Phetchabun province is famous for its beautiful nature, sweet and delicious tamarind and an ancient town known as Si Thep, which is the pride of local people.
So that may explain why normally timid villagers have been speaking up about a petroleum development project in their province. Their concerns are justified as the petroleum exploration site shares close proximity with the Si Thep Historical Park, an ancient heritage site believed to have existed some 1,700 years ago.
This historical park might not be famous compared with renowned world heritage sites in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai -- both sites of ancient former capitals. However, the Si Thep Historical Park is expected to get a higher profile because the Fine Arts Department (FAD) is in the process of nominating it as a Unesco World Heritage site.
The department plans to send the relevant documents to Unesco, while local residents are pinning their hopes on cultural tourism and increased economic activity if the nomination is accepted.
Locals as well as the FAD fear the petroleum exploration will shatter their dreams by derailing the Unesco site nomination and damaging the ancient structure, because the exploration site is about 100 metres away from the park. It's equivalent to the distance between the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, or Wat Bodhi.
In a rare move, the FAD recently issued a statement that it has grave concerns over the petroleum exploration. Anandha Chuchoti, FAD chief, said he will send a letter to the petroleum exploration company, Eco Orient Resources Thailand, asking it to move away from the historical site.
"It will undermine our chance to have the site listed as a Unesco World Heritage site ... that is why we issued the statement," he said.
Meanwhile, the Department of Mineral Fuels (DMF), which comes under the Industry Ministry and is tasked with giving energy exploration concessions and operational permits, came out to say that there is has not been any construction of a petroleum excavation facility there -- not yet, at least.
The company, Eco Orient Resources Thailand, received the concession but not a permit to explore. Premruethai Vinaiphad, the department's deputy chief, even said the company is ready to revise the plan if the project affects the historical site and the community.
Currently, Eco Orient Resources Thailand is conducting public hearings on the controversial project. The first hearing was completed last month, with not-so-positive results.
Civic groups, communities and even the provincial chamber of commerce in Phetchabun province are launching a campaign against the project.
The second hearing will be conducted in April, and I wonder whether the company will get enough local support to move the project forward.
For me, this case reveals the issue of authorities granting concessions to promote what they see as economic development.
In the past, the Ministry of Industry has drawn criticism for approving mining and energy concessions for the areas located in watershed forests. A number of mountains -- some with historical and cultural value -- were given away for rock quarry blasting.
You must be scratching your head about the methods the DMF uses to decide which land plot is fit for petroleum exploration. I wonder who in their right mind could easily demarcate land near a historical park -- the pride of not only locals in the province, but also the entire nation -- as a petroleum exploration site.
The Si Thep archaeological area has been there for 1,700 years and the site was listed as a historical park in 1978. Archaeological work has been under way ever since.
The exploration concession was awarded to the company 15 years ago, so I think it is about time the Department of Mineral Fuels uses new criteria to consider the Si Thep case.
Instead of letting the company continue its environmental impact assessment process, the mineral and fine arts officials should form a special committee to look into the pros and cons of this project.
This committee should conduct comparative studies on economic loss and gains if the Si Thep Historical Park loses its chance of becoming a world heritage site.
Times have changed since 15 years ago. Cultural tourism has become more important as a source of sustainable economy. This aspect should be incorporated in the decision-making process.
And it's of utmost importance that the decision making is more inclusive, with the FAD and local communities having a say.
The Si Thep Historical Park is a cultural treasure for the whole country. Its fate should not be solely decided by a dubious agency like the DMF.
Anchalee Kongrut is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.