The Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) is a well-known flagship megaproject of the military government. The project aims to turn most of the land in the three provinces of Chachoengsao, Chon Buri and Rayong into industrial zones.
When completed, the project is expected to change the face of these provinces, especially Chachoengsao, known as a rich agricultural zone. It's been reported that around 18 plots spanning 35,788 rai in the EEC will be developed into new industrial estates. Eight of these plots will be in Chachoengsao, six in Chon Buri, and four in Rayong.
The project is expected to upgrade the country's industrial production to the next level.
Investments valued at least 100 billion baht are expected to flow into these projects annually between 2019-2022.
Investors, policymakers, and the public view the EEC as the new engine of growth in the country. However, residents in these provinces -- especially Chachoengsao -- look at the EEC with concerns about the potential environmental impacts.
Ready to go: Chachoengsao is famous for its mangos. Last year, mango exports to Japan and South Korea from the province alone made 42 million baht. (Photo by Sontanaporn Inchan)
Among their worries are that the new infrastructure would block flood-draining pathways and that pollution from industrial activities will contaminate their soil and water.
Most of the farmers in the local communities of Chachoengsao fear the development of the EEC will affect their land. The province is known for its agricultural activity as fruit from this region, especially mango, is becoming popular nationwide and is a profitable export product to Japan and South Korea,.
Last year alone, mango exports to Japan and South Korea from the pro- vince earned 42 million baht for the growers while other fruit exports generated another several million baht for the farming communities.
Moreover, there are fears of industrial pollution damaging the Bang Pakong River which runs through the province and serves as a lifeline for the local fishermen.
Their concerns are not unfounded. During the past decade, there have been a number of serious environmental problems.
For instance, in 2013, Prajob Naowa-opas, a village headman was shot to death in broad daylight over his links to a protest against polluting enterprises and garbage recycling plants.
Last year, police launched a crackdown against at least five electronic waste recycling plants in Chachoengsao for illegally accepting hazardous waste from overseas.
CALLS FOR BETTER PLANNING
One resident is especially concerned about the lack of a land-use plan to prevent environmental impact from industrial areas.
Conservationist and farmer Sara- yoot Sonraksa has asked for a land use ordinance to protect the so-called "Egg Yolk" or ecologically-diverse and fertile areas in the country.
One area that the Interior Ministry must protect is Klong Luang Pang -- which is connected to Chachoengsao's Bang Pakong River -- and is known for its ecological diversity, observers say.
Dodgy dealings: Workers at a waste recycling factory at Lat Krabang separate usable components from electronic waste illegally imported from overseas. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)
The low-lying plain covers both Chon Buri and Chachoengsao with fresh and saltwater around the estuary. This unique ecology helps make the area rich with nutrients and the canals a plush source of aquatic animals such as fish and shrimp.
The area's fertility and biodiversity have been under threat since the junta invoked Section 44 to establish the EEC, which will see most of these fertile fields transformed into a concrete industrial zone.
CANAL PLANS A WORRY
Apart from plans for changes to land under the EEC, the Marine Department is also planning to expand the ecologically-rich Bang Pakong River to ease the movement of cargo ships travelling in the EEC zone.
The department is funding a 6.9 million baht study which focuses on dredging a section of the 231-kilometre river in Chachoengsao's Bang Pakong district. The study started on March 29 and will be completed in January next year.
Long and winding: An aerial view shows residential areas along the banks of the Bang Pakong River in Chachoengsao province. The province will house future EEC workers. (Photo by Thanarak Khunton)
The project includes building jetties to ensure safer shipping along the river, which means the Bang Pakong River will become a hub of goods transport from Prachin Buri and Sa Kaeo in the far East.
The project has led to concerns because the Bang Pakong is a major river in the area -- spanning the equivalent of 30,000 rai of land -- and flows all the way into the Gulf of Thailand. Local fishermen use it to harvest freshwater fish and shrimps and major orchards also grow in the area.
Mr Sarayoot said the plan will surely face local resistance.
He said the government has made plans to dredge the river. However, the locals have not been informed about any feasibility study. "When we are eventually informed about the details, we will ask the department to abandon the plan."
"The ecology of this river is too diverse and sensitive for cargo purposes," Mr Sarayoot told the Bangkok Post.
The EEC has to understand the concerns of residents, so a series of public hearings is being held to take into account their input.
The latest hearing was conducted on June 25 in Chachoengsao. The venue was organised by Tasanee Kiatpatraporn, deputy secretary-general of the EEC, and Anawat Suwannadej, deputy director-general of Department of Public Works and Town & Country Planning.
At the hearing, local representatives asked the EEC to reconsider its plan and allow local people to use the area for light industry and residential construction.
Slipping through the cracks: Last year, police launched a crackdown on five recycling plants in Chachoengsao province that imported illegal toxic waste to process. (Photo by Courtesy of Royal Thai Police)
In addition, they demanded the EEC clarify the details of a highway construction project around the province since its location was unclear and had caused confusion for the people of Chachoengsao.
Ms Tasanee was sympathetic to the villagers' concern and said valuable agricultural areas, ecologically sensitive areas, would be well-preserved.
She added the EEC was also planning to bring innovative technology to further develop local agriculture as well as to raise living standards in the communities.
She said all projects are still in the preliminary planning stage and the establishment of industrial estates still has to pass through many legal processes.
She pledged that EEC would take the law, concerned organisations, and voices of the locals into consideration before confirming any project.
"EEC's ultimate goal is to have a balance between people and the environment and to achieve this, the EEC committee board promised to not overlook complaints and suggestions from the people."
Despite vehement opposition, some of the locals welcome the project, who can see its potential to boost jobs and the economy.
Among them is Choktawee Ontaworn, a village head man at Ban Khao Din, Bang Pakong district, Chachoengsao province.
"Locals want to have a job in their hometowns. We want to see more urbanisation because it means more job opportunities," he said.