Meet Sasin Chalermlarp, the environmental activist who walked nearly 400 kilometres to stop a dam from being built
Sasin Chalermlarp first caught the news media’s attention amid the massive flooding in late 2011 when he posted a video on YouTube that succinctly explained what was going on. He reappeared last autumn leading the protest against the Mae Wong Dam in Nakhon Sawan, walking the entire 388 kilometres from the site to Bangkok over the course of 13 days. Sasin’s ordeal helped turned the tide – the government cancelled the project, sparing a vast area of lush green land.
Now the 46-year-old conservationist has released his first book, “Pom Tam Ngarn Hai Pi Seub” (“I Work for Seub”) through Nanmee Books. It recounts his 10 years serving as secretary general of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, a non-governmental organisation founded in 1990 in memory of the late Seub, another much-admired conservationist.
Sasin sat down with The Nation to share some of the story.
Why did you decide to launch this book?
First of all I wanted to give people some idea of what the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation does. I wanted to stress that we’re a self-funded NGO and not part of Thailand’s Royal Forest department.
We’re not forest rangers, we’re not based in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, and we can’t make arrests. We’re just watchdogs monitoring potential threats to forest, wildlife and wild places, which many times involves disagreeing with the authorities and intercepting the government’s development plans.
Second, I wanted to have a voice in the conservation community and beyond. A lot of people on the circuit know about me and about the foundation’s work, but most people still don’t. Also, it would be nice to get wider recognition, both for me as secretary general of the foundation and for the foundation itself. It would really help ease our work and with fund-raising as well.
How did you come to work for the foundation?
I’ve been there for 10 years now. Before that I was a geology lecturer at Rangsit University.
The first project I took on was to resolve the conflict between the authorities and Karen farmers over the misconception of shifting cultivation. I started off with locals-and-authorities reconciliation tasks, but somehow it escalated to more serious matters, like dam and road projects – and a lot of protests [laughs]. But mainly it’s all about preserving nature, wildlife and the forests.
How did Seub Nakasathien inspire you to take on conservation work?
The title of the book might mislead you. I never met Seub – he committed suicide while I was still at university. But I’m sure most people in my generation still remember a picture of him administering CPR to a nearly drowned deer, and that determined look on his face. It’s hard to forget, and it touched me deeply.
Just before he died I read an interview with him in a newspaper, which I think was his last interview, and it inspired me even more. He is essentially my hero.
What has been your biggest obstacle so far?
It’s the system that’s frustrating. The preserved forests in all parts of Thailand are constantly exploited and destroyed because we don’t know the exact size of each forest and where the borderlines are. And when we try to find out more about the areas, to see whether the violated part is in the preserved forest or not, it becomes a nightmare.
Another problem is the government’s progressive and invasive development plans, which often involve cutting down trees and violating fertile forests. So far, we’ve protested one big project by the government every year, with Mae Wong Dam project being the latest, last year.
But I have to say that, whenever politics is unstable, our protest work is light, because the government has no time to launch development plans. I don’t know if it’s good or bad [laughs]. But that’s when we have time to further our own development and rehabilitation activities for the forests, and enhance the lives of those living with the forests.
Money is always the big issue. We don’t have sustainable donations to run the foundation, and we have to take money from private companies, which might seem questionable to the public. Considering where we stand, it’s hard to find money.
You have not once lost in any of the battles you’ve taken on. What’s your trick?
It’s all about talking reason, actually. We draft a well-researched report, reasoning why a certain project would do more harm than good, and present it to the government.
If they insist on proceeding, then we have to raise public awareness, host a debate and corner the opposition on national TV [laughs]. You have to know who to talk to, who to persuade and who has what power in the process. You just have to keep pushing, and push hard.
Seub Naksasthien: Friend of the forest
An icon of the movement to protect and conserve nature in Thailand, Seub Nakhasathien was best known for his struggle to keep the developers away from the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Prachin Buri native earned master’s degrees in silviculture at Kasetsart University and in environmental studies at the University of London.
In 1986 Sueb was appointed wildlife-evacuation project leader for the Chiew Larn dam, which would have created a reservoir covering 400 square kilometres. He was able to save hundreds of animals, but many more perished in the flooding and Sueb regarded the project as a failure. That’s when he began protesting against logging and dams.
Three years later, named chief of the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, he shifted from being an academic scholar to a dedicated conservationist, joining the protests against the Namjone Dam in Kanchanaburi.
To protect the forests of Huai Kha Kheang and Thungyai Naresuan parks, Seub prepared a proposal for Unesco to name them to its World Heritage list. “I would like to speak on behalf of the wildlife,” he often said, “because they can’t speak for themselves.”
Despondent over setbacks, Seub committed suicide at his Huai Kha Khaeng headquarters on September 1, 1990, leaving his assets to the Khao Nang Rum research station. The following year, Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries were together declared a Unesco World Heritage site.
Find out more about the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation at www.Seub.co.th.