By PIYAPORN WONGRUANG
THE NATION WEEKEND
“Lom Nok”, or the seasonal easterly wind, has started to blow inland, signalling 64-year-old farmer Samruay Rerng-iad of Pak Pra village to rush to her “Na Le”, the unique semi-flooded rice fields on the upper rim of Songkhla Lake, to harvest her rice before rains and run-offs from the Bantad mountain range arrive.
By the time the run-offs hit, migratory fishes, including economic “Look Bre” fish, will start their long journey from Thale Luang – the second uppermost part of the lake – into Pak Pra canal, which is connected to the lake’s uppermost part at Thale Noi, where the country’s first Ramsar site, Phu Khuan Ki Sian is located, to breed.
The natural cycle of seasonal monsoons has long been shaping the unique ecosystems of Songkhla Lake, the country’s only lagoon and complex wetland_especially its upper parts which are still not much disturbed.
They have been influencing the unique way of life that can’t be found anywhere else in the country, sustaining people’s livelihoods and their self sufficient economy for decades – if it is not destroyed by a new sluice gate planned on Pak Pra canal. (See Sidebar)
“It’s still very natural here, and we don’t want anything more or want to become rich. We are self-sufficient and feel contented,” said Samruay, referring to her Na Le and the environment around her community.
Like other farmers in this community of Pak Pra, Samruay has long been utilising the environment on the upper rim of the lake to her benefit. As sea water and fresh water bring nutrients to the soil along the rim of Thale Luang, locally known as Lampam Lake, Samruay and other farmers begin to sow the seeds of rice on the rim of the lake from June onwards.
They would then let them grow into saplings for about 30 days before replanting them on the muddy soil. The rest of the work involves simply waiting with patience for the rice to grow over the next four or five months before harvesting, as the run-offs come and bring nutrients to the soil again.
Sutida Bunyadisai, a graduate of the Arts programme in Cultural Resource Management from Silpakorn University, conducted a study on Na Le three years ago. She found that the farmers had accumulated knowledge to the point where they were able to adjust their farming style to benefit from their ever-changing natural surroundings.
She discovered that the farmers’ semi-flooded muddy rice farming is unique and found only on the rim of Thale Luang, where the Pak Pra community of Tambon Lampam is based.
Based on available records and documents she studied, Pak Pra is among the old communities of Songkha Lake, with history that could be traced back as far as over 100 years. It’s a farm-based community, where the residents mainly grew rice and fished in the lakes and canals, including Pak Pra, one of the major canals that feed fresh water to Songkha Lake.
Farm produce and fish left from household consumption would be processed and sold in the market or via a middleman who came to their community to buy their produce. Aside from fishing and farming, some residents also engaged in livestock, raising cows and buffalo.
It had been like this for ages, before Na Le was introduced by some farmers in the village, who sought ways to make up for their declining rice yields.
Sutida learned from her in-depth discussions with the local residents that Na Le was first introduced to the community about 90 years ago. Pak Pra resident Puen Chaikaew, 87, told Sutida that Pak Pra in the past faced serious droughts and they could not harvest rice, so his mother decided to move from inland farm plots to the rim of the lake.
There, she tried sowing rice seeds in the muddy soil, and it turned out that her rice grew well with good yields. Since then, a number of her neighbours had followed, resulting in Na Le being practised extensively among Pak Pra residents.
Sutida learned that as much as six kilometres of the rim of Thale Luang has been turned into Na Le. Although the area has shrunk almost in half, several farmers still carry on Na Le rice farming.
Farmers grow rice on the soil in front of their houses, where it's not called a rice field but “Thon” or a part. Each Thon is separated by a small waterway, which is also for boat travelling to Thale Luang.
Every year, when the water in Thale Luang recedes, around June, the farmers grow rice in their Thon. The farmers also utilise their local knowledge of rice varieties and tend to use native rice varieties that can withstand salinity and flooding, such as Sangyod, Look Da, Look Daeng, Look Khoh, Don Sai, Leb Nok, and others. Some new varieties have just been introduced in recent years as they take a shorter period of time to grow and be harvested.
