Tangled web behind illegal resort boom

Those occupying national park land in Phuket are using sophisticated methods buoyed by institutional corruption and the collusion _ unwitting or not _ of major banks

Last month, a major operation by forest officials to crack down on illegal resorts in Phuket _ including those located in Sirinat National Park _ was abruptly suspended after the department's chief retired.

former Parks chief Damrong Pidech was known for his tough policies against encroachers.

Following an investigation, local officials from the National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conversation Department had found major flaws in the issuance of land ownership documents for almost a dozen resort developments located in protected areas.

''What happened on Phuket may also be happening elsewhere in the country as it's widely done now,'' said a senior local parks official who helps oversee the Sirinat National Park.

Forest encroachment in Sirinat is more complicated than other cases recently exposed on Koh Samet in Rayong, and in Thap Lan National Park in Prachinburi province. The encroachers are using more sophisticated methods; including land occupation and fraudulent ownership documents which are then used to take out bank loans to develop the resorts and give their ownership claims more credibility.

The senior official, who requested anonymity, said the first investigation into forest encroachment at Sirinat and the nearby forest reserves of Khao Ruak-Khao Muang began after the crackdowns on resorts in Thap Lan National Park and on Koh Samet led by former National Parks chief Damrong Pidech.

Mr Damrong, while on a visit to Phuket in May, spotted a row of resorts on the mountains at Sirinat which sparked the inquiry.

The investigators identified at least 11 resorts suspected of having dubious land ownership documents. Some were also suspected of declaring ownership of areas larger than those specified in the ownership documents.

Following the investigation, park officials at Sirinat began checking on other locations. They suspected three more major resorts had encroached on Sirinat and surrounding forest reserves, as well as 366 other cases. The total area of encroachment by resorts was calculated at 3,000 rai out of 10,000 rai, almost one third of the park area.

property ads on a pavement in downtown Phuket.

The official said the problems started in 1954 when the government began the process of identifying the occupiers of land to begin determining land ownership.

After officials were informed of land occupation, a survey was conducted and the Sor Kor 1 document was issued to verify the land occupation. The issuance of Sor Kor 1 also required the occupiers to use the land. Most of the land occupation claims were verified by aerial photographs.

After obtaining the Sor Kor 1 land title documents _ known as Nor Sor 3 or Nor Sor 3 Kor _ could be applied for. Governors authorise the issuance of land title deeds in the provinces, while district chiefs can authorise the issuance of Nor Sor 3 documents.

The official said land documents for areas inside Sirinat Park started to be issued in early 1977, however, they went largely undetected as no building projects were underway.

Once he started looking into the land title documents, the official said he was stunned by the extent of illegal occupation and how complicated it was. In some cases the land was never occupied and in others claims over areas had been increased ten-fold from 20 to 200 rais.

He cited two resorts where two original Sor Kor 1 documents covering 20 rai and 17 rai of land, were expanded to 114 rai and 24 rai after the title deeds were applied for.

The official said investigators checked one of the titles against original aerial photos and found the shape of the land did not match the Sor Kor 1 document. They also found that the land was not being used for any purpose although the original occupiers said it was a rubber plantation.

The second Sor Kor 1 document did not match the papers issued by the provincial land department.

''It is convincing that the issuance of these documents did not adhere to the relevant laws,'' the National Parks' investigation paper said.

The official said: ''What we have been working on has reflected clearly to us that there is something wrong or questionable with our land document issuance process.

''We should question whether our land document issuance is accurate. From what we have investigated, we have found that the land issuance is far more flawed than what it is supposed to be.''

ROLE OF THE BANKS

The official said the banks _ wittingly or unwittingly _also played a major role in the deception as the land documents were used as collateral for loans to build the resorts. Even worse, the loans were rotated from one bank to another, leading parks officials to suspect this was a method of deflating land prices.

Spectrum contacted the Bank of Thailand, which oversees bank policies, to ask about the allegation of banks' roles in the dubious resort developments.

One official, who requested anonymity, said all documents certified by the Land Office were considered legal documents.

''Banks have no authorisation to check for further details of whether the land title deeds are legally issued or not,'' he said. ''The Land Office's document is the final piece of evidence for us. The banking system can only check the validity of the document on a basic level.

He said the problems in Phuket might be the result of a scam involving government officials.

''No matter how the dispute started, it can only indicate that the problem of corruption still exists in our society. I am not pinpointing anyone, but the officers who are involved with issuing the land title deed documents are the ones who started the problem.''

He added that he did not believe the encroachment in a national park area was an innocent mistake.

''The Land Office and the National Parks Department must know about the encroachment. Who is the the one who approves the land to be legally owned?'' he said.

''After all, the Land Office and the National Parks Department are the people who determine where the land boundaries are and whether it has encroached national park area or not.

''For example, National Parks divides the park area into various zones. Some zones are untouched and rich with trees; these are protected zones and they are not allowed to be owned by anyone for commercial purposes. But there are some zones that are in poor condition which can be owned with the approval of the national park director.

''If the chanote issued by the Land Office is in a national park area, that means both parties have to have agreed on it already. Therefore, they may be the ones who are involved with the land encroachment issue that is happening at the moment.''

resorts inside the national park have been operating for years, with some of them treating beaches as their private property.

When asked what would happen if the bank discovered the building loan was for a property on encroached land, the official replied that another piece of land could be used as collateral as long as the customer had a good repayment record.

Spectrum attempted to speak to the two resorts identified in the National Parks investigation as being built on encroached land, but neither responded to our queries.

Senior National Parks officials said they could not comment on the case until their new chief had been announced. The senior park official who Spectrum interviewed requested his name not be used as the Natural Resources and Environment ministry had recently issued an edict preventing officials speaking about the ongoing investigations into forest encroachments.

The parks official said it was time for all parties and agencies concerned to sit down and discuss solutions to the problem.

''If we want to place conservation as the first and foremost goal for our national forest resources, then we must ensure that the laws are being respected and are not violated like this,'' he said.

''We must make them see that any underhand methods to claim forest resources will not be tolerated.''

workers apparently preparing to build roads and structures inside the national park.

residences bordering Sirinat National Park.

About the author

Writer: Piyayaporn Wongruang & Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai