On the anniversary of the conservationist’s death, spare a thought for the still-dwindling forests
Twenty-six years ago today, Seub Nakhasathien, a heroic defender of forest and wildlife, took his own life in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, where he served as superintendent.
He did not live to see his ambition of having that preserve and adjoining Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary jointly declared a World Heritage site, but perhaps his loss provided the needed spark. The following year, 1991, his seniors in authority finally saw the wisdom in an idea that Seub had long championed – the country’s largest woodland area required formal protection against encroachment and deforestation. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) added Thungyai Naresuan and Huai Kha Khaeng to the World Heritage list.
Suicide is never the answer, no matter how severe an individual’s troubles, but in this bittersweet case at least Sueb achieved his goal posthumously.
Meanwhile, however, if the two forest preserves he finally did turn into genuine sanctuaries are being shielded, Thailand continues to witness the loss of forests elsewhere at a shocking rate. Logging continues even though no new concessions have been granted since 1989, the result of the then-government’s most welcome “closing the forests” policy. Wide swaths have been denuded nevertheless, in spite of the ban. Encroachment goes on, too, against determined efforts to curb it, with even large resorts pulled down, most notably in Khao Yai National Park.
It is telling that there is no precise reading of how much forest remains in Thailand. Estimates range from less than 20 per cent of the total land mass to a little over 30 per cent. Much of the surviving woodland is in poor health.
The woods are up against the wealthy – the businesspeople with the cash and political influence to override prohibitions. They fell sizeable growths of coveted timber and clear protected forests to make room for homes and hotels that might be rustic, given the setting, except for their posh designs. Corrupt officials are apparently happy to accommodate the tree-cutters and the developers. The post-coup government, saying it’s keen to end graft, has made some inroads with its aim to “retrieve the forest”, causing consternation among the chainsaw set, but it still might not be enough to save what’s left.
As no less a figure than His Majesty the King has reminded us time and again, the loss of forests represents a severe threat to everyone, including city dwellers. The trees hold water and their roots keep the soil in place, preventing erosion. Cut down the trees and the land gives way, landslides occur, flooding extends far downstream and our supply of oxygen is depleted.
We have nothing but praise for the forestry officials doing an honest job trying to protect the woodlands, but they cannot be expected to do the job alone. With firm government policies in place and the strict enforcement of the law, it falls to the rest of us to guard the forests. More rural communities should be encouraged to do their part. More reforestation projects are essential. Children should be taught in school and at home how dangerous it is to damage nature.
Recently a campaign percolated on the social media that got people pledging money and labour to plant trees in the badly deforested northern province of Nan. It was a wonderful gesture, but Thailand needs more than online trends to save its woodlands. Everyone has to be involved, in however small a way, in efforts to preserve our endangered forests. Success in halting the loss of the green areas would benefit not just today’s admirers of the trees. Our children and grandchildren will thank this generation for having the foresight to act while there was still time.