After sowing seeds and replanting the saplings, the rest of the work is left to nature.
“After growing them, I don’t have to do anything further. With the right timing, I have enough water and enough natural fertilisers. When the “Lom Nok” comes, I then know that it’s the time to harvest my rice … that’s it,” said Samruay.
Na Le was popular among Pak Pra farmers until the early 1990s, when it started to decline. Sutida cited this as the second period in Na Le’s history, when a number of Pak Pra residents turned to more modern occupations, while the younger generations went to school and left the community.
After 2010, some young people came back to their community. An appreciation of their roots and traditions was promoted, partly due to the images of Phatthalung-born photographers that were circulated on social media. They caught more and more public attention nationwide, and prompted Na Le to become one of the renowned and iconic tourist attractions of Songkhla Lake and its Thale Luang.
“People come to see it, and it’s something that I’m proud of,” said Samruay.
Look Bre fish
Almost at the same time, when the run-offs travel through Pak Pra canal and arrive at its mouth at Thale Luang, Pak Pra fishermen, including Sommai Chiawnoi and his sisters-in-law, Khiaw and Tui, who are in their 60s and 70s, would shift their fishing in Thale Luang to Pak Pra canal.
As the run-offs flow down from the Bantad mountain range, they know that it’s the time when Look Bre fish travel from the lake to the canal to breed.
Almost every 30 minutes in the morning and in the evening, “Yor Yak”, the giant fishing traps that cost about Bt10,000 to Bt15,000 each, are dropped into the water and lifted up to try to trap the fish.
Each kilogram of live fish could earn them about Bt50 to Bt60, but if they spend more time sun-drying the fish they could earn up to Bt250 per kilogram. Look Bre has become the most lucrative fish here, earning enough income to feed their families, and being fundamental to Pak Pra's economy.
During the run-off season that lasts until December, Sommai said they could earn at least Bt400 to Bt500, or possibly Bt2,000 to Bt3,000 if they accidentally catch other migratory fish.
The extraordinary scenery of “Yor Yak” in Pak Pra and its mouth connecting to Thale Luang, is an additional attraction to the area, providing a beautiful backdrop to the new trend of eco-tourism that has become a new aspiration for the Pak Pra community.
Pak Pra residents neatly prepare food and sweets once the annual Sart Duen Sib merit making has arrived despite hard work in the fields and in the lake. The ritual is held to make the merit to their ancestors, becoming attracted to outsiders.
Pak Pra’s eco-tourism
Around Pak Pra’s river mouth, a group of new buildings and small resorts is being built to accommodate visitors who come to appreciate Na Le and Yor Yak, as well as other natural spots of Thale Noi and the Ramsar site of Phu Khuan Ki Sian nearby.
About 10 years ago, the sons of Thale Luang, including Supasek Opitakorn and Parin Plongmai, who were in their 40s, returned home to resettle.
Supasek still remembers how he played with his friends in the pristine wetland of Thale Luang and Thale Noi, and now how valuable the traditional way of life like Na Le and Yor Yak is.
Along with friends, he has been pushing tourism forward based on the community’s rich resources and traditions, as the area becomes better known to visitors, as a new attraction and eco-tourism site in Thale Luang and nearby is developing. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has also promoted it as part of its Amazing Thai Thae (Chic Thailand) campaign this year.
In the trips they organise, visitors are taken to see Na Le and the first light of the day with Yor Tak in the foreground, before going through the canals or to Thale Noi.
Management of boat trips is being developed, with fishermen taking turns to take visitors to see the places and people of Pak Pra. Boat owners can earn up to Bt1,200 for each boat trip, the rate that allows them to support their families comfortably without going fishing.
Further inland, new resorts are also being built, some by the families of fishermen, as they engage more in the tourism that is taking shape in the village.
