Paradise lost

Thailand's national parks are constantly under threat from development and destruction. We look at the most controversial projects to date

The words "national park" should convey the spirit of conservation and a well-protected space of natural beauty. But in Thailand, sometimes the parks are beset by scandals and controversy that also imply problems: law violation, land disputes, poaching, encroachment and environmental abuses.

The recent oil spill that turned a section of Koh Samet black and greasy is a fresh example.

The birth of national parks in Thailand came in 1959 when Field Marshall Sarit Tanarat floated the idea to deal with dwindling forest space and environmental problems. In the same year, FM Sarit declared 14 forest areas as national parks. Khao Yai National Park became the country's first (itself wrecked by a recent controversy of race-car drifters). Currently, there are 148 national parks in Thailand, covering both land and sea.

As the whiff of leaked oil still upsets Koh Samet, we take a look at major threats to national parks over the past years. There are many more than those presented here, and we don't go into scandals involving land disputes, logging and wildlife trafficking. The list reflects threats to national parks caused by pollution and man-made abuses as a result of development and undue ambition.

The climb to the top of Phu Kradueng is one of the most popular activities among nature lovers. The planned —then scrapped— electric cable carwould provide alternative ways to reach the top without sweating and also help clear garbage. PHOTO COURTESY OF KITTICHAI CHURIKANONT

PHU KRADUENG ELECTRIC CABLE CAR

No environmental news can stir public reaction and debate quite like the plan to build an electric cable car for Phu Kradueng National Park in Loei province. The plan was hatched 30 years ago and has been opposed, shelved and revived time and again.

Climbing Phu Kradueng has been popular among Thai teenagers as a rite of passage for university students. The trend became part of travel culture among Thais.

The electric cable car project was created for two reasons: for disposing garbage and for transporting tourists who wish to visit the summit without having to climb the mountain for six hours.

Conservationists, locals and even travellers who dismissed the project say that the scheme will wipe out local business such as food shops along the hiking route, as well as look harb _ Sherpa-like local villagers who help carry bags for hikers at cost around 30 baht per kilogramme.

A small patch of forest will be cleared and that means the provision in the 1961 National Park Act imposing a ban on land change and construction in national parks will be violated.

Phu Kradueng will then be accessible to everyone, not only those who are only physically abled. Broadly speaking, the choice between a manual ascent or riding a cable car is a matter of taste, yet the outcome of the project will set the standard for more development in national parks, including an electric cable car for Doi Chiang Dao in Pha Daeng National Park in Chiang Mai province.

As of now, the plan has gone quiet, though who knows when politicians will beat pots and pans and try to revive it again?

In 1999, a bulldozer altered the landscape of Maya Beach for the shooting of The Beach . After 15 years, the legal dispute case between locals and film production companies is still going on.

THE FILMING OF THE BEACH AT MAYA BAY

When Twentieth Century Fox announced it would use Maya Bay in Nopparathara National Park as the location for the filming of The Beach between January and February in 1999, Thais became excited at the idea of a big Hollywood production advertising the paradise of Thailand to the world.

Yet the making of The Beach turned into a nightmare for local villagers, conservationists, the production crew and even lead actor Leonardo Di Caprio, after conservationists protested against the project and sued the authority that permited filming in the national park.

Such vehement protests were not without reason. Despite the availability of computer graphic animation, the crew, led by director Danny Boyle _ who later won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire _ opted for an invasive production design by bulldozing a portion of Maya Bay to alter the landscape. Those plants _ though ubiquitous _ served as stabilisers of the complex ecology of the bay. Both the filming and Maya Bay's landscape modification were permitted by former director-general of the Royal Forestry Department, Plodprasop Suraswadi.

The filming wrapped, but the movie was a moderate success _ and now largely forgettable. Once quiet and pristine, Phi Phi Island become increasingly popular with a plethora of resorts. Yet, the filming of The Beach undermined the sanctity of the National Park Act and set an incorrect standard for the parks' regulation.

After 15 years, the legal dispute surrounding The Beach continues. Plaintiffs led by Krabi Provincial Administration lost their case to force defendants _ Santa International Film Productions and Twentieth Century Fox _ to pay 100 million baht plus interest (7.5% annually) to authorities. Yet in 2006 the Supreme Court ruled that the shooting damaged the ecology of Maya Bay, and ordered the production companies to cover beach restoration costs. The case was sent back to the initial civil court to assess the damage and the civil court resumed interrogation last year.

KAENG SUA TEN DAM

Kaeng Sua Ten Dam has been, and always will be, the history and future of environmental debate and protest in Thailand. Initiated 30 years ago, the plan has been constantly opposed by local villagers and conservationists.

Home to the last major river in the country unblocked by a dam, Mae Yom National Park in Phrae province was designated as the site for the construction of a project to dam the Yom River. The construction site is located on an active earthquake fault line, and would involve clearing 40,000 rai of the largest golden teak forest in Thailand. The project was initiated in 1973 and endorsed by the cabinet in 1989, and has been put on hold for more than two decades, a result of vociferous protests by villagers in Sa-iab village and conservationists.

The government revived the project again this year by putting it into part of the 350 billion baht flood and water management mega project. To pacify protesting villagers, the government adjusted the project into two slightly smaller dams, yet still around the same area (10-30km north). Teak forest will be cleared, and it is likely villages will be flooded and relocation needed.

Conservationists successfully sued the government for illegally approving bidding of the construction without seeking an official environmental impact assessment. Spanning two decades of protests against the project, villagers have blocked and still block officials from surveying the area. Last week they stopped a Google Street View car from entering the community. Google map makers were forced to swear in front of a Buddhist statue that their trip was not for gathering data for the dam construction project. Villagers later publicly apologised to Google for the inconvenience, but still maintain their strict surveillance.

The future of this project will define the survival of mega dam projects in Thailand. If the project goes ahead, it is likely that others, including the Mae Wong dam in Mae Wong National Park, Nakhon Sawan province, will also be built.

KOH SAMET OIL LEAK

Beginning with a media fanfare, but now fading out, the recent Gulf of Thailand oil leak that hit Samet Island, which is a part of Khao Laem Ya _ Mu Ko Samet National Park in Rayong province, will soon to be forgotten.

About 54,341 litres of crude oil leaked from a PTT Global Chemical pipeline late last month. Currents carried a massive oil sheet to Ao Phrao, a popular tourist spot on the island. The oil polluted beach ecology and seriously affected tourism. Energy titan PTT was criticised for its insufficient clean-up work.

Yet the clean-up was completed within two weeks thanks to navy officers and chemical dispersants that were sprayed into the sea. The government, PTT and some media drummed up stories to convince the public that the island's sea water and seafood are safe despite the Pollution Control Department's tests last week revealing mercury levels around Samet being 29 times over the limit. PCD was reprimanded by Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi for unveiling the information. The agency then decided to postpone the release of further sea water test results.

Related search: Rayong

About the author

columnist
Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: Assistant News Editor