The Nation - September 28 1998

Editorial & Opinion
Forests too precious for Seub legacy to be lost
The Royal Forest Department is the guardian of Thailand's forests. But it is doing a poor job, and it could do better by working with, not against, the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, writes Belinda Stewart-Cox.

The Agriculture Ministry was recently reproached by the media for the Royal Forest Department's plan to build luxury guest-houses at the Khao Bandai Guard Station in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Piqued by this criticism, the minister accused the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation of distributing false information. He also made defamatory remarks about the foundation's work. Allow me to set the record straight.

We first heard of this plan over two months ago when some sketches were shown to our chairwoman, Rataya Chantian, to ask what she thought. Reasonable question. Rataya is an architect and was governor of the National Housing Authority. In spite of having concerns, Rataya did not oppose the plan then. She assumed it would be submitted to RFD's Western Forest Committee for review. As she represents this foundation on that committee, that would be the time to voice her concerns.

The next we heard was on Aug 25 when a piece appeared in Thai Post. The reporter was told of the plan by the director of RFD's engineering division. From him we learned there would be three large houses and a sala, not three small cabins as previously suggested. We were also told that RFD planned viewing-towers along the river and, to help VIPs see wildlife, the river would be dredged. Total cost: around Bt9 million.

On Aug 26, Rataya raised the subject with the director of RFD's Nature Conservation Office who confirmed this was indeed the plan, saying RFD would pay for it. The buildings are intended for VIPs and wealthy donors.

Our objection to the buildings is not who would pay for them (the nub of some news stories) but why RFD proposes them in the heart of Huai Kha Khaeng when it knows this is the finest conservation area in Thailand, partly because its interior is relatively free of human disturbance.

There are critical questions that RFD has not addressed. Who qualifies as a VIP? Who decides? Who will regulate numbers? Who will ensure they do not disturb wildlife? Etcetera.

It is impossible for forest rangers and junior officials to control non-compliant VIPs in Thailand. So-called VIPs, their families and friends have often revelled the night away in a conservation area with such noisy self-indulgence that no wildlife is seen for days thereafter.

Disturbance in the centre of a sanctuary is more disruptive to wildlife than disturbance near the edge. Khao Bandai lies deep inside Huai Kha Khaeng at the confluence of its two main waterways. VIPs must travel the 25 km access track by 4WD vehicle or helicopter. How long before someone wants a better road and electricity? Then what?

Knowing RFD's abysmal record, is it surprising anyone has concerns about opening the heart of Huai Kha Khaeng to favoured VIPs? With the Thai way as it is today, the plan does not make sense.

No minor matters

The Seub Foundation was also accused of making a mountain out of a molehill with this issue but, in fact, it is not the minor matter the minister would have it be. There are important principles involved, principles of fair procedure, good manners and responsibility.

As part of its Western Forest Conservation Initiative, the Forest Department established a consultative committee with representatives from relevant branches of government and non-government organisations.

The committee has reviewed all western forest project plans, whether government or non-government organisations, for over a year and this has clearly helped. It has made sure that projects are appropriate and well supported and it has forged cross-sectoral collaborative links which is a very good thing.

But the newly elevated forestry officials do not think it necessary to have a consultative committee or, indeed, to consult. They think the forest belongs to them and they alone know how to protect it. What a sorry retrogression to autocratic thinking and how patently untrue!

RFD does not own Thailand's forests. It is, or should be, their guardian, conserving them for all Thai people (and, therefore, no one in particular) and, in the case of Thung Yai-Huai Kha Khaeng, a World Heritage Site, for people the world over. But, as the records show, it is doing a pretty poor job. It clearly does need help.

So it has asked Danish Cooperation for Environment and Development (Danced) to provide around Bt100 million to improve management and protection of the Western Forest Complex. A major part of this project is to zone the area into appropriate land-use categories (such as tourism zone, wildlife zone, limited-use zone) while developing much-needed guidelines for ecotourism policy and practice.

