Thailand — As the country holds its breath for the outcome of the Bangkok shutdown operation, it is business as usual in the mountainous North when it comes to forest destruction to feed agro-business. It’s that…
When the haze problem got serious a few years ago, the fingers were pointed at the hill peoples. They were the easy targets because they have long been stereotyped as forest destroyers from slash-and-burn cultivation.
Later research and media investigations have revealed, however, that the culprit is the rapid expansion of cornplantations on the mountains that keep extending deeper into pristine forests.
Both the hill peoples and lowland villagers are engaging in forest clearing to grow corn. