With our country's forests dwindling dangerously, it has become common to hear forest bosses talking about themselves as heroic guardians.
Every time I hear such talk, I feel sick to my stomach.
Their narratives are always the same. The big enemy are the villagers who endlessly encroach on forests and mountainous areas. Scarce budgets and personnel are always cited to legitimise their failure to do their jobs.
The blitz on holiday resort investors by former national park boss Damrong Pidech is only a very recent phenomenon, mind you. Despite a lengthy public outcry against forest encroachment by big money, the forest authorities have always looked the other way. You know why. It is also why resorts in national parks have become so common.
When Mr Damrong started demolishing holiday resorts in Thap Lan National Park, he was turned into a national hero by the mass media which could not resist the hero/villain drama in the country's struggle to save the forests. Interestingly, he made a maverick move when he was close to retirement. Earlier this month, he declared he would become a politician, set up his own political party, and continue the heroic deed of battling forest encroachers in all guises.
With our forests in such grave danger, I should have applauded such a move. But I simply can't. For me, this simplistic hero/villain talk belies the complexity of the problem that primarily stems from the forest agencies' own environmentally destructive policies and top-down management.
This bad guy/good guy thinking is also rooted in the assumption that government officials are the good guys, that the law and related regulations are fair and have the forests' best interests at their core.
We know better than that, don't we?
Now, some people believe that the merging of the Forest Department and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation will improve their conservation performance.
I say don't bet on it.
Merged or not, both agencies operate using the same dictatorial forestry law which defies the local communities' constitutional rights to co-manage their forests. It also gives the forest bosses and the minister in charge sole authority to manage the protected areas the way they want.
When we only have 83 million rai of protected forest left, what do you think should be done?
Should we involve local communities to regenerate natural forests in order to preserve wildlife habitats and prevent floods and droughts? Or should we give this environmentally precious areas to tree farm investors and forever lose forest ecology and biodiversity?
This is what the Forest Department did. Out of the 83 million rai of protected forests, more than half of them have been earmarked as "economic forests" to be leased out to investors, such as tree farm plantations and quarries.
And how much do we get from these long-term land leases that will destroy natural forests forever?
The answer: 10 baht a rai.
That's right, 10 baht.
Isn't that ridiculous?
And while the forest authorities keep condemning villagers and forest peoples as encroachers, they continue to allow mining, quarries and road construction in pristine park land.
Meanwhile, stories of the forest authorities' abuse of power abound. The result is simmering frustrations among the landless against what they view as injustice.
In Krabi, the frustration exploded into fiery anger recently when oil palm investors continued with their plantation businesses even after their concessions had expired. When the landless people's land lease plea was ignored, they took over the expired concession land. A crackdown ensued and the landless people were forced out.
Actually, the forest authorities could have struck a deal with the landless to rehabilitate the old oil palm plantations and turned them into mixed forests to restore forest ecology. But business interests prevail at the Forestry Department.
Because of this money-first policy, we have lost millions of rai of forest reserves across the country for tree plantations. Many more millions of rai have been destroyed by the government's construction of big dams and support for cash crop plantations in the mountainous highlands.
Indeed, if Mr Damrong wants to continue his good guy/bad guy campaigns to protect the forests, he should simply look at his old organisation, for that's where the real culprits are.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Sanitsuda Ekachai
Position: Assistant Editor