It is surely discourteous to Danced to pre-empt this costly project by introducing a new tourism activity just as the project gets underway. And if the zoning exercise concludes that spacious accommodation at Khao Bandai is inappropriate, what will RFD do? Ignore the outcome and waste Danish people's money, or abandon the buildings and waste Thai people's money? For this is all about accountability.

- Accountability to those who provide the money for RFD to do what it is supposed to do, namely, to enhance the conservation integrity of Thailand's protected areas.

- Accountability to those who provide the money for the Seub Foundation to do what it is supposed to do, namely, to help protect Thailand's natural habitats and their wildlife.

Seub betrayed

That was our pledge eight years ago when thousands of sympathisers sent in over Bt16 million to form a foundation in Seub's name. That money is held in trust and has since grown. We use only interest to fund our core operation and less than 15 per cent of that is spent on administration.

The allegation that we profit from Seub's death is profoundly unjust.

Seub's death was suicide -- an act of despair -- but it might as well have been murder. When he needed the support of his superiors to do the job they had asked him to do -- stop the hunting and logging that was rampant in Huai Kha Khaeng at that time, master-minded by police and military officials -- it was withheld. A terrible betrayal.

The founding trustees of the Seub Foundation all knew Seub well. Given the choice, not one of us would not prefer to have him back.

Another salvo accused us of building the Seub Memorial Centre at Huai Kha Khaeng headquarters without permission from RFD. Also untrue.

After Seub died on Sept 1, 1990, at his official house in Huai Kha Khaeng, the place was visited by hundreds of people a day. This was a problem for RFD. Being a wildlife sanctuary not a national park, Huai Kha Khaeng was not equipped for tourists.

We were asked to help. It seemed fitting to everyone for this foundation to build a memorial to Seub at the place where he died.

On Jan 24, 1991, RFD approved the foundation's plans for a landscaped memorial area that would include a statue, Seub's house as he left it and a new educational building. Funds were raised by a special appeal and the new building was opened by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on April 23, 1993. The statue was erected five months later.

Since then the Seub Centre has hosted thousands of people at a variety of educational events, most of them arranged by this foundation in collaboration with RFD.

A key difference between this building and those proposed for VIPs is that Huai Kha Khaeng headquarters lies just inside the north-east edge of the sanctuary whereas Khao Bandai lies at its very centre.

Finally, the grievance about forest fires. RFD is oddly schizophrenic about these. On the one hand it publicises its theatrical, but largely useless, efforts to put out the fires by helicopter. On the other hand, it gets upset when the scale of the fires is revealed. Another charge against us. Also false.

This year, some 65 per cent of the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary burned, an area equivalent to 1,807 square kilometres. Those figures came from the National Research Council which mapped the fires from satellite photos taken on March 17 and from Huai Kha Khaeng staff who fought the fires on the ground and reported their progress via the radio network this foundation provided.

For reasons unknown, the powers-that-be in RFD are denying the data from their own people on the ground. Perhaps they want us to believe they had the problem under control. They did not. Eventually, nature quenched the fires itself, with rain.

It is hard to control wild fires once they have taken hold but it should be possible to stop them entering the forest. This year, as in previous years, most fires came into Huai Kha Khaeng from agricultural areas east of the sanctuary. There are RFD fire control units all along that boundary but they did nothing to stop fires reaching the forest. Why?

Who knows? But apparently the firefighters had not been paid since October. The fires spread in February. Perhaps they did not see why they should fire-fight for free.

We were not, and never have been, the source of misinformation. Our aim is to inform and we always try to be accurate.

Our aim is also to help protect Thailand's natural habitats and wildlife. That necessarily means working with the Royal Forest Department and, in the last eight years, we have never not done so. Seub Nakhasathien was, after all, an RFD official, though not proud to be one in the last months of his life.

He was as outspoken in defence of nature conservation as we are now, even when that meant criticising his own department. His example is part of our inheritance and inspiration.

Belinda Stewart-Cox was Seub Nakhasathien's partner. They wrote Thailand's nomination for Thung Yai-Huai Kha Khaeng to be a World Heritage Site. After Seub's death, she defended it to the adjudicators on behalf of the RFD. She is also a founding trustee of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation.

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