A walk in the park: Business as usual at 'encroaching' resorts

It's business as usual for many of the 140 resorts charged with building in Thap Lan and some that were demolished are starting anew. With a drawn out judicial process, the involvement of 'influential figures' and a new, less aggressive parks chief, conservationists are not optimistic about reversing the trend

oDwn a path leading into dense bush at Thap Lan National Park, Chaloem Jainok and her family are busy gathering wood for a New Year's Eve bonfire they're planning to hold at their resort, Ban Thong Kham. The resort has been fully booked since early this month, filling up with holiday revellers and those planning to see in the New Year here.

NOT THE LAST RESORT: Above, tourists are returning to Thap Lan National Park in Wang Nam Khieo district. Below left, Ban Pha Ngam resort, one of 140 resorts charged with encroaching on Thap Lan. Right, owners of this resort, formerly known as the Rai Kullavanich resort, plan to turn it into a dhamma training centre.

Not far from Ban Thong Kham, manager Kanit Pangnakorn is busy receiving guests at Im Poo Hill Resort. The reception area of the 16-building resort is buzzing with people and throughout the second floor restaurant there is the din of diners chatting and enjoying lunch. Im Poo Hill was also fully booked for most of the latter half of this month.

There is little evidence at either resort to suggest that they are among 140 developments former national parks chief Damrong Pidech charged with encroaching on forests that are part of Thap Lan in Nakhon Ratchasima's Wang Nam Khieo district.

Mr Damrong carried out major raids while he was national parks chief, resulting in 27 resorts being torn down prior to his retirement in September.

All 140 have been charged with forest encroachment and are subject to demolition under Section 22 of the National Park Act 1961. Some resort owners are fighting their cases in either the criminal or administrative courts.

Ban Talay Mok Resort, located on a hill by Road 304, was one of the 27 torn down during the encroachment crackdown. But now, less than six months later, there are signs of rebuilding. Spectrum saw what was left of the old buildings hauled away, while construction materials were brought in _ roofing materials, bricks, packs of cement powder and other building supplies.

While many of the resorts charged with encroachment plead their cases in court they remain open for business and welcoming tourists. Under the law, resort operators who have been charged with encroachment may continue operating, however officials involved can seek an injunction to keep them from doing so. This in turn can be appealed.

The legal back and forth can go on for as long as a decade.

Thap Lan Park assistant chief Nuwat Leelapata says allowing businesses that have been found guilty of encroachment to continue operating sets a dangerous precedent.

"When people are charged with forest encroachment, they should not be able to continue operations. If they have cleared nine rai of forest, with only one rai left prior to them being charged with encroachment, they should not be given the chance to destroy that one remaining rai," he said. "It's a challenge we must face to prevent such damage."

TWO CHIEFS DIVERGED IN A WOOD

The National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department's crackdown on resorts in Thap Lan over the past couple of years was touted as setting a standard for enforcement on encroachment that would serve as a model in other parks nationwide.

At Thap Lan, which covers 1.4 million rai, 428 parties were found to have encroached on park land; 140 of them were resorts. Of those, 50 with permanent structures in place had court rulings handed down against them, essentially giving the department the green light to demolish them under Section 22.

Demolitions were carried out on three occasions, with 27 resorts torn down.

Those that remain are fighting back. Some have filed their cases with the Administrative Court, while others have filed lawsuits against park officials.

The raid typified Mr Damrong's tough stance against forest encroachment by resorts. He was quoted in the media at the time as saying that the moves were necessary, otherwise resorts would spread elsewhere, including Khao Yai National Park, and degrade protected land for profit.

But Mr Damrong retired in September and it was not until earlier this month that a new director was named, Manophat Huamuangkaew.

The stark differences between Mr Manophat's approach and that of his predecessor to resort forest encroachment were apparent almost immediately.

Mr Manophat struck a more conciliatory note with luxury resort operators found guilty of encroaching on forest land, saying he would adopt a "less aggressive" approach than Mr Damrong. He favoured a "balancing approach", taking into account both natural resources management and economic and social development.

This might take the form of a programme allowing those encroaching on forests to rent the land, he said. "The rental measure is an option. But we must make sure that those in the programme are operators whose properties really are encroaching on forest land," Mr Manophat told the Bangkok Post.

Mr Manophat fell short of criticising Mr Damrong's approach to forest encroachment. "What he did was the right thing at that time," he said, a scant four months after Mr Damrong's retirement. "But for the time being, what we are going to do will be based on what will benefit the country."

PARK IT: Left, a list of visitors who have booked rooms at Ban Thong Kham Resort. Flora Park 2012 held at Wang Nam Khieo earlier this month.

Resort operators and those dependent on tourism in the area breathed a sigh of relief at the change of guard.

Im Poo Hill manager Mr Kanit said that Mr Damrong's crackdowns hit his bottom line hard. Mr Kanit said his resort had previously received as many as 20,000 tourists a year, while now there were less than 10,000, a drop he attributes to the negative press surrounding Mr Damrong's raids.

The situation is only improving now thanks to the high season and some early hope for optimism given the new chief's stance.

However, he said that even without the more conciliatory tone being struck by Mr Manophat, resort owners would be going about their business and letting justice run its course due to the significant investments they have made.

Those that have decided to close are mostly small resorts, but operators of medium to large scale developments are more willing to take a risk.

Thap Lan assistant chief Mr Nuwat said the legal channels open to resort operators mean that these cases could be tied up in courts for up to a decade. Regardless of the final judgement, the damage to the parks by then would be irrecoverable, he said.

He said new regulations or measures apart from Section 22 should be considered to protect forests.

Thap Lan chief Taywin Meesap told the Bangkok Post that if the resorts charged with encroaching are not demolished, park officials might be charged with dereliction of duty. "If the department no longer acts in the other cases, my staff and I might be in trouble."

'INFLUENTIAL FIGURES'

Mr Taywin said that the issue is complicated by the involvement of "influential figures" in the luxury resort business.

He said resort developments require large scale investments, but plots of forested land cannot usually be placed as collateral in exchange for loans to build the resorts because the parties seeking the loan do not have deeds to the land.

"The public should take a look at where and how they develop resorts and where the money is coming from," he said.

Changes to the laws concerning forests in national parks could mean that the land claims of influential people encroaching on forests could be legitimised.

HERE TO STAY AND AWAY: Left, crews are clearing away debris left from demolished buildings at Ban Talay Mok Resort while bringing in materials to rebuild. Right, Khlong Krathing Country View Resort is one of the few that was abandoned after a crackdown on resorts began last year.

"In line with the spirit of the law, is it right that they should become legitimate owners?" he said.

Mr Taywin said that powerful figures can stymie efforts to prevent encroachment through such measures as encouraging mobs to impede authorities, filing complaints with independent agencies demanding that officials be investigated and lobbying for amendments to relevant laws.

GOING AFTER THE ROOT CAUSE

The cat and mouse game currently going on between park officials and resort operators focuses on the end result and does nothing to address the problem at its origins, say some conservation advocates.

Sasin Chalermlap, secretary-general of the Sueb Nakasatian foundation, a non-profit conservation organisation, has studied the problem of forest encroachment in Thap Lan and believes its roots lie in a cabinet resolution passed in June, 1998.

Under the resolution, those who had been living on forested land prior to it being designated national park land, before 1981 in the case of Thap Lan, had the opportunity to prove that they had been living on the land. If the claim was verified, they could remain.

Plots of forested land changed hands frequently during that time, possibly as a result of the more flexible resolution, Mr Sasin said.

He said that at a minimum Mr Damrong's directive helped put the brakes on continued encroachment by resorts and the sale of forested land. The crackdown made it clear that those who encroached on protected forests would be held accountable.

However, that was not enough, Mr Sasin said. He suggested that a joint committee of community representatives and concerned authorities be set up to help tackle the problem while addressing all stakeholders' concerns.

Those involved must have access to up-to-date information, he said, which would mean overhauling forest management databases.

"The problem of forest encroachment by big resorts may not seem like a critical issue now, but it will become one in the future as our forests are gradually depleted," he said. "Our national forest policy must make it clear that encroachment will not be tolerated."

Thap Lan assistant chief Mr Nuwat said that there needs to be more of a stigma attached to those who destroy protected forest land for profit.

The value of forest conservation should be included in school curriculum to foster this spirit among children, he said.

But in the meantime, he said, those found guilty of encroachment should face more severe penalties rather than slipping through legal loopholes. His boss, Mr Taywin, agrees, saying that several policies are good in theory but when put into practice are often distorted to serve certain groups.

Like Mr Nuwat, he said the future of the country's forests lies with raising public awareness. If the public understands the issues and the importance of conservation, they are unlikely to stand idly by while their natural heritage is being destroyed plot by plot.

"If we still operate under a patronage system where powerful people can supersede our rights, we won't be able to solve any of these problems," he said.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang
Position: Reporter