The road that shouldn’t be

The road that shouldn’t be

The number of mistakes and wrong steps made in the name of the environment are legion, but Highway 304 is one of the most obvious. The road provides the shortest distance between Prachin Buri and Nakhon Ratchasima provinces. To do this, it cuts through the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai forest complex.

This area should be a treasured wildlife preserve. Instead, it is being turned into a superhighway where animals will be tolerated.

The current plan is this. The Highways Department will expand Highway 304 from two to four lanes. This is supposedly necessary because the route sees so much traffic, and more is expected. During the three years of roadworks, the department will erect a system of large bridges and tunnels. Their purpose is to provide a way for animals to cross the road safely.

This questionable plan was approved by the National Environment Board. The NEB is now chaired by Adm Narong Pipananasai, who is both the navy commander and deputy head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

At a meeting last week, Adm Narong signed off on the Highway 304 project and an astounding 23 other projects and programmes.

This fast-track approval shows how the NEB has carefully marshalled the projects, minimising all chances for expert opinion and residents to comment effectively.

The NEB calls this three-billion-baht project a "wildlife corridor" and there is a certain, truthful irony to that.

Until Highway 304 was built, the area, much of it virgin, was safe for precious wildlife — including not just the animals but forests and vegetation as well. The macadam ribbon, from Phanom Sarakham of Chachoengsao through Pak Thong Chai to Nakhon Ratchasima, changed all that. Where man had to adapt to the forest to enter Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai, now it is the wildlife that must adapt to man.

To do that, the NEB has worked out a plan of grandiose tunnels and bridges. These are not modest animal crossings, familiar worldwide.

Two bridges will be 500 metres and 570 metres long. "Small" tunnels will be "only" 250m, and 180m. An official of the Highways Department actually told this newspaper last week that it is not clear how the wild animals will be taught to use the highway crossings safely.

This project once again pits real conservationists and environmentalists against the NEB, the very agency charged with protecting the nation's national heritage. Unlike the NEB, the Stop Global Warming Association noted the so-called wildlife corridor puts economic growth first, while paying little attention to the impact on the environment.

The NEB has cited support from Unesco's World Heritage Committee. That is misleading. The WHC has protested the current Highway 304 is dangerous to man, wildlife and the environment. While it urged the previous government to take action to better protect wild animals from highway slaughter, it has not specifically recommended road-widening, massive steel bridges and four-lane underground tunnels.

The NEB is clearly exploiting the coup authorities to push its highway construction agenda. The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation opposes it. Conservationists compare it with the failed fish ladders of the Pak Moon dam.

Highway 304 probably should never have been built. Roads in the region should bypass the wildlife areas, rather than knife through them. The project to construct a four-lane highway with massive, untested and probably ineffective animal crossings should be stopped for a full, new assessment and rethink before irreparable, irreversible harm is done to the nation's wildlife.

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