Reform to rid the DNP of graft
The explosive corruption scandal at the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) exposes the systemic rotting of the agency from within. The misconduct explains why the agency has failed to safeguard the country's forests. Even as the top boss was caught red-handed with bribery money, it is still no secret that corruption and fierce internal politics run rampant within the agency.
Simply replacing Rutchada Suriyakul Na Ayutya, the DNP director-general, without reforming the system and following the money trail will only result in a new feudal lord being appointed. The corrupt system will remain intact, and the subordinates are still expected to offer gifts and money for positions and power. Real change can only come through restructuring the system.
On Dec 27, 2022, a team of police stormed the office of Mr Rutchada and caught him red-handed with bribery money used as bait. Other evidence includes envelopes containing monthly "contributions" from different national park units. The police also found 5 million baht in his safe.
Where did the money for the monthly "contributions" come from? How do the national park units get such large sums of money? Who in the higher-ups does the director-general send the money to? How long has this bribery system been in place? These questions need to be answered to clean up the DNP system. The bucket must not stop at Mr Rutchada alone.
Bribery in forest agencies is not uncommon. Three years ago, Manop Khiriphuwadol, a Move Forward MP, asked Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Varawut Silpa-archa to address allegations the DNP had demanded 600 million baht in bribes. Mr Varawut denied the allegation.
According to forest conservationist Sasin Chalermlarp, also chairman of the Sueb Foundation, national park chiefs focus on finding ways to get a few million baht for positions rather than on conservation efforts.
Evidently, corruption in park agencies has long been systematic. It did not just start with Mr Rutchada, a newly-appointed director-general who moved to the DNP in February 2022, and has been in the position for just 10 months.
At the heart of corruption anywhere is a closed, non-transparent system. To end corruption, the DNP must, therefore, stop its top-down management and allow for external monitoring and auditing.
At present, the DNP has complete control of 67,633 rai of forest land, or 20.67% of the country's land mass. It makes all the decisions about how to manage the rainforest, wildlife and other resources without any oversight or participation from other agencies or local communities.
The forest is home to over 10 million people in 4,265 villages who are safeguarding more than 227 community forests. Many lived there long before the areas became protected forests and national parks. They are among the forest dwellers who take care of half of the world's land surface and 80% of biodiversity. Research from around the world also shows forest communities are more effective forest guardians than officialdom.
This is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN's top science body, urges all governments to recognise forest communities' land rights and allow them to continue their traditional forest conservation to mitigate climate change. Yet the DNP outlaws forest dwellers because recognising them would mean recognising their rights to manage their lands and resources, which would threaten the DNP's central power.
Since money and power is its priority, not forest conservation, the DNP has beefed its top-down control even further. In 2019, a new national park law was set that not only punishes people living in the forest more severely but also allows each national park to keep all of its tourism revenue money without having to send it to the government.
Tourism has become the national parks' most important source of revenue, but many customers complained about not receiving receipts for their payments. Without financial transparency and external auditing, parks become a playground for corruption.
It is unclear where the tourism revenue goes. It is unknown how much money is used for conservation efforts and how much enriches park leaders.
The new law also allows national parks to keep all their tourism revenue without sharing it with local communities. But if it decides to do so, the share must not exceed 10% of the total revenue.
This top-down non-transparent management of forest and tourism money must end if we want to cleanse the DNP of corruption.
Local communities and forest dwellers must also be involved in safeguarding the country's valuable forests. Only then can we save our forests and get rid of corruption.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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