Heritage status the best way to protect Andaman Sea
The brouhaha over the decayed coral reefs at Koh Tachai — an island in Koh Similan Marine National Park with a once-spectacular dive site — which triggered concerns about heavy pollution on this tourist spot, has fizzled out.
The image of the badly ruined coral reefs, described as an "underwater graveyard", has disappeared from public attention.
But Assistant Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine expert and member of the National Reform Council (NRC), refuses to give up.
He has made recommendations for proper conservation of ecology in the Andaman Sea, which included the ailing coral on Koh Tachai. For example, bans on food shops on the island, as well as a strict quota on tourist numbers. But structural change is also necessary.
In Prof Thon's opinion, the agency dealing with marine parks should be upgraded to a department-level agency to give it a bigger budget and more personnel.
More importantly, he urged the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to submit the complex of marine national parks in the Andaman Sea for consideration as Unesco World Heritage Sites.
The ministry met most of his recommendations with positive responses. However, they were not keen on the registration of Andaman coastal areas as a Unesco World Heritage Site. This is unfortunate.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Gen Dapong Rattanasuwan told the media late last month that World Heritage status would deal a heavy blow to local communities who live along the Andaman coast.
Besides, he insisted, the Department of National Parks needs time to clear hurdles.
However, Gen Dapong did not put forward any timeline for this task.
His explanation raised quite a few eyebrows. The cabinet last December instructed the ministry to register the Andaman coastal areas as a World Heritage Site and many conservationists expected the ministry to follow its instruction.
Instead, the ministry put up two other sites for World Heritage status — Phu Prabat in Udon Thani province in the cultural heritage category, and Kaeng Krachan National Park in the Western Forest Complex.
The minister's claim the process needs time is not really convincing. He may not realise that preparations, such as the report on natural resources and conservation in the Andaman Sea, were completed in 2007 by Prince of Songkla University to accompany the heritage status application.
Yet when the department made a move to register in 2012, it failed to finalise its application process which requires another TOR paper, and the report has been shelved.
But the report, "The Andaman Sea's Protected Areas", is still worth a look.
It proposed that some sea areas around six southern provinces, from Ranong to Satun, be made a heritage site.
Those areas encompass 17 marine national parks, a wildlife sanctuary and a Ramsar site in Trang province and a watershed in Krabi province. The proposal excluded some problematic areas, such as those that have been encroached on, or ecologically damaged cases such as the overcrowded Koh Phi Phi.
With the report complete, all the department needs to do is to send the application and prepare the area for evaluation. The whole process should take about two years.
But why do we need to bother making the areas a Unesco World Heritage Site?
Because it will require Thailand to abide by commitments made to Unesco to ensure the areas' condition is maintained.
More importantly, heritage status means local communities and authorities will participate in the conservation of the areas.
It should also be noted that most World Heritage Sites become areas for research, such as Khao Yai and Thung Yai Naresuan, where local and international NGOs are pursuing a number of conservation projects.
Of course, both areas still have some problems, but it's undeniable that environmental conditions improved there after they were registered with Unesco.
But the Andaman Sea is not so lucky.
At this point, it is possible that by the time the ministry decides to make the area a World Heritage Site, there may be nothing left of the Andaman's national parks.
Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.
Assistant News Editor
Bangkok Post's Assistant News Editor