Koh Samet's serenity shattered by development and disputes
Despite its national park status, the once-peaceful isle is now a highly coveted resort and the long-time residents are squeezed between encroachment charges from the parks department and unregulated rentals by the Treasury Department
As we arrive at the exclusive five-star beach resort on the southern tip of Koh Samet a young security guard approaches us and asks us where we think we are going.
LOST ACCOMMODATION: These bungalows at a popular resort are being demolished.
We tell him that we want to go to Ao Kiew beach in front of the resort and ask for directions on how to get there.
He replies that the easiest way to get to the beach is walking through the entrance of the resort, but visitors are not allowed to access the area as it is reserved for guests.
If non-guests would like to go to the beach, he says, they must climb over rocky cliffs from Ao Wai on the resort's northern side or Ao Pakarang on the opposite side of the island. This may take a few hours, he says, making it clear that we are not welcome.
Once on the beach visitors are surrounded by resort security guards who pressure them to leave as quickly as possible.
"In short, it means you are not allowed to be around here," the security guard says.
The claim that the area is reserved for guests is ironic, given that the beach and land are located on Khao Laem Ya-Mu Koh Samet National Park, which was declared a national park in 1981. How the resort came to be located in a national park is a complicated issue involving the navy and the Treasury Department.
National park chief Arkhom Namkham said all beaches on Koh Samet are public property and administered by his department and the Marine Transport Department. The Rayong Treasury Office, which rented the resort the land, said they had not rented it the beach as it was public land.
Koh Samet natives are angry about the proliferation of the resorts, although historically their claims to the land may be seen as tenuous.
Eighty-year-old Nongyao Charoenphol _ known as Grandma Khaen _ is one such native who sees no justice in the resorts laying claim to the land when she has lived on Samet since she was a teenager.
"See for yourself," said Grandma Khaen. "I have lived here from age 16 until 80 now, but have not had any right over the land and never laid such a claim. They [the resort owners], on the other hand, can do that."
TRANQUIL NO MORE
Koh Samet, with a total area of about 4,200 rai, is a relatively small island, but because it is fairly close to Bangkok and has fine beaches it has long been popular among tourists, as well as resort developers who have invested hundreds of million baht there.
BUILDING BOOM: A woman walks by a sidewalk sign announcing a new development on Koh Samet.
The first tourists were backpackers happy with modest accommodation who began arriving in the early 1970s. They mingled with islanders whose families had lived on the island for generations without seeing a need for titles to guarantee their rights over their land. An investigation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) conducted late last year found that many were descended from people living along old Siam's eastern border who had fled the Franco-Siamese War of 1893. Others were just criminals seeking to start a new life or hide out on the island, like Grandma Khaen's father, who she said was an armed robber, something of a highwayman.
Regardless of their origins, the island residents lived in tranquility, fishing and farming arable stretches from the beaches to the foothills. The Samet islanders never laid any formal claims on the land partly because they were assured by their village heads there was no need for title deeds. No one foresaw a day when the island would become a tourist magnet, drawing higher-end tourists and bringing them revenue but also major problems.
In the late 1970s, commercial fishing trawlers brought a new threat to the islanders and their fishing grounds. Partly to protect the fisheries, state authorities came up with the idea to declare the island part of a new marine national park.
In 1981, the whole of Koh Samet, from the beaches to the hilltops, was included in Khao Laem Ya-Mu Koh Samet National Park. This may have protected the fisheries, but residents feared it also left them open to charges that they were trespassing on park land. The state made a promise to native islanders _ at least 46 families _ that their land, about 700 rai in total, would be excluded from the new national park. But the promise has never been legally formalised and some of these families have been engaged in land conflicts and court battles ever since.
A new and momentous development came in 2000 when a government committee charged with solving encroachment problems found that parts of Koh Samet were state land because there was evidence that the Royal Thai Navy had made use of the island in the past. Therefore, parts of the island used by the navy could be transferred to the Treasury Department, which normally administers state land.
Treasury Department regulations say state land can be rented under conditions set by the department. These include, first of all, that those living on the state land must transfer their properties, especially those built for business purposes, to the department. They can then rent the land and the properties back from the department under a fixed-period contract.
RENTALS AGGRAVATE PROBLEMS
The Treasury Department began offering rental of the 700 rai formerly promised to the islanders to these same residents. To many people on Samet, the arrival of the Treasury Department was seen as a way of resolving unsettled land conflicts, as they would no longer be arrested for encroaching in the national park and be allowed to live in peace. Some islanders, however, say the arrival of the Treasury Department just aggravated existing land problems.
