At first it seemed to be just a minor issue about a road project in one national park. But as the public last month learned that the plan was to overhaul the entire route through the heart of Kaeng Krachan National Park, the fierce debate and arguments exploded on social media and triggered organised public events.
But after academic knowledge was brought to bear on the argument and room made for public participation, the Phanoen Thung road project controversy is now seen by some noted conservationists as having pushed the country’s conservation work to a new height.
They say that the unique public learning and engagement process generated through the controversy is an example for similar conservation issues to follow.
“The debates and arguments shaped by strong ecological knowledge and expertise have framed the fruitful discussion, with good intentions contributed from all sides,” said Phanudej Kerdmali, a secretary-general of the noted conservation organisation, Seub Nakhasathien. “And with room allowed for the discussion, the result we have seen is what I would like to call ‘the beauty of the Phanoen Thung controversy’.”
The Phanoen Thung road improvement project would not have become controversial if not for its large scope in upgrading the old route, four metres wide and 21 kilometres long, that runs to Phanoen Thung mountain top in the heart of Kaeng Krachan, the country’s largest national park and the subject of a World Heritage nomination.
The area, in fact, is widely known as being rich in biodiversity. It was supposed to have been designated as a wildlife sanctuary over 30 years ago, but was not.
Worries thus grew against the proposal development under the park chief, Mana Phermpool, in consultation with the park’s advisory committee. People feared the project would affect the park’s biodiversity and ecosystems as well as the World Heritage pitch.
Moreover, it was feared that the project would set an example for other parks hoping to develop internal facilities under pressures to increase tourism.
Mana reasoned that the asphalt based 21-km section from Ban Krang campsite to Phanoen Thung was damaged to the point that it would become irreparable if not immediately addressed. The concrete paved road surface was therefore proposed as to prevent heavy damage and erosion in the area, and to increase road safety for users including park visitors.
Improved road access is a component in the park’s management, in which many and sometimes conflicting uses, including tourism, need to be controlled, Mana has said. (Read SPECIAL REPORT: Kaeng Krachan's main priority: tourism or wildlife protection?)
Local conservation groups, however, were not convinced. They were among the first to sound the alarm, led by bird-watching groups that regularly visited the park. They, in turn, were accused of having a conflict of interest by the project’s supporters.
Before the issue degenerated into personal conflicts, some national conservation groups including Seub picked it up and at the end of October, the foundation and 14 other organisations issued a statement in objection to the project.
Seub and its allies expressed critical concern over upgrading route to the heart of the park, through an area rich in biodiversity and home to a wide range of rare mammals and birds. It was also unconvinced by the proposed mitigation measures.
In addition, it cited the lack of public participation in the project. The public, it said, had first learned about the project when the issue was posted on social media early last month. By the time it was posted, the park had already signed a contract with the construction firm.
Among the vocal voices were Seub’s vice president Dr Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, who brought an academic dimension to the debates and arguments with some critical research papers. The research revealed the impacts roads have on wildlife and birds. One study focused on the effects of human disturbance on the habitat, use and behaviour of the Asiatic leopard (Panthera pardus) in Kaeng Krachan National Park, and was done in 2007 by a team of researchers at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi – Dr Dusit Ngoprasert, Antony Lynam and George Gale.
According to that study, under which the extent of the impacts were not fully established and remained debatable, six leopards captured living in the study area had showed changes in their behaviours in response to human activities.
While the researchers learnt that the road dividing the study area was not a barrier to leopard movements, the animals’ movements and activities had been affected by human traffic inside the park. The leopards tended to be less active during the day in areas more heavily used by people, compared to areas with less human impact.
The study also showed that leopard habitat use increased with distance from human settlements at the forest edge. Rungsrit’s critique of the road project based on academic arguments were cited by a number of the project’s opponents. A public educational event held in early November by groups opposing the road upgrade included a forum and a photo exhibition of Kaeng Krachan wildlife and the impacts of roads on wildlife elsewhere.
The National Parks Department immediately responded, with its chief Thanya Netithammakul issuing an immediate press release on the same day, listing the reasons why the road improvement should proceed. The DNP eventually called for a special meeting so that supporters and the opponents could meet, talk and find the best way forward.
Although the first meeting on November 5 was attended mostly by project supporters, an attempt to reach a mutual resolution was made again on November 12. This time, both sides eventually agreed to adjust the plan, focusing only on 26 severely damaged spots.
Credit: Transborder News.
Along with the heavy topic of the road improvement project for the route to Phanoen Thung, Phanudej also observed how the discussion had expanded into the park’s ecological values, management and eco-tourism that people wished to see in the park.
Phanudej said that, in principle, protected areas should be preserved as much as possible. Any changes or disturbances can affect their ecosystems to some extent and roads have long played a destructive role in this aspect, having impacts on forest ecology that often are not immediately evident to the eyes.
The Phanoen Thung area, he noted, is as rich in biodiversity as the forest deeper inside the park, and should therefore be designated under a dark green zone that restricts human activities.
The most problematic issue for Kaeng Krachan is that its forest area is divided by forest communities inside into two main sections, and forest corridors are thus needed to help connect them in order to increase the chances for wild animals to survive.
Considering that the park faces such a critical issue, its management should give priority weight to conservation rather than to tourism, he said.
But as the road improvement is needed, the park’s value and its fragile state must be considered the first and foremost factors to help guide the appropriate road work, he said.
The meeting that worked out an agreement was vital to a good outcome, said Phanudej,
“The inputs that we had at the meeting are valuable as they reflected how valuable Kaeng Krachan was and helped to frame our decision. The process where both sides sat and discussed together was also crucial, having given a new direction for environmental actions that need no ‘special treatment’ to pressure for negotiations as was needed in the past.
“It was a move to a more peaceful and constructive approach, providing another public learning lesson for Thai society,” said Phanudej.
Runsrit said the Phanoen Thung issue has brought Thai society to a watershed where knowledge is driving the outcome when dealing with conservation issues.
He said the disagreement over the road was good because it helped bring people back to debates and discussions about the impacts from roads and mass tourism.
Road ecology, he said, is a science still little known among Thai people and the knowledge needs to be shared in order to help facilitate fruitful future discussions.
In the future, Dr Rungsrit hoped that conservation agencies would come up with more studies and research that better respond to the needs to help address modern conservation issues and facilitate discussions in the society.
This would eventually help in better decision-making, planning and management, he said.
“To make a decision, we need information and knowledge, and that’s the reason why we need some people to help study the areas thoroughly before we say something. This needs a little more investment,” said Rungsrit.