Fury in the Forests

 For readers interested in environmental compliance and enforcement in Thailand, the recent furore over illegal forest encroachment by resorts and the wealthy owners of large houses makes for an interesting case study into the problem of horizontal integration between government departments.  To refresh your memory, the following is from a recent editorial in the Bangkok Post.

"The new environmental and land crisis began just a few weeks ago. Forestry officials descended on the Phu Luang region of the Northeast with their clipboards and instruments. They focused, rightly so, on eight popular resorts and villas in Wang Nam Khieo district. Within the day, department director-general Suwit Rattanamanee was holding a press conference to announce major encroachments into the public reserve, where business and commerce is banned. Eight resorts would have two months to appeal, but he served notice they had to go, and another dozen resorts were suspected of encroachment as well. The Nakhon Ratchasima Tourist Business Association announced that within the week, all tourist bookings were cancelled at the area, off the beaten path."

It turns out that a lot of the land in question was assigned by the Agricultural Land Reform Office to poor farmers, who were told that they could not sell the land.  But the farmers soon found that the land was not very fertile, steeply sloping, and not very suitable for profitable farming--besides there were plenty of willing buyers.  In addition, the Tourism Ministry was promoting resort development not too far from Bangkok, to encourage Thai tourists to vacation in their own country.  To this mix, add the Tambon (district) offices, roads department, electricity authority, and probably a few others as well, and the need for careful integration of land use change proposals across all relevant agencies becomes clear.  As the dust begins to settle, it turns out that there are at least 13 hot spots of similar forest encroachment in 8 provinces.

Of course, the logical question is why the situation was allowed to become so pervasive before the Royal Forest Department started to act? But equally important, now that the horses have bolted from the barn, what should be the appropriate enforcement action? Should the alleged illegal occupiers be required to demolish their resorts and houses and be required to pay for reforesting the area, or should the existing damage be recognized and the forest boundaries be redrawn? There is understandable concern that the latter course of action would merely encourage others to act the same way, to the long term detriment of the forest estate in Thailand, while the former will not only damage the owners financially, but also contribute to loss of jobs and tourism revenue. It appears clear that the legal status of the land concerned is sufficiently uncertain that the matter will go before the courts and may take many years to resolve.  Perhaps at the end of the long court cases, memories will have faded, and the status quo will remain supreme. One wonders, however, if in the meantime the issue of horizontal integration across all land-related agencies couldn't be improved (perhaps through an amendment of the EIA process) and this might be the best possible outcome from this unfortunate affair.