Four years ago, Phu Thap Boek -- a popular mountainous attraction in Phetchabun province -- became synonymous with the success of the military regime in reclaiming forest land, or the Tuang Kuen Phuen Pa campaign when the state took back forest land from illegal occupants.
In pursuing the policy, the junta invoked the draconian Section 44 of the interim charter, vowing to remove illegal resorts in the namesake forest reserve. Sixty-four resorts were bulldozed and some 100 resort operators, half of them locals and the rest from elsewhere in Thailand, were charged. Phu Thap Boek was indeed a watershed moment, symbolising a bold policy with action taken against influential people.
After the Phu Thap Boek raid, the Forest Department and National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department expanded the campaign elsewhere, targeting illegal resorts such as Mae Rim in Chiang Mai, Khao Kho in Phetchabun province, Wang Nam Khieo in Nakhon Ratchasima, as well as illegal rubber plantations in the South.
Despite the promising start, the forest reclamation endeavour at Phu Thap Boek fizzled out, with an upsetting turn. The operation was suspended after the first 64 resorts were removed. The remaining 100 or so that remain came out to pressure the Prayut government to accept their illegal stay, citing local economy benefits and tourism. Some even claimed they had lived in the area before it was designated as a forest reserve. Their claims were endorsed by some local officials.
This month, Phetchabun provincial authorities lobbied the government to re-classify Phu Thap Boek, from forest reserve to general state land, or as ratchapassadu, which means an area that will be under the Ministry of Finance's jurisdiction, a process that they claim could address long-overdue problems of state encroachment.
Phetchabun has struggled to address the wrongful use of forest reserve land for several years. Phu Thap Boek highlights this longstanding problem. The areas were originally reserved for the resettlement of the Hmong hilltribe people. But after some time, hilltribe villagers leased the land to resort operators. This was when mass encroachment started. The local authorities said the proposal, which is being considered by provincial governor Suebsak Eiam-vicharn, will enable the state to get the land back while letting local tourism prosper at the same time.
It is reported that the province is lobbying Deputy Finance Minister Santi Promphat to issue a law to reclassify the area in question, so that the state, via the Treasury Department, can lease it. The governor has reportedly urged local resort operators to lobby the Prayut government.
The move by the provincial authorities is a disservice to the state forest reserve and the country. If successful, it could set an unfavourable example to other illegal resort operators, leading to more deforestation.
Local authorities may mean well in trying to introduce such a policy that in their opinion will help boost the local economy and tourism, but it will nurture the vicious cycle of land grabs by those who do not deserve the land. The policy is short-sighted.
Mountainous forest areas can be tourism magnets, but they are also significant in terms of ecology. Phu Thap Boek comprises a watershed area that helps generate natural water and rivers. Developing resorts on forest slopes can lead to environmental woes and natural disasters, such as mudslides and flood runoff -- a threat to public safety. On top of that, if local authorities get what they want, this will set the wrong precedent for forest protection.