New National Parks boss drops predecessor's iron-fisted approach to encroachment
The newly appointed director-general of the National Parks and Plant Conservation Department, Manophat Huamuangkaew, vowed to implement a new policy for dealing with forest encroachers that relies on finding compromise, instead of driving them out of national parks by force.
Illegal resorts in national parks on which the Supreme Court had already issued a final ruling will still be removed, but the department will take a softer approach that involves the owners in the process, instead of simply deploying hundreds of forest officials to demolish the structures.
"It is not only a waste of time and money, but it is also destroying the image of the department," Manopat told The Nation in an exclusive interview.
Before taking the top position as director-general, Manopat was a deputy director-general of the department. His approach to dealing with national park encroachment is totally different from that of former director-general Damrong Pidej, who is now a leader of the Tuang Kuen Puen Pa (Thai Forest Land Reclamation) Party.
Damrong adopted an unyielding, aggressive approach, arresting illegal forest encroachers, including wealthy people who used their influence to encroach on national park areas. Members of the public and environmental activists applauded the strategy.
Since Damrong retired from the top position at the department in October last year, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Preecha Rengsomboonsook has spent at least two months selecting a dependable replacement.
Actually, Manopat was a dark horse for this position, as Damrong had previously tried to promote his deputy director-general Rerngchai Prayoonvej as his successor, but Preecha did not support Damrong's idea and appointed Manopat instead.
"I have my own way to deal with the national park encroachment problem; it is different from that of Damrong, who always demolished illegal structures and took the encroached-upon land back. I will deal with it in a way that is softer, but strong enough," he said.
For example, he said, from now on the department will use a win-win approach by negotiating with the owners of illegally built resorts to demolish illegal structures themselves. If they do not, the department will take legal action against the owners.
"In times past, we just gave them a time but we did not negotiate with them. We only told them what to do," he said, insisting that he had not received any particular orders from the government to end demolitions.
"Minister Preecha has instructed me to strictly follow the law and take strong legal action against wrongdoers. I’ve been working with the department for a long time; I know what I should do to end this chronic problem," he said.
To restore the country's degraded forestland - particularly in the national park areas - Manopat will not only negotiate with the resort owners to return the encroached-upon land to the department, but he will also persuade local people living in areas overlapping national parks and forest reserves to help the department recover the degraded areas. The existence of overlapping areas has often caused confusion and created legal conflicts.
"If people understand that forestlands belong to everyone in this country, I believe they will help to recover the destroyed areas and the conflict between the department and local people will diminish," he said.
The department will use satellite images to designate forest reserve areas upon which people will be completely prohibited from encroaching. After that, the department will ask people to check the corrected designated areas and find a resolution together as to whether they should be allowed to continue living in the forest reserves or move out.
Manopat said the department would also designate a special zone that landless people would be allowed to utilise temporarily.
This would be similar to the situation in the degraded forest areas in Nakhon Ratchasima province's Wang Nam Kheow district, where the department has allowed landless people to use the land to earn money and improve their lives.