Give trees a chance
As of late, the construction company Italian-Thai has made headlines due to the illegal wildlife hunting activities of its president Premchai Karnasuta and the now -- sadly -- iconic panther he slayed. While Premchai is a threat to Thailand's fauna, it appears the company itself is no friend to flora, either.
A Facebook page, relayed by civil society groups, recently called attention to the fact that Italian-Thai Development illegally cut a tree near Kasetsart University in Bangkok -- a blameless tree that just happened to be in the way of one of their construction sites. The company had received no prior authorisation by city or district authorities to do such a thing.
Now, trees are an easy target. Trees can't cry out or attack you, trees don't have tree rights like humans have human rights or animals have animal rights.
When buildings are torn down, communities are uprooted, petitions are made and complaints are filed. But trees themselves can't create a Change.org page or seek help from rights bodies.
Thankfully, several groups -- and I'm not talking about the national tree-huggers association -- have highlighted the construction company's wrongdoing and it was subsequently reported in the media.
Trees need humans to defend them, just as we humans need trees to -- well, protect us from environmental conditions.
On a trip I took to Chiang Mai last weekend, the driver who kindly brought me from the airport to the Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum complained of the dry, desertic landscape of Chiang Mai this time of year. I was surprised as, compared to Bangkok, the northern city is rather green and lush.
According to this driver, authorities cut down branches from trees, rendering them leafless, to prevent damage when the summer storms come.
But what about the shade that trees help provide? I am sure that Bangkok trees will soon suffer the same fate as their Chiang Mai counterparts.
I started to ask myself why people plant trees nearby their houses or why city authorities speak endlessly about increasing the amount of green spaces in urban areas. Surely, it's not purely for decorative purposes.
Recently, the British newspaper The Guardian published a report in which Australian researchers were quoted saying trees help reduce city heat. Now, I'm not a scientist and, sometimes, the consequences of climate change seem a faraway threat, with little impact on my everyday life. But there's no need to be a climate-change expert to know the consequences that branchless, leafless trees have on urban populations.
Ever waited for a taxi at midday in boiling heat? Didn't you wish there'd been a big tree nearby so you could seek refuge under its shade rather than standing in blinding sunlight? What about the people who work outdoors all day as opposed to inside an air-conditioned office? What is the purpose then of planting trees if you're only going to keep the trunks?
Damage from broken branches falling on houses or pavement is real. But do we really have to opt for an all-or-nothing situation? More pointedly, do we really have a say as urban residents?
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has been cutting down tree branches in the most express, imprecise and absurdly blunt way possible for years. One such episode occurred on my soi last year. When district workers came to eliminate the tree, residents surrounded them and pleaded, to no avail. The workers were only following their superiors' orders.
Civil society organisations such as the Bangkok-based Big Trees group carry out workshops for municipality workers on a regular basis. Working with arborists -- essentially, tree surgeons -- they're taught how to trim the trees to minimise damage to surrounding constructions, electricity wires and poles while safeguarding as much of the trees' leafy branches as possible.
Such initiatives are truly beneficial to the people, as opposed to the BMA's quick-fix solution, which removes one problem only to create another along the way. However, for these efforts to be sustained, there needs to be a change at the policy-making level. Municipalities' stance regarding trees needs to change.
Following the illegal removal of a tree by Italian-Thai Development, the civil society parties -- which included Big Trees -- saw repeated calls to the BMA's environmental office.
In an open letter to the BMA governor, they asked for the number of trees affected by the construction project to be revealed, and for trees to be trimmed and relocated according to arborists' recommendations only. If trees are cut down or moved, then new trees must be planted.
Furthermore, they called for the current evaluation system for trees' value and condition to be reviewed, as well as public-scrutiny mechanisms to be put in place. We'll need the BMA to effectively take into account these views before we see any significant changes in Bangkok's landscape.
Ariane Kupferman-Sutthavong is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Former features writer
Ariane Sutthavong is a former features writer for the Bangkok Post.