reflected in the main occupation of these communities, which is fishing. It is not just about whether it is men or women that play the major role in coastal fisheries, the main point is that they work together in cooperation.
For example, men go out to catch fish, while women do the house chores. Women process the fish when the men return home after fishing. On shore, both men and women repair fishery tools together. So, the roles are somewhat separated by gender, but they are separated because both men and women choose what they should do, what they think they have to do to support their family.
If you look at it closer, you can find that most women play more important roles than men. They exercise a powerful role behind the scenes. They take care of the household’s property, manage family finances and decision-making about children and family. However, women still tend to spend more time working than men overall, and a lot of them are effectively doing unpaid work or do not have a direct income, even though they manage the finances.
How did you use that research in your later work in mangrove management?
In 2021, with the support of the DMCR, we worked to improve the added value of activities typically undertaken by women or housewives. That way, they could improve their quality of life and generate income for their households, all while promoting sustainable mangrove uses.
For instance, we promoted mangrove forest products, such as soap made from Acanthus ebracteatus, tea made from Pluchea indica or souvenirs made from branches of Hibiscus tiliaceus. All of these plants, we find in the mangrove. Besides that, we also promoted food products usually processed by women, like shrimp paste and dried fish.
So, on one hand, we were helping women increase the household income and, on the other hand, we encouraged more women to take part in mangrove management. Most importantly, this created pride for women. They became more aware of their own abilities and importance.
It is also important to say that all the activities that we implemented in mangrove communities and in the Ranong area were not performed only by the DMCR. We worked with others in the government sector, NGOs, private companies and institutional networks. A lot was achieved through a sub-committee we have in the biosphere reserve, which comprises all stakeholders.
So, in terms of good practices in the Ranong Biosphere Reserve area - mangrove conservation, forest and marine resources were all improved simply by encouraging and supporting the use of community knowledge.
What can MAB do better for gender equality?
In my perspective, the concept of MAB covers important and relevant issues, because the concern is placed on natural biodiversity, socio-economic development and people, all of it together. It is an excellent concept.
When it comes to gender equality, MAB should emphasise its role in delivering practical activities that can be driven by women, as well as increase their knowledge and capability where it is relevant for their livelihoods and for natural resources. This will improve both male and female roles. It will be one step closer to achieving the equitable sharing of benefits.
Do you think there is an intersection between gender equality and protecting mangrove forests?
At the local community level, I think there is and I think it is a co-benefit.
There is the need for men and women to use mangrove resources for living, but they access and control natural resources differently, depending on their roles, activities in daily life and physical conditions. This variety of uses is beneficial, because they are tied to a variety of social values and norms.
The mangroves also get benefits from how women or men take part in protecting and managing them in different ways as well. For example, men usually join in heavy work activities and go outside from their home more than women. They do more mangrove patrolling, mangrove zoning and preparing areas for mangrove planting. Women usually join in mangrove plantations, group meetings or other communal activities. Women are often given the role of working areas closer to home and in the village, because women have to take care of their household and their children. So here, both roles are different, but complementary.
And at the institutional level?
As I have worked with the government sector, I will say that protecting mangroves or gender equality is not a government duty only.
At the national level, we try to find solutions to reach a concept that we call ‘Living together sustainably between Forest and People’. Since 2015, the DMCR has been able to use the Act on the promotion of Marine and Coastal Resources Management (B.E. 2558) to fill the gaps in participation of stakeholders and integrated management.
So, in my perspective, the intersection between gender equality and protecting mangrove forests at the institutional level is the participation process.
What role do you think mangroves will play in the future?
Because mangrove forests have very high biodiversity, their first role will therefore be to sustain and conserve biodiversity. But besides that, in my opinion, mangroves will be very important for tackling a whole range of issues.
Firstly, they play a big role in the forest carbon credit market. The DMCR is currently planning to increase mangrove areas through a mechanism where the private sector can participate in mangrove planting in exchange for carbon credits. Mangroves are a source of carbon dioxide absorption. Importantly, this is one of the mechanisms to reduce global warming.
Secondly, mangroves will continue to be a source of community-based economic development. That is an important dimension that will lead to the sustainable management of mangrove forests. It will be important to do more community participation and to promote the community economy to generate income. Sustaining mangroves, creating added-value and upgrading products from communities - all of this can drive the ‘bio-circular-green’ economic model. This will come with new distribution networks and marketing channels for mangrove products that will be necessary to support an emerging economy and make it worthwhile for communities to live from sustainably managing the mangroves.
Finally, and this is probably what is most important, we need to protect mangroves as a source of knowledge, as a learning resource. That is why ecotourism is important and mangroves should remain areas of natural recreation accessible to the public.
In fact, all of these roles are not roles for mangroves in the future. They are roles that we are already performing in the present, and they are challenging but necessary tasks to implement in order to achieve future success.
What could the World Network of Island and Coastal Biosphere Reserves (WNICBR) do about that?
I do not know about the WNICBR’s work on mangroves that much, but I would say networking between countries is a good and necessary thing. It should raise the importance of encouraging practical activities as well as work more directly with coastal communities to enhance their strength and self-sufficiency.
From your experience, what can we learn from coastal communities about our relationship with our environment?
Coastal communities have to depend on natural resources for living, so the communities have a deep connection with nature. They have a local wisdom to protect and use natural resources. Most of them realise the importance of resources and rely on them with a sense of value.
However, these communities are vulnerable to external factors such as natural disasters, climate change, the global economic crisis, the pandemic of COVID-19 and so on. Given these circumstances, it is unavoidable that they may demand more resources and even cause the depletion of their resources.
But in my view, I think sustaining natural resources cannot be achieved by enforcing laws to prohibit and limit the factor of ‘necessity’ for the livelihood of villagers because they have this long-standing relationship with their environment. It would be hard to force them to live differently. In the long-term, it would not benefit either the community or the long-term use of resources. We should instead encourage the internal factors of coastal communities, especially their capacity and knowledge for adaptation to go through these changing times socially and environmentally.
This could come thanks to more participatory forms of management, by setting a framework for using resources in the community and sharing benefits, so that they can get appropriate returns and have a good quality of life. This will help them to realise the importance of resource availability and mutual care.
Working with local communities has to take place over a continuous period of time and it takes a long time to see the results, on sustainable management for example. Therefore, it can be a challenge for the relevant departments or organisations to implement these participatory processes. It is a challenge if we want to truly drive social, economic and environmental sustainability, but it is a challenge that we are taking.
Last word, what advice would you want to give to young aspiring scientists? Particularly, girls and women?
I think we have different conditions from one country to another, so instead of giving advice I just want to encourage everyone with a good sentence that I remember from someone I respect. That is: ‘Control your destiny. There is nothing that perseverance cannot win’. So, keep the momentum and always be open for new opportunities and options. The MAB Young Scientist Awards might be your one option.
Thank you for these words and thank you for taking the time to tell us about gender roles and mangroves!
Thank you for having me, it’s been a pleasure!