Prawit grounds Phangnga airport scheme
Public hearings for Phangnga plan needed, deputy PM says
A private-sector plan to build a new airport on a 2,000-rai plot of forest reserve land in Phangnga province cannot proceed without proper public hearings, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said Thursday.
His remark is seen to ease growing concern over the project which involves a large-scale land lease in Klong Tung Maprao forest reserve in tambon Lam Kaen, Thai Muang district.
On May 13 of this year a "hearing" took place by tambon Lam Kaen council on the airport project amid an outcry from local residents who questioned its legitimacy.
Only 115 people reportedly took part in the hearing but there were no representatives from the provincial authorities or the national resource and environment office.
"Local people feel there's something off about the hearing. Local officials and representatives from the private sector were there but those from the province and national resource and environment office did not show up," said a local source.
Addressing the concern, Gen Prawit said the project cannot go ahead without public input and he understands several other people have not had a say in it.
The deputy prime minister said he believes all concerned parties should have a say in the matter.
Bangkok Airways, operator of Samui Airport, has approached provincial authorities with a proposal to lease the 2,000 rai of land in tambon Lam Kaen. The potential site is said to be "degraded forest land".
The firm is said to seek a 30-year contract to use the land that can be extended for another 30 years, and has offered to pay rent of 50 baht per rai each year.
Phangnga province reportedly approved the project but the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) has yet to follow suit, demanding that it first sees an environmental impact assessment (EIA) study and area inspection.
"The authorities must conduct a proper public hearing before going ahead with the project. Some people have not given their opinion on it [via a public hearing]," Gen Prawit said.
Affected residents oppose the project while provincial business sectors support it.
National Resource and Environment Minister Surasak Karnjanarat tried Thursday to calm those who oppose the controversial project saying it has not yet received the green light.
Gen Surasak said he has ordered the ministry to set up a fact-finding committee to consider the issue, noting the project needs to be considered from all angles ranging from its impact on the environment, communities and local economy to security concerns.
Certain facts need to be established, such as whether the degraded forest can be rehabilitated, he said, adding that local residents must be allowed to weigh in as it is likely to have an impact on their livelihood.
According to the minister, the plot in question is also located near Phangnga naval base and the 3rd Fleet, so security concerns must be assessed. Moreover, it must seek cabinet approval because it involves use of state land exceeding 1,000 rai.
He said the project must be confirmed as being in line with the country's 20-year strategic plan and falling under the Private Investments in State Undertakings Act. He said this will take some time due to the number of steps involved.
Gen Surasak denied news reports that he was upset with RFD chief Chonlatid Suraswadi over the department's handling of the scheme, saying he was merely advising the department chief.
He said he discussed the procedures taken so far after a private firm submitted a request to the RFD seeking commercial use of forest reserve land.
After the request was lodged, provincial authorities and local forestry officials were required to survey the area and give their comments. The local community was also consulted and they seemed to be in favour of the project. He insisted no public hearing was held.
About 400 villagers in tambon Lam Kaen expressed concern about their fate following the May 13 hearing. Veeradej Tati, a village head, said local people needed clarity.
He said the villagers were told they would be compensated for crops but not for the land because it is part of the forest reserve.
The RFD on Wednesday said the department sent back the airport plan and demanded further studies about its environmental impact, the views of residents who would be affected by or who opposed the plan, and more inspections of the proposed site.
Last year, Puttipong Prasarttong-Osoth, president of Bangkok Airways, said the company was interested in developing the airport in Phangnga to make it bigger than Samui airport.