Strong deeds needed from new forest chief
With the country's forest lands receding at an alarming pace, it's not enough to pledge to stop new encroachment as Manophat Huamuangkaew has done; to show he means business he must follow in the footsteps of retired chief Damrong Pidech and kick out existing resorts
The Seub Nakhasathien Foundation paints a grim picture of the state of the country's forests with its 2012 report, which estimates that in the last 50 years Thailand has lost 50% of its forest cover. The report says forests now account for only about one-third of the country's total area, or about 171,000 square kilometres and there are now only five provinces that have a forest cover of more than 70%. No wonder the foundation's secretary-general, Sasin Chaloemlap, says, ''We cannot afford to lose more forest and forest encroachment cannot be allowed and tolerated any more.''
DEPARTED CRUSADER: Former parks chief Damrong Pidech inspects a resort set to be demolished after it was found to be encroaching on national park land on Koh Samet.
Mr Sasin and other conservationists were heartened when forest officials started to reclaim forest areas taken over by resorts in some protected areas in mid-2011. But inevitably these actions were met with strong protests from resort owners accused of encroaching as well as their employees and others who make a living from the tourist industry. For now at least, the latter group appears to be winning.
There has been no more highly charged conflict over encroachment than in Thap Lan National Park, the country's second largest national park. Last year the new chief of Thap Lan, Taywin Meesap, and his assistant, Nuwat Leelapata _ with the help of hundreds of park employees _ began the forcible eviction of resort owners and staff and the dismantling of the facilities. Three crackdowns saw 27 resorts demolished, all with the blessing and backing of former national parks chief Damrong Pidech, who retired in September.
The parks department's strong actions were taken under Section 22 of the 1961 National Park Act, which addresses measures to remove any structure found to be illegally encroaching on forest land. Until last year, however, it had never been enforced on any major scale. In the past, actions against forest encroachers were undertaken against ''small'' people, farmers and ethnic villagers, and conflicts between them and forest officials were not complicated. However, the cases in Thap Lan are much different. As Mr Taywin observed, the encroachers in Thap Lan are influential, in terms of both money and power. Over a year-long investigation the parks department found that 400 or more supposedly private properties are sitting inside the national park and around 140 of these are resorts.
Complicating matters is that those accused claim that the land was cleared before they took possession of it, and therefore they have done nothing wrong. On this basis, teams of lawyers have made their cases to fight the charges. However, the fact is that whether the land is deforested or not, it is still within the national park boundary.
To save Thailand's forests a clear and hard forest policy is needed, and former national park chief Mr Damrong did the right thing in enforcing the law without compromise. Mr Damrong's policy yielded something unprecedented in Thai history; major forest encroachers have been charged and large illegal structures have been removed. Even more important, it showed that forests that have been encroached upon can be taken back if there is a will to do so.
However, the policy has shifted since a new forest chief, Manophat Huamuangkaew, was recently appointed after Mr Damrong retired in September.
In interviews Mr Manophat has said that further deforestation will not be allowed and the department will do all it can to block future encroachment activities, but he stopped well short of promising strong action will be taken in cases of existing forest encroachment.
For now he seems to be clinging to a cloak of vagueness, but did strongly imply that under his leadership the crackdowns will stop, promising a less ''aggressive'' approach, and to consider allowing the resort operators to rent forest land so they can continue their businesses.
As the national park chief Mr Manophat cannot be ambiguous, and considering the severity of the problem, if he really intends to do his job he has no choice but to commit to aggressively enforcing the law against not only would-be encroachers, but also existing encroachers. For one thing, the threat that they are likely to lose their investment is probably the one thing that will deter potential encroachers.
The resort developers are not completely to blame. There has long been confusion over land ownership, land rights and land use, and that has allowed them to operate in a grey area with the hope of never having to face up to the fact that they are operating their businesses on protected lands.
But regardless, it is clear that protected areas must not be allowed to fall under individuals' claims of ownership for their own personal or commercial uses. By enforcing the law and imposing punishments, which at the least must include surrendering all claim to properties on public lands, it will send a clear message that no one, no matter how powerful, is above the law and encroachment will no longer be tolerated.
As to whether existing structures should be removed or in some cases kept for public purposes, that is a secondary issue and decisions should be made based on what is good for the health of the forest.
About the author
- Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang