Vital to preserve city's 'Green Lung'

Vital to preserve city's 'Green Lung'

Bang Kachao in Samut Prakan -- dubbed Bangkok's "Green Lung" for its lush natural landscape that contrasts with the capital's high-rises and bustling ports which ring its banks -- will be redeveloped into a special zone for sustainable tourism.

While the initiative may prove to be a boon for the local economy, extreme care must be taken to ensure that the scythes of development won't slash through what's left of the city's few green public spaces.

The push to redevelop the area was announced by the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta), which oversees some 81 communities across the country, including historic Klong Suan Market and the border town of Chiang Khan in Loei. These communities were developed into community-based tourism centres, which means residents get a bigger share of the tourism pie, in contrast to commercial tourist destinations where attractions and business are run by larger, profit-oriented operations.

While the exact plans for Bang Kachao have yet to be released, Dasta said the engagement of locals to ensure the preservation of the local environment and culture will be at the heart of this project.

The proposed designation will be put to the cabinet later in the year, says Gp Capt Athikun Kongmee, Dasta's director. The plan deserves some attention, as for it to be successful, all stakeholders must be able to balance out the desire to eke out as much economic benefit from the development, and the need to preserve the environment.

And considering the potential economic benefit the redesignation can unlock, irresponsible parties may find skirting environmental regulations tempting, which makes tight supervision over the project all the more imperative.

Attempts to alter the area's town plan and building restrictions -- which were set when back in 1992 when Bang Kachao was named a conservation area by then-PM Anand Panyarachun -- have been mounted before. In 2005, several changes were made to the area's building regulations. First, the area where private development is permitted was increased to 10%, then the administration decided to allow private homes to be built in the highly-protected conservation zone. And more recently in 2014, the land set aside for private developments were increased to 15% of Bang Kachao's total area.

Ironically, many were unaware of these changes, as public hearings were not held. Some members of Samut Prakan's provincial administration organisation weren't even aware that such amendments were pushed until they were passed. The administration countered, saying it invited six tambon administrative organisation officers to a meeting, which, it claimed, counted as holding a public hearing.

Back then, many feared the prospect of Bang Krachao, already home to some 13,000 households, turning into another concrete housing estate on the outskirts of Bangkok. Given this precedent -- and arguably, the more dire economic straits the government and private landowners are in -- it isn't unreasonable to fear the prospect of a similar sleight of hand by the government now. As such, to dispel any distrust and ensure the support of Bang Kachao residents, Dasta must make good on its promise to hold public events to promote the plan and incorporate public input in the project.

The stakes are high, not just because the land prices are on an upward tick. If the project were to fail and development were to get out of hand, this urban oasis could well turn into a concrete jungle. What's at risk here isn't just some tall reeds and shrubbery -- it is 12,000 rai of living, organic space capable of filtering out 6,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air each year.

This isn't to say that community-based tourism initiatives are bad for local communities, as when they are properly managed, CBT initiatives can prove to be key to reducing Thailand's chronic inequality problem. According to a Dasta survey on 20 communities under its supervision, Gini coefficient -- an indicator of income distribution -- averaged at 0.369 last year, markedly lower than the national average of 0.48. Scaling up the model to include more communities across the country will undoubtedly have a net positive effect on the country's wage gap.

The public needs to keep an eye on the matter and keep the government accountable on the issue. Any form of sustainable, community-based tourism must benefit the community, so care must be taken to ensure that principle is adhered to.

Meanwhile, the government needs to remember that the key to a successful and sustainable community-based tourism is a sense of belonging, which must be fostered through open and transparent communication. It must invite local residents to a legitimate, public hearing as ultimately, it is their home, their livelihoods and their future which are on the line.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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