Thiland: The Ripple-Effect

How an economic ‘hand up’ for one family created a powerful ripple-effect across the community.

Khun Ban Bongliu lives in Thailand with her husband and their daughter, Khun Puk, aged eight. The family home is near Khao Lak, a series of villages about 55 km north of Phuket on the south-west coastline. Khao Lak has a population of about 35,000 and most of the inhabitants are employed by the tourist trade.

A couple of years ago, Khun Ban’s husband was involved in a car accident which resulted in him having a foot amputated. He has been depressed and unable to work since; he does what he can to contribute, but it is difficult for him. Khun Ban is now the sole provider and works in a local beachside resort as a cook. The hours are long and the pay is low, but Khun Ban is grateful that work is available throughout the year enabling her to earn USD140 in a good month.

At the time when the tsunami struck, Khao Lok was beginning to make its mark as a peaceful, low-key alternative to the increasingly brash resorts to the south. Popular with those who wanted space and peace, including Thai royalty.

It’s now 26th December 2004 and Khun Ban is enjoying a rare day off work, although there are plenty of things for her to do around the house. Her village is situated a couple of kilometres inland at the foot of a large hill and in a deep jungle setting. The family home is a simple one-story structure made of concrete, sparsely furnished but noticeably neat and tidy.

Just before 10 am, Khun Ban is standing at the village pump doing the family’s washing, unaware of the horror unfolding out to sea. In just a few minutes’ time her village and the whole region will be hit by one of the worst natural disasters in living memory.

Just before 8 am a powerful earthquake strikes the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. Two hours later the resulting tsunami reaches Thailand, continuing its devastating journey across the region. Tourists are enjoying a tranquil morning on the beach when they witness the sea retreating rapidly from the shore. Children scream with excitement and families call out to each other to watch the phenomenon, not realising the sea will return, bringing with it widespread death and destruction. Those who eventually realise the significance flee in terror, but for hundreds it is too late - between 5,000 and 8,000 people will die in Thailand - in Kao Lak alone, 4,000 will perish.

Back in her village, Khun Ban heard what she later described as a monster, the roaring sound of the tsunami as it edged closer, the screams of nearby friends and neighbours and the horrific vibration in the ground around her. Not knowing exactly what was coming, but sensing she and her family were in grave danger, Khun Ban called to her husband and helped him and their daughter reach higher ground. The three of them watched the horror unfold beneath them, unable to comprehend what they were seeing.

“It is impossible to forget the monster, the beast,” remarks Khun Ban, “a watermark just below the ceiling of our home is a constant reminder. The hungry wave devoured all our possessions, our clothes, my daughter’s school books – our food, our beds, smashed, washed away, gone. But compared to others, we were lucky.”

In the days that followed, Khun Ban and her husband walked around in a daze, salvaging just a few of their possessions. Khun Ban was horrified to learn that the hotels on the coastline where she worked, had been completely washed away and scores of people had died including friends, family and colleagues. The low-lying terrain and rustic style buildings had been no match for the powerful tsunami, with its 10 metres-high waves.

Hearing news of the disaster, humanitarian aid-worker, Linda Cruse, immediately flew to Thailand where she began working in a large refugee camp. As part of her long-term, post-disaster work, in true Linda style, she persuaded the British Ambassador to host an event, the purpose to coordinate the efforts of businesses in the region who wanted to help, but did not know how. As a result, Linda and senior leaders from ManpowerGroup, Deloitte, Thai Bev, Nestlé, Abbott and the British Embassy formed a unique Be The Change (BTC) team.

It’s now early 2005 and the team are being introduced to Khun Ban by the headteacher of the local school. The team meet in the family home, which still bears the scars of the disaster. Khun Ban is dressed in a traditional light cotton batik sarong, tied firmly in a knot around her waist. The strong colours in the fabric, once bold and distinct, now faded to an indistinct grey. Her oversized white t-shirt, frayed and loose, ironically emblazoned with a smiley face – the logo of a local telephone company. The family are clearly traumatised, the three of them huddle close together on the sofa, not allowing even a breath of air to separate them.

The BTC team listen carefully as Khun Ban hesitantly describes the family’s situation, how they lost their only source of income and all their possessions, her husband unable to work and how they are finding it difficult to cope with what they have seen and experienced. Khun Ban’s voice frequently breaks with emotion whilst her husband remains totally silent. The local school teacher finally cuts through the emotion in the room and encourages Khun Ban to tell her story in full. Khun Ban’s words come out in a torrent whilst in contrast, her daughter remains motionless, like a rag doll, lifeless, eyes wide open staring into space, her head resting on her mother’s lap. Noticing the focus of our attention, Khun Ban says softly, “she hardly ever talks, she lost so many friends and saw so much.”

It was obvious to the team that helping this family must be a slow and careful process but at the same time it was clear Khun Ban was prepared to fight for her family.

In the days that followed, the BTC team began to consider not just Khun Ban’s family circumstances but the area in which she lived. When the team realised Khun Ban’s family had access to 500 rubber trees, an amazing business idea began to take shape. Previous generations had been in the rubber tapping industry and the family could make a living by returning to this traditional activity.

Rubber trees had been imported to Thailand from Malaysia in 1901 and since then rubber has been a significant industry, but in tourist areas rubber harvesting dwindled as local communities went to work in hotels and resorts across the region. Rubber is extracted or ‘tapped’ with a knife used to carve just the right amount of bark from the tree without damaging it.

Looking at Khun Ban’s face, the team knew they were onto a winning idea and over the next few days helped Khun Ban develop a business plan. Further research predicted the business would initially be able to produce up to eight sheets of rubber per day which could be sold in Bangkok for USD1.5 per sheet. The equipment required to start up in business was minimal, two pressing machines, 20 trays and a specialist knife. Total cost: USD300. The equipment was purchased in Phuket with funds donated by ManpowerGroup and Linda was one of the first in the team to attempt harvesting the rubber (pictured).

We catch up with Khun Ban and her family in July 2009, four years later. Khun Ban and her husband, pictured with members of the BTC team, are proud to pose for a photograph in front of their rubber harvesting equipment. Production is going well and Khun Ban’s husband is delighted that, despite his disability, he is now actively involved in the business. Each night, when the air is cool, he can be found moving from tree to tree, harvesting the sap. The family’s income has now increased four-fold and their future is secure. Khun Ban reminds us that the family never wanted a hand out, just an idea and encouragement about how to start again, how to regain their independence and secure their own future.

Both girls are doing well at school and their parents need little encouragement to share extracts from share glowing school reports – the children run around us, lively, happy and carefree. It is almost impossible to believe that the animated twelve-year-old girl in front of us is the same lifeless creature we met four years ago.

The family’s new business is so successful, Khun Ban has been able to employ five additional employees but the story doesn’t end there! News of the new business spread from one community to the next, right across the coast. Numerous rubber tree plantations, largely dormant when tourism took over, have been revived and are providing a steady, reliable income for hundreds of families across the region. Khun Ban’s business has had a powerful ripple effect that none of us could have predicted all those years ago.

ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT

  • Prior to Be The Change intervention, work in the tourist industry was poorly paid and Khun Ban was earning a maximum of US$140 per month.
  • After the tsunami struck, hundreds of families were left homeless and without a way of making a living.
  • Providing Khun Ban with the opportunity to start a rubber tapping business cost just: US$300.
  • Through determination and hard work, the family’s income is now US$500 per month.
  • The business has evolved into a family cooperative and the ripple-effect went right along the coast, one community to the next.