Thailand–– Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has ordered a probe into alleged involvement of politicians in widespread bushfires in peat swamp forests in Nakhon Si Thammarat and other provinces.
The fresh investigation follows a report that the fires, which have destroyed more than 15,000 rai of forests in five districts of three provinces, were intentionally set by encroachers looking to clear land for palm oil plantations.
The masterminds of the bushfires are “politicians at the national and local levels”, said Damrong Pidech, chief of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
He declined to reveal their identities, saying an investigation must be completed first. However, he admitted it will be very difficult to track the culprits down because of a lack of evidence.
Even suspects who emerge right out of a burning forest cannot be detained if they deny they have anything to do with a fire, he said. “There are no security cameras in the forest.”
The woods cover large areas, making inspections difficult, he said.
Mr Damrong yesterday made an aerial inspection of Pa Phru Kuan Kreng, a peat swamp forest ravaged by fires.
He suspected the fires were man-made because he could count as many as 33 hotspots at about 10km intervals from his viewpoint aboard a helicopter.
He said some forest reserves have already become rubber and palm plantations.
“This [burning] is heart-breaking. I can say that within 10 years, all forest reserves in the South will be totally cleared for commercial plantations. There will be only limestone and water left,” Mr Damrong said.
Provincial officials have declared many areas in Cha-uat and Chian Yai, two of the five districts in Nakhon Si Thammarat now struggling against forest fires, as disaster zones needing urgent help from the government, said Chetsada Watthananurak, head of the province’s disaster prevention and mitigation office.
The other three districts are Chalerm Prakiat, Hua Sai and Pak Phanang.
The bushfires have added to the troubles of the drought-afflicted province.
About 13 of its 23 districts have been declared drought disaster zones with 56,800 households and 181,200 crop fields in dire need of water, Mr Chetsada said.
Bushfires are also destroying peat swamp forests in Thale Noi non-hunting area and Khlong Yuan forest reserve in Khuan Khanun district of Phatthalung, which borders Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Fire control officials cannot protect Phatthalung Botanical Garden, the province’s century-old peat swamp forest, after a large part of its 6,000-rai area was damaged by fire. Over 1,000 monkeys have reportedly escaped from the forest to areas near residences of local people.
“The situation at Phatthalung Botanical Garden is now critical,” said its chief Tharathon Kaeophlap.
The fires keep spreading while its staff have become exhausted from battling them every day for about a week, he said.
Swamped in smoke: Thick smoke enshrouds a vast tract of peat swamp forest in Nakhon Si Thammarat. Fires have destroyed more than 15,000 rai of the peat swamp, including part of the Samet Khao cultivation study area of the Chaipattana Foundation. (Photo by Nucharee Rakrun)