Renewable energy and ecotourism could be ‘green’ boost for rural Thai province

15 Oct 2012

imageUNDP Thailand/Elise Bjastad | Local villagers are excited about the ecotourism potential of the Grand Salt Lick, a large natural mineral and salt deposit that wildlife use to gain important nutrients.

MAE HONG SON PROVINCE, THAILAND - Millions of tourists flock to Thailand every year for its rich culture, exotic cuisine, and distinct architecture. But far fewer people make the journey into Thailand’s rural north. To catch the eyes of potential visitors, a rural province is trying a green approach. In rural Mae Hong Son Province, the combination of ecotourism and the push toward renewable sources of energy could give the province an opportunity to preserve a distinct cultural heritage.

As part of a broader joint UN effort to support the Province in Mae Hong Son in developing locally grown eco-tourism best practices, UNDP is exploring ways in which renewable energy can be used as a means to develop and promote ecotourism in underserved areas.

“Developing ecotourism and renewable energy at the same time is very rare. Engineers say it’s difficult to answer, but the simple solution is to start with the communities,” said Montra Leoseng, UNDP’s Project Consultant.

The UN project has three main goals: to enhance productivity, diversify the economic base and promote small business development, with attention given to vulnerable groups such as agricultural communities in remote areas, ethnic minorities, refugees in camps and migrants. The project also aims to promote sustainable natural resource management and conservation and increase access to social services such as health and education for vulnerable groups including migrants and camp-based refugees.

The focus on ecotourism is a part of the project’s goal of promoting sustainable natural resource management and conservation. Two communities have been selected as pilot sites in which the province’s community-based and green tourism potential are being tested: Muang Paem in north and Muang Pon in the south. UNDP has worked closely with villagers in these two pilot communities seeking opinions and expertise from people who know their area best.

“We found people talking a lot about the land. They talked about energy wasting during the last century and they spoke with pride that their communities had been putting renewable energy into practice for generations,” said Leoseng.

She said that communities in Mae Hong Son are anxious to reconnect with their cultural past—and make relics of the past something that people will want to see and learn from.

Eleven options have been put forward and debated in the two communities as a result of a local needs assessment survey, but two ideas in particular are generating local buzz. In Muang Pon, villagers are enthusiastic to bring back a water-powered rice pounding mortar, a traditional practice of renewable energy which has been abandoned for more than a generation.

"We have never seen krok nam (the water-powered rice grinding machine) but it is in our history,” said Suwit Warin, vice president of Muang Pon SAO.

Warin and others aim to create a cultural tourism resource that represents the knowledge of the community, and as part of this effort they aim to revive renewable energy technologies and water-resource management that are part their cultural heritage. This will also generate extra income for locals by selling products from the water-powered rice pounding mortar as souvenirs.

In Muang Paem, villages are interested in preserving the Grand Salt Lick, a large natural mineral and salt deposit that wildlife use to gain important nutrients. Villagers are optimistic that a local-learning site would not only attract foreign tourists, but educate and preserve Karen culture, which has deep ties to the forest.

"Children would enjoy the legendary of the Grand Salt Lick with abundant wildlife, birds and local wisdom. It will keep the spirit and the universal energy of the Karen Tribe. Teaching our children is the best way to promote conservation measure to protect our natural heritage before we lose it forever," said the Ban Muang Paem headman.

The UNDP’s research is a part of the UN’s Joint Program on “Integrated Highland Livelihood Development in Mae Hong Son” which aims to advance human security by bridging knowledge, policy, and practice in renewable energy development.