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Saw John Aung Thong of India to receive 2021 Seacology Prize

August 25, 2021

A committed advocate for the environment and culture of India’s Andaman Islands, Saw John Aung Thong, will receive the 2021 Seacology Prize. Saw John, a member of the islands’ Karen community, exemplifies Seacology’s vision of locally led island conservation. We look forward to honoring him at a ceremony on October 7. 

Hundreds of miles east of the Indian subcontinent, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to rich ecological and cultural diversity. The tropical waters surrounding the islands support countless marine species, including 200 types of coral, and a world-renowned and culturally important shellfish market. Roughly 80% of the islands’ surface is covered with evergreen forest, populated with hundreds of species of birds, mammals, and insects, many found nowhere else in the world. Mangrove trees ring the coast.

The Andamans’ unique location, between mainland India and Southeast Asia, has made the archipelago home to myriad ethnic groups since the first people arrived thousands of years ago. The Karen people came from Myanmar (Burma) beginning in the 1930s, when the islands were part of the British Empire, and today make up a small but significant part of the population of North and Middle Andaman Islands, with about 2,000 people scattered across several villages. 

With such low numbers, the future of Karen culture in the Andamans is uncertain. Webi, Saw John’s home village, is the site of only one of two schools in India that teach the group’s language. Cultural knowledge like that passed down to John by his father, one of the last traditional healers in the Andamans, is at risk of being lost. When large-scale commercial development began to arrive on the islands, Saw John grew alarmed as the strong ties between the Karen and their heritage and environment began to erode. For nearly three decades, he’s been working to protect the environment, develop sustainable livelihoods for members of his community, and repair fraying cultural ties. 

After joining the organization in the 1990s, he worked his way up to Operations Director of the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team (ANET), supporting field research to discover new endemic species on the islands, and other projects. ANET has led initiatives that helped local people grow low-impact crops and greener building materials. After the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the group was instrumental in efforts to protect and restore mangroves around the islands, shielding coastal communities from future storms.

With ANET, Saw John helped found Andaman Karen Crafts (AKC), a local cooperative that teaches skills in traditional Karen handicrafts and cuisine, so local people can produce and sell traditional goods. In a plant nursery established by AKC, he has shown community members how to cultivate and use the plants that form the foundation of Karen recipes and traditional medicine. Seacology witnessed Saw John’s passion for his people and their islands when we worked with ANET and AKC on our 2014 project in Webi Village.

“Saw John is proud of his Karen cultural and environmental heritage and gives back with action rather than fanfare,” said field representative Vineeta Hoon, who first met him more than two decades ago. “When I think of him, these words come to mind: Unassuming, quiet, compassionate, kind.”

Saw John helped establish a nursery for traditional produce and medicinal plants on Middle Andaman Island.

Members of the local community display traditional Karen woven goods at the AKC center.

When it comes to advocating sustainable ecotourism, Saw John leads by example. He converted part of his family’s home, which sits on a small organic farm, into an inviting homestay for visitors to the isolated islands. The first ecotourism destination of its kind in the Andamans, Koh Hee (“Island Home”) also serves as a comprehensive introduction to Karen culture for its guests. Traditional tools and other cultural artifacts are proudly displayed on the walls, and the shelves contain Saw John’s extensive collection of books and articles about the Karen. Saw John and his family are happy to guide visitors through the forest to see wildlife, or to introduce them to village elders. Countless guests have enjoyed his hospitality and gained an authentic understanding of his culture. Even as the pandemic has severely impacted tourism on the Andamans, Saw John’s quiet optimism has stood as a source of inspiration and morale for his community and beyond.

“John is one of the most genuine examples of using tourism as a tool for community development and conservation,” said Anna Alaman Torres, CEO of Open Eyes India, an organization that connects travelers with small-scale responsible tourism providers. “We need to give more visibility to John’s initiative. We need to show inspirational examples integrated with nature. And we need to support them before it is too late.”

The 2021 Seacology Prize Ceremony will be held online and streamed on YouTube and Facebook on Thursday, October 7, at 7 p.m. Pacific Time.