Fisheries law alone won't do the job

Fisheries law alone won't do the job

The message from the fisheries boss is loud and clear. "Illegal fishing gear must go," declared Joompol Sanguansin, director-general of the Fisheries Department. Right on. But I doubt if he will have the last say.  

The fisheries bureaucracy's record is extremely shabby, resulting in a breakdown in state regulation of commercial trawlers. Fisheries officials are also known to have cosy relationships with trawler operators.

Following the threat from the European Union to boycott Thai seafood products, the military regime told the Fisheries Department to clean up and regulate the industry — or else. Officialdom responded with a new law and regulations to get rid of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing which had been going on for decades without state supervision.

But without a revamp in the fishery bureaucracy, do we really think those guys can enforce the law? Do we really believe that our seas can now be saved from environmentally destructive trawlers? Don't pin too much hope on it.

The facts about illegal fishing speak volumes about the failure of fisheries authorities. In 1980, a Fishery Department report pointed out the Thai seas could accommodate only about 2,400 trawlers. In 1981, the department stopped giving licences for bottom trawling. Yet Mr Joompol himself admitted nearly 7,000 trawlers broke the law; it is most likely a very conservative number.

The law also prohibits trawlers from operating within 3km of the shores. Yet trawlers routinely ravage the coastal seas without intervention from fisheries authorities. A big operator in Songkhla admitted his fleet had to violate neighbouring territorial waters after trawlers have depleted the Thai seas.

Why has the department turned a blind eye to the illegal fishing fleet for so long? Should it be allowed to escape scot-free with terrible negligence? The fishery bureaucracy is a big part of the problem. Should it be allowed to operate with impunity?

Despite the fisheries boss's tough talk against illegal fishing equipment, the new law does not prohibit destructive fishing; it still allows bottom trawling if they have proper licences. 

The department has failed miserably to protect the seas from overfishing. But it is not the only state agency which fails its own mandate. Worse, despite their awful performances, they are still allowed to mismanage our scarce natural resources with impunity.

Which brings us to the even more notorious forest authorities.

Although fishery officialdom has demonstrated it cannot protect the seas,  it has not shifted the blame to the poor and powerless. This is not the case with forest authorities.

Forests have rapidly declined under state policies over the past four decades. Factors include logging, mining, anti-insurgency strategies, promotion of cash crops on the highlands, construction of big dams and promotion of the tourism industry. Corruption is also deep-rooted in forestry bureaucracy.

Yet forest authorities blame it all on the forest poor. Many of them have settled there long before the areas were demarcated as protected forests.

Giving forest agencies sole authority over forest ownership and management, authorities have sponsored draconian laws to punish forest villagers with severe jail terms.

Villagers try to fight back by pushing for community forest laws, as they want a say in forest management.

But every attempt over the past 30 years was killed by fierce resistance from forest authorities. They also refuse to comply with community rights.

After the coup d'etat last year, forest authorities enlisted military might to evict the forest poor. Concurrently, they are working within the National Legislative Assembly's (NLA) apparatus to sponsor their own community forest law.

In essence, this draft maintains forest authorities' old power to evict the forest poor and manage forests without public participation.

After fierce protests from the land rights movement, the NLA reluctantly withdrew the draft from deliberation on Monday. But the battle is far from over.

Bureaucratic reform is one of the military regime's many promises. If the forest crackdown, the bogus community forest draft, and the new top-down fishery laws are anything to go by, the military regime is strengthening the bureaucratic state, not reforming it. 

We are fooling ourselves if we believe change in this country can come from an authoritarian, corruption-prone bureaucracy.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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