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Moken people Swiss recycling project empowers Thailand's sea nomads

trois enfants assis devant une maison en bois

The Moken sea nomads are among the few remaining hunter-gatherers in the world

(Olivier Grivat)

A Swiss foundation works with the Moken people – sea nomads who are among the few remaining hunter-gatherers in southeast Asia – to recycle piles of waste that line Thailand’s coast. Their initiative helps protect the environment and provides valuable jobs for the indigenous people. 

Nearly 15 years ago, the tsunami that hit on December 24, 2004, exacted a heavy toll on the Mokenexternal link, nomads who live along the coast and islands in the Andaman Sea. Living by the water’s edge, the giant wave swept away their houses and boats. For the animist peoples who migrated from southern China 4,000 years ago, the tsunami was not caused by an earthquake but by a giant crab living deep under the Indian Ocean; the crustacean’s frolicking was responsible for the massive tidal wave, they believe. 

Laurence Pian, from canton Vaud in Switzerland, lost her two boys, aged eight and 12, to the tsunami that hit Khao Lak on the west coast of Thailand. Moved by the fate of the Moken, who were unregistered and without identity papers, she created the Jan & Oscar Foundationexternal link in 2005 to help Thailand’s poorest peoples. She was immediately convinced of a project with dual benefits: cleaning up the water and shorelines while at the same time providing a new source of income for the sea nomads. 

“Waste has a price. If you can recover PET bottles, old nylon nets that cover the ocean floor and plastic bags, then compact them and resell them for recycling, everyone will benefit,” said Pian.

Une femme remplit d'eau une tasse tendue par deux enfants

Laurence Pian created the Jan & Oscar Foundation in 2005 after her two children died in the 2004 tsunami

(Olivier Grivat)

Non-existent people 

“The Moken are not entitled to any social assistance from the countries in which they live,” explained Phillip Van Wyck. Born into a wealthy family of farmers from Pretoria during the Apartheid era, he studied mechanics before working for Christian organisations. The 44-year-old has been living in a Moken community on the border between southern Thailand and Burma for ten years. 

The spartan lifestyle suits him perfectly. The inscription ‘Mr Smiley’ which adorns his T-shirt fits perfectly with his radiant smile. Yet he lives as simply as the poorest of his entourage: rainwater is collected from his roof, electricity is provided by solar panels and his wooden cabin is cooled by the ocean breeze.

Deux hommes assis par terre avec deux enfants

Philip Van Wyck has lived with the Moken for around ten years

(Olivier Grivat)

Moken men build their traditional wooden boats, called kabangs, by hand. But the development of protected areas sometimes forces them to abandon their nomadic life as they cannot cut down the large trees needed to build their boats. Their income is also impacted by pollution. Plastic bottles block their nets and the waste is sometimes more abundant than the fish. 

There are around 2,000 Moken people but they do not appear on official registers or in the census. When the women give birth, their children are not registered. When the Moken marry, there is no official ceremony sanctioned by the state. Without papers, there is no work or social security for these people who live well below the poverty line. In the eyes of the authorities, they do not even exist.

Un homme porte un modèle de bateau dans ses mains

Salama Kla-Talay, one of the oldest Moken, with a model of a traditional kabang boat

(swissinfo.ch)

Plastic: don’t burn it, recycle 

After more than 15 years working in finance, Geneva biologist Michel Pardos, 53, works voluntarily for the Jan & Oscar Foundation on this project. He is preparing to spend two months in Ranong, 600km south of Bangkok, to manage the ‘Moken Guardians of the Sea’ projectexternal link. A plot of land with a hangar has been rented close to the edge of a canal to collect old plastic, and a press has been purchased to compact the bales which are then transported by truck to a new life. 

Unlike copper, glass or old paper, the recovery and reuse of plastic is not yet well developed. Often, authorities burn plastics instead of recycling them in a sustainable manner. But the combustion of these plastics releases dioxin, furan, mercury or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) into the atmosphere. These chemicals are extremely toxic and volatile, and when they accumulate in the human body, they are responsible for cancer and hormonal and nervous system problems.

Un homme regarde un amas de plastique en train de brûler

Michel Pardos from Geneva is a volunteer at the Jan & Oscar Foundation

(Olivier Grivat)

Thanks to this initiative, the young Moken can learn about communication, the use of social networks, marketing and ecology. This will give value and structure their activities by providing them with good working conditions.

“In Thailand’s south, it’ll be all about convincing the Moken to recycle plastic alongside their fishing activities. It is a real job and not just help that throws money at them. They have to take care of themselves,” said Pian.


(Translated from French by Sophie Douez), swissinfo.ch

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