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Sean Panton's search for a better future

PHUKET: It’s been a busy few months for Sean Panton, the founder of Phuket-based environmental organisation SEEK (‘Society Environment Economy Knowledge’).

By Jody Houton

Thursday 31 October 2013, 08:54AM

As well as hosting Wednesday’s ‘Regional Coral Bleaching Workshop’ attended by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) no less, Sean has been travelling back and forth to Bangkok, launching a national partnership with IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and Marriott International.

“We’ve just worked out a three-pronged attack,” explains the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility & Corporate Experiences at JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa, with CSR responsibilities for Marriott Thailand.

“First is to develop sustainable food sources, like locally-fished seafood for example. Second, we’re buying and using hand-crafted products from mangrove communities.

“We now have Sea Gypsy ladies from the local village making our welcome bracelets for guests. We started them in business, trained them, got them loans and now order 5,000 pieces a month.”

The third prong, explains Sean, is to plant mangroves to help with reforestation. “It’s all about introducing integrated Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to the resort,” he adds.

All in all it’s been a pretty standard day in the office for the Briton, as ever since he was born – the only white kid in a Malawi hospital – he has been raised with an awareness of environmental issues in foreign lands.

“My dad was with British Technical Aid, and worked with local governments to irrigate land, initiate proper water systems, and promote health and safety all over the world.”

In fact, despite the broad southern estuary accent, it may surprise many readers to know that Sean grew up in various African countries until he was 11 years old, and also spent a stint in the Middle East and then on scholarship to the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, producer of such stars as Maria Sharapova and Andre Agassi.

Sean must have caught the travel bug at this young age, along with an uncanny knack for tennis that his father taught him, “My dad used to coach all the little kids wherever we lived, so I started when I was about eight years old.

“I turned out to be quite talented [at tennis] and so I did that for a while and actually worked as the Chinese National Tennis Wheelchair Coach for a good many years, and this is where I did a lot of travelling around Asia – Thailand, China and Macau.”

Sean later returned to Thailand in 1995 to work at the Regent Chiang Mai Resort & Spa (now the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai) to open a leisure and tennis facility, and it was there that, just like his father, he used tennis ‘as a sort of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) vehicle’, getting local children involved in the sport.

Sean laughs, “Although my interest in environmentalism and CSR probably lay dormant for many years, I suppose it’s always been there now that I look back in hindsight.”

He tells The Phuket News that after completing a compass sustainability programme in Phuket in June 2011, the potential for helping others hit him like a brick.

“I saw that through my enthusiasm, contacts and team building, I could really help make a difference.”

The day after he completed the course, he went swimming with his son ‘Dreem’ and rather poignantly both got an infection.

“We were swimming with plastic bags and other trash and I just knew that something had to be done.”

Soon after Sean founded SEEK and approached expat environmental heavy hitters Nick Anthony; Dr Robert Mather, the Head of IUCN Asia; Professor Richard Welford, Chairman CSR Asia; and Dr Chamniern Vorratnchaiphan, who was the head of the Thailand Environment Institute at the time.

In just two short years, SEEK has taken huge strides, from what was originally just Sean and some grand, foreign ideas to a Civil Society Organisation, re-branded with Governor Maitree’s help from an NGO.

“We’re always on the tip of people’s tongues now,” says Sean, “and are always invited to government meetings. It’s its own thing with its own momentum.

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“I’m really proud of it. We’ve created a lot of interest on the island, and when I look at the indicator report – 26 indicators, or rather 26 elements of Phuket society and infrastructure, which need to be addressed and assigned working models of implemented sustainability – it’s going to be a great help for everyone I think.”

The indicator report will be ready by the 2nd SEEK Annual meeting in November.

Sean also has reason to smile as the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation has received permission to go ahead with its plans of opening up a turtle sanctuary, along with on-site tank to house four injured turtles. It should be completed within a year

He has been involved in turtle conservation since its conception in 2002 when the JW Marriott first opened in Phuket.

“Mai Khao is the only place in Phuket where turtles still lay eggs, so, alongside John Gray and Dr John Mather, we opened the Mai Khao Turtle Foundation for Bill Heinecke, the owner of the hotel, to preserve the natural beauty of the Mai Khao eco-system.

Our first task was to get the locals to educate the village people to stop eating and selling the eggs. They were selling eggs so it was an income for them, therefore we gave them B500 for every egg they instead saved, to give to the Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC).”

Sean explains that the PMBC currently houses 45 injured turtles, but has an insufficient number of tanks to store them in.

“So when we [the turtle foundation] asked the PMBC what we could do, they said build us another tank, so we asked whether we could have it in Mai Khao instead so the local community could access the turtle education centre.

“There are plenty of kids in Phuket who hear all day about turtles but have never actually seen one.”

The turtle tank will provide a home for four adult turtles who can’t be released back into the wild, including minor turtle celebrity Tommy – a turtle born with no eyes.

As a single parent, Sean also spends much of his time taking caring of his 14-year-old son, Dreem.

“Hannah [Sean’s late wife] and I found him when he was 18 months old, in a sort of halfway house. She phoned me up and said there was something/someone I needed to come down and see, and so I did and I immediately felt an emotional connection.

“So we decided to get him well and give him a home. The adoption process took six years and we were the first Western couple to adopt a Thai child while living here.

“There are only a few times in life where you’re given the chance to make a really important decision, which is clearly either right or wrong. This was right,” says Sean.

In 2011, after having met in Thailand and lived here for 17 years, Sean’s wife died.

“It was a terrible shock and tragedy for us both, but it is not what happens to you that defines you it is how you react, so Dreem and I have decided to use the energy and channel it into positive work and do good things in Hannah’s name.”

The good work continues.



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