A new study shows what is wiping out our national forests, and how to find an environmentally friendly way forward
Forest areas in Thailand have been shrinking at an alarming rate. Between 1973 and 2009, 30.9 million rai of land was cleared of trees, according to a study by Khwanchai Duangsathaporn, assistant professor at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry at Kasetsart University.
Various destructive factors contributed to the loss. To put the spotlight on the culprits, Khwanchai unveiled in his recent study the top eight infrastructure construction projects that are most responsible for taking away forest land in the past four decades, although the list of these constructions are among many other causes of deforestation, such as land encroachment and tourism.
The study puts the spotlight on certain predictable projects _ mostly irrigation plans including dams, man-made canals and watergates managed by the government. Other top destroyers include road and highway construction, as well as less familiar activities such as rock blasting and petrochemical pipelines.
Khwanchai expresses concern over the "contradictory" nature of the present government's plan to build huge water management projects as while trying to encourage reforestation, he says it also promotes many plans that will do more damage.
Khwanchai talks to Life about his study, and about the delicate balance between conservation and construction.
Why did you become interested in this topic and how you come up with these facts?
I started forestry management and monitoring the state's national strategy on forestry. Questions I often ask are: Why has the forest area drastically dropped? What exactly is or are the factors behind the depletion? There are various causes such as land development in the form of resort and urban expansion, and the expansion of commercial farmland. But I intended to look at infrastructure construction, which was operated or approved by the governments. I found that during the last four decades, all governments regardless of their political camp and ideological stance, usually focused on developing infrastructure projects. Governments usually look at forests first because they are the most convenient locations. There are no people, no villages, which means there will be no protests, and no need to pay compensation.
In the study, I took all available data from all implemented projects and concessions to find out how much forest land has been cleared. I need to stress that there are other causes that are wiping out forest areas. These activities just involve the government and reflect the state's policy.
What did you learn from this study?
We need to be discreet when we decide to do anything. This maxim also applies to tampering with forest resources. We need to be more accountable, with systematic studies about the impact of projects on forests, to enable us to make informed choices.
What is the worst activity that's taking away forest land?
The champion seems to be land development from resorts and tourism, as well as commercial farming. But construction of infrastructure is obviously in the top three activities taking away forest territory.
What activity is the most worrying?
I found the government's policy on promoting commercial crops such as corn and rubber trees a great risk for forests. The policy encourages people to invade forest land and convert it into commercial plantations. For me, this is worse than other activities because the forest condition and ecology will be changed completely when the forest is converted into farmland. Other activities such as infrastructure construction may not change the whole nature of forest ecology.
Forests are cut in exchange for gains from electricity built by dams, convenient access enabled by roads, more economic gains from farming, more resorts and hotels to accommodate our lucrative tourist trade, and more infrastructure for industry. Are we winning or losing in the trade-off?
It is difficult to make that assessment. The government is trying to find the answer and I think we need very careful study to determine whether is worth giving away decreasing forest land.
Can forest conservation and development go together?
Developed nations achieve some level of balance between forest consumption and development. Indeed, most of these countries will have more environmental awareness about the significance of forests and conservation. They tend to conserve forests and strictly preserve land in their own countries.
Does that mean we cannot do anything with our forests? The public know they must be preserved. Why we should give up many projects, or stop using forests?
You need to look at forest resources as part of the basics of the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the country.
Without abundant forest land, we will lose competitiveness in terms of farming business. Forests enable water, air and soil, soil nutrients and biodiversity, which are the basis of agricultural activity. Secondly, forests are the basis for wellbeing. With abundant forests, you have a good quality of life, good quality air, and beautiful places and nature, which is also a basis for good tourism business. For environmental reasons, forests help protect us from natural disasters such as mudslides, and of course reduce emissions caused by climate change.
What are your thoughts on the government's plan to build dams such as Mae Wong in national parks?
I think we should realise that now our forest reserves in Thailand are at a minimal threshold and we must think about alternative plans. The priority should be to increase forest land first. In future, we might be able to build those projects when we have enough forest land.
What are your thoughts on forest conservation in Thailand?
Our governments have had the policy to increase forest area to 40% of total land, which means it needs to increase it by 20.7 million rai. But in practice, state projects such as irrigation require the use of forest land.
There is a conflict between policy and practice. I think our history of forest consumption says a lot. Thailand has been treating the forest as an export, like rice and tin. Indeed, forests here have been used intensively. There were commercial logging concessions being given out since the reign of King Rama V. So, forests have been used for commercial reasons and those who benefit from it have always been the elite, not the small and poor people.