Supasek said the arrival of the news of a sluice gate being planned on Pak Pra canal last month was a blow to the villagers’ aspirations. While they have managed to find ways to extend their livelihood based on their traditional way of life and appreciation of their environment, the Pak Pra sluice gate plan could destroy all their efforts.
“We have decided and been pushing forward eco-tourism, as it would help people to appreciate the values that we have, and with that we can lead a sustainable way of life in this modern time.
“…I can’t really figure out why they want to do this [build the sluice gate]. It just doesn’t make sense [with a claim to help the locals to farm better, thus live better],” said Supasek.
Aunty Samruay said no to the project during the recent photo art exhibition in support of the opposers of the project.
Parin also said no to the project during the photo art exhibition. Photo credit/ Santi Setsin.
Sidebar: Sluice gate plans
Plans to build a sluice gate on Pak Pra canal, one of the major canals of Songkhla Lake, is not a new proposal. The Royal Irrigation Department claims that it was introduced upon the request by the community leaders a year ago as the community faced drought and sea-water intrusion.
With the sluice gate built on the canal, the department expects to intercept sea water, thus allowing development of new irrigated area of nearly 22,000 rai (3,520 hectares), from the existing 27,800 rai.
An environmental impact assessment was completed in 2010 and the plan is now in the project survey and design process, according to RID chief Thongplew Kongjan.
Pak Pra residents, however, are concerned that the sluice gate will affect flows and water cycles in the lakes and canals in the area, including Pak Pra, thus affecting Na Le and fish species as well as their livelihood.
The new eco-tourism is based upon those assets, they say, and will be severely affected.
Residents interviewed by The Nation said they were not informed about the project until last month when their village head was invited to a meeting in the province and told of the plans.
Residents also claim some military officers and irrigation officials entered their residence compounds to conduct a ground survey without their knowledge.
Parin, who is a Pak Pra native, said the community leaders had denied in the recent community meeting that they had ever requested the project. Facing droughts, they had requested only tap water and water pumps to relieve the situation.
The villagers claim that salination has occurred just once in the past 30 years.
Parin said the project would likely affect the water flow and the ecosystems of the lakes and the canals. The Ramsar site, he added, would also likely be affected as the canals and the lakes are interconnected.
The construction of gates and dykes to intercept sea water in and around the lake is not a new idea. According to the Songkhla Lake Fishermen Association and alliances, the RID has been pushing for projects to turn Songkhla Lake into a large reservoir since the 1960s, with sea water being seen as a threat to farming there.
Gates and dykes were first developed on the uppermost part of the lake. The Pak Rawa canal in Nakhon Si Thammarat province and several others connecting the lake to the sea were built, leaving a bottleneck on the lake’s lower part in Songkhla province to be open and connected to the sea.
Those opposing the projects said viewing Songkhla Lake as a freshwater reservoir is wrong. Based on its nature, the lake’s waters are mixed between sea and fresh water, resulting in brackish water that fits species’ survival.
The last project on the lower part of the lake in early 1980s faced strong opposition from residents living in the areas and from Thale Noi. It has not yet been built.
Somkiat Prajamwong, secretary-general of the government’s water policy and planning body, Office of the National Water Resources, said any water projects costing more than Bt1 million must be subject to consideration by the national water resources committee, which is chaired by the prime minister.
So far, his office has not received the project proposal from the RID.
Somkiat, who had studied the feasibility as a director of the RID’s policy and planning office, said the project had potential. However, he acknowledged the opposition by locals, which is a social aspect the RID has to deal with and settle before going ahead.
Cherdsak Kuaraksa, deputy director of Thaksin University’s College of Local Wisdom, said the ecosystems of Songkhla Lake are part of the eco-zone where Indochina ecological zone meets with the Malaysian zone, resulting in one of the world’s most rich biodiversity.
As the area is threatened by the project, his college would try to help settle the issue by coming up with a environmental economics study to assess the value of the place and its resources.
“Such biodiversity has inspired diversity of local wisdom here…That’s why we need to talk first. We need to consult with one another, and we need to figure out how valuable the place and its resources actually are,” said Cherdsak.