According to some islanders engaged in legal battles as well national park staff Spectrum spoke with, since the Treasury Department began offering rental of the 700 rai, the family plots have been divided up into smaller pieces and change hands easily. As the land prices skyrocket, tens of millions of baht for some resorts, the rental rights to land plots are sold quickly and fall into the hands of outside investors.
Therefore Koh Samet has seen uncontrolled development, constantly becoming more crowded with each new construction. The overall environment is also left unattended, and the island has become increasingly polluted with garbage, wastewater, and so on.
Since the resort investors rent the land from the Treasury Department legitimately, they have tended to think they can do anything they wish on it, despite the fact that the actual status of the island is that of a national park. The NHRC's investigation reaffirmed this by finding that the Royal Thai Navy had used only a few rai of the land on the island, and therefore almost all of the Koh Samet island should be considered part of the national park.
Now investors are becoming worried, especially since the dismantling of resorts adjacent to Khao Yai National Park by the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department.
Earlier this month the department extended by two months the deadline for the demolition of three resorts determined to have been illegally built on Koh Samet following petitions from the resort operators. Department director-general Damrong Pidech has ordered a halt to the construction of a 170 million baht pier allegedly built without the department's permission, and ther has been partial demolition of some resorts.
A rumour is spreading on the island that some resort operators do not want to run their businesses any more, and that an unidentified tycoon is offering to buy up their properties.
According to one senior national park official, staff at Khao Laem Ya-Mu Koh Samet National Park are reluctant to take action against resorts because of the involvement of the Treasury Department, which claims it has the only authority to rent the land.
"We are hesitant," said the official. "The land on the island falls into a grey area because the resort operators have rental contracts." However, parts or all of many resorts allegedly sit outside the 700-rai area that was promised to residents. Records at the Tambon Phe Administrative Office show there are 63 resorts on the island, 44 of which are renting land from the Treasury Department and 19 which are not.
A senior official of the Rayong Treasury Office told the NHRC that the Treasury Department can rent out land both inside and outside the national park. However, if it is in the national park, resort operators must first ask for approval for blueprints of their proposed developments.
When asked about this, the senior park official said the national park would allow development to take place only in the 700-rai area, and if it finds any buildings outside the area it "will not not spare them".
LOOKING FOR SECURITY
Grandma Khaen pointed out one high-end resort on a cliff not far from her family land, and asked how anyone could build a resort over the cape. She insisted the area had never been occupied by islanders as they regard it as an area for communal fishing and collecting native plants. She believes it must be a part of the national park. Grandma Khaen's children now operate a modest resort on her familyland.
For those who have been fighting land disputes through the courts for over 20 years, the arrival of the Treasury Department introduced an element of insecurity into their land claims. They point out that the rental contracts must be renewed every three years.
"It's not about the fees that we have to pay, but about having a secure claim to the land we rent," said Chanchira Sangsuwan, part owner of the White Sand Resort, which has chosen to fight in court for its claim to about 20 rai that Ms Chanchira says is ancestral land. But those who have made similar decisions have not had much success. Some have already lost court cases and been required to vacate land, largely because they lack documentation to back their claims.
Ms Chanchira, a 34-year-old university graduate, said most islanders are no longer trying to obtain land title documents, but she says there must be some way to secure their rights to live on the land and make a living from it, as well as to pass those rights on to their children.
Last year the NHRC held a meeting with islanders and concerned government agencies including the Parks Department and proposed solutions which were agreed to in principle by all parties. Permsak Makarapirom, vice-chairman of the NHRC's land and forest subcommittee, told Spectrum last week that the ongoing land rights problems at Koh Samet reflect flaws in state efforts to work with local residents.
Moreover, by pulling in the Treasury Department, the problems have escalated as land can be rented without any controls to protect the environment from overdevelopment. This is because the department is tasked only with collecting rental fees and doesn't take any responsibility for the consequences.
Meanwhile, Mr Permsak said, the Parks Department is not offering viable alternatives, but only threatening to strictly enforce laws against villagers who may have legitimate land claims. He said that land conflicts should not be a black and white issue; the state on one side, and the villagers on the other.
He said a new platform of "collaborative management" should be created to resolve the conflicts. Under such a scenario, the state would act as a supervisor, while allowing the villagers with legitimate claims to live on the land and be tasked with helping to take care of the environment in return.
Mr Permsak also proposed setting up a special fund to take care of the environment.
Once established on Koh Samet, he said, this could serve as a model for the resolution of similar conflicts in other national parks.
The NHRC has no answers yet for the newcomers who rent land from the old-time residents, said Mr Permsak. He added that it is not right to allow rich people to take advantage of current flaws in land management policies to take over the island plot by plot. As a national park, the island is supposed to be accessible to all.
"It is unacceptable that national property be limited and reserved for certain groups just because they have money," he said.
About the author
- Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang