The colour of money is far from green

Some 30 years ago, Thailand had abundant mangrove forests which enriched the coasts and sustained the sources of fish and seafood for the whole country.

Unfortunately, these mangroves were annihilated by the government policy in the 1990s to promote shrimp farming for exports. What were once lush green mangroves have now become barren land with abandoned, empty ponds.

The man who led the push for prawn farming and turned a blind eye to illegal encroachment on mangrove forests was none other than the then director-general of the Fisheries Department, Plodprasop Suraswadi.

Back then, trawlers invaded the coastal seas, swept up marine life with fine nets, and devastated the seabed with destructive fishing gear. Nothing was done to stop them.

In the deep South, the plundering of the sea not only impoverished the locals but also fanned strong political resentment against the Bangkok-based government.

When Mr Plodprasop was in charge of the Forest Department, the health of the ailing forests continued to plunge. The policy to rent out degraded forests to tree farm investors virtually for free _ at 10 baht a rai _ continued unabated. In addition, vast tracts of natural forest were cleared for dubious state reforestation programmes that turned many officials into millionaires from sapling businesses.

During his tenure, the maverick forest chief also stepped up violent crackdowns on indigenous forest peoples and poor farmers, stoking land and rights conflicts in forests nationwide. Meanwhile, he opened national parks up to mass tourism while allowing mining to continue uninterrupted in forests.

Mr Plodprasop, now in charge of the Yingluck Shinawatra-led government's 350-billion-baht water management and flood prevention schemes, recently announced that he would push for the completion of 16 dams across the country within five years. They include the controversial Kaeng Sua Ten and Mae Wong dams. Given his track record in environmental protection, this should come as no surprise.

His announcement brought to mind a Thai saying _ hak dam pra duay khao (breaking the axe handle with one's knee) _ meaning the use of reckless force by a self-centred person to have their own way despite the certainty of negative repercussions.

Experts have consistently warned against the construction of the Kaeng Sua Ten Dam, saying it is too dangerous to have a dam on an active fault line. The dam, which would destroy the 60,000-rai teak forest, will also be unable to prevent flooding downstream, research has shown.

It is the same with the planned Mae Wong Dam in Mae Wong National Park. Studies have shown that the dam will destroy the habitat of many wildlife species, most notably tigers, while being unable to protect Nakhon Sawan from flood threats.

Neither project has the necessary environmental and health impact assessment approvals yet, as required by law. Nor have the 120-billion-baht floodway projects. Pushing for these schemes will certainly violate the constitution, but it seems that the government has figured out how to overcome these legal hurdles.

To start with, Mr Plodprasop, given his authority to oversee the Office of the National Environment Board, has already sought the dissolution of the board's expert committee on environmental impact assessment for state projects. Efforts have also been made to open protected wetlands to construction schemes.

In short, we have the man who wants to build dams also in charge of setting the rules to make them possible.

You cannot blame it all on Mr Plodprasop. He is just delivering what his bosses want. His policy stance is also simply a reflection of the mainstream money-comes-first doctrine we have seen from successive governments and officials.

Thanks to decades of grassroots campaigns, the charter has given residential communities the right to have a say on projects that affect their natural environment and way of life.

Here's the glitch. When a community is narrowly defined as an Or Bor Tor or Tambon Administrative Organisation, it's quite easy to buy approval when hundreds of billions of baht are involved.

We don't know if the 350 billion baht in water management schemes can prevent future floods. What we know for sure is that when political centralisation, lack of transparency, and corruption are the name of the game, there is no future for our environment.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor.

About the author

Writer: Sanitsuda Ekachai
Position: Assistant Editor