EXPERT WARNS UNPREDICTABLE CONSEQUENCES OF CONTINUED DEGRADATION
LOOKING from a distance, the Doi Suthep mountain range extends from the north to the south of Chiang Mai province, forming a landscape and ecosystem that expert Manat Suwan describes as unique.
As a human settlement geographer and ecologist, who has surveyed the area to develop a management plan for Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, Professor Manat believes the whole range should be protected and preserved as a watershed for Chiang Mai people.
But that has not been the happy fate of the mountain, which has its ecological roots in the Himalayas, and its forest. For nearly 80 years, it has been divided up, getting various designations under a pastiche of laws, prompting different degrees of protection and utilisation, and resulting in overlapping designations in recent years, or even encroachment of the protected park.
“Ecologically, it’s the same [Himalayan-influenced] ecosystem, which should not be separated and utilised for human purposes, without a single bite into it. The forest is highly biological diverse, fragile to any disturbance for which we could hardly predict the consequences in the years to come,” said Manat.
“Any disturbance I view as being profound,” insisted Manat, who conducted a geographical and ecological survey for the management plan for Doi Suthep-Pui National Park report, published by the Geographical Society of Thailand in 1993.
Protesters plan to rally in Chiang Mai and online http://www.nationmultimedia.com/detail/national/30344214
The history of conflict
Doi Suthep would not have gained public attention had the Courts of Justice not proceeded with the construction of residences for court officials and an office for the Court of Appeals Region 5 at the foot of the mountain.
Despite claims the land plot of around 147 rai (23.5 hectares) in total had been acquired legally, local residents have cried “foul” over the project, which is worth almost Bt1 billion.
Locals have called for demolition of parts of the residence, which they view as encroaching upon the pristine forest and natural waterways on the mountain.
Besides, the mountain is claimed to be a spiritual place for local people in Chiang Mai and in the North, as it is one of the seven “Chai Mongkol” – an auspicious element for victory – when King Meng Rai built the city over 700 years ago. The spirituality of the mountain was a key element in seeking its designation, along with the ancient city of Chiang Mai, as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The end of the conflict is nowhere in sight as neither side has stepped back from what they see as their own upright stance.
Chiang Mai residents today plan to hold a major rally to once again demonstrate their opposition to the project.
A scrutiny of the original designation of the area suggests the court would be correct in its claims. State records found show it was first designated the controversial area as part of the “forbidden land” and subject to use for military purposes under a royal decree issued in 1940.
In 1957, the area was registered as “treasury land” with a state land document issued for it and authority assigned to the Treasury Department to supervise land of around 23,787 rai (3,806 hectares) in total.
However, seven years later, the Doi Suthep area – with 108,375 rai in 10 tambons in Muang, Mae Rim, and Hang Dong districts – was classified as a new forest reserve after being designated as land “forbidden” for forestry purposes since 1949.
In 1981 and 1982, the same forest reserve was then declared as the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, with an area of 163,162 rai or around 261 square kilometres.
However, the park designation did not cover the whole range, leaving outside the scope of its protection several pristine forest plots on the mountain – including the controversial plot for the court.
Prime authorities in charge of those plots include the Treasury Department, which has never publicly revealed the exact parameters of the land under its authority.
The National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department has apparently acknowledged the exclusion of lands from protection, remarked one forestry official who works on national park designation.
The official noted that the Parks Department had been attempting to include more of the pristine forest on the mountain into the current protected boundary – a task that he said was “struggling”.
Eating up Doi
Manat’s report has pointed to one of the larger problems created when Doi Suthep was first designated – land occupation by local residents as well as various government agencies.
As stated in the report, at least 30 agencies were occupying over 7,000 rai of the protected park, forcing the National Parks Department to cut the overlapping territories out of public designation. Unauthorised occupation and use by these agencies were also reported.
“It cannot be denied that Doi Suthep national park’s degradation is a result of political and economic influence,” the report said.
According to the department chief, Thanya Netithammakul, the department last year had to exclude the overlapping park area to make way for nine agencies. They included the Agriculture Department, the Highland Research and Development Institute, the Royal Project Foundation, the National Office of Buddhism, and others.
So far, there are no available estimates or figures detailing to what extent the protected forest of Doi Suthep would be further removed for additional public use.
The department’s forest crime suppression taskforce, Phaya Sua, as well as its peer group in the Royal Forestry Department, Phaya Prai, have meanwhile learned that influential figures are involved in a number of new encroachments on the Doi, turning the pristine forests into luxury resorts and residences.
Around 15,000 rai in the national park have so far been occupied pending further examination.
Professor Manat, who has now retired from Chiangmai University's Geography Department , is left with the heartfelt hope of seeing the fragmented forest connected once again and put beyond the reach of any political or legal power.
“When we look at the Doi, you can see clearly that it’s the same patch of forest and should be under the same protection from now,” concluded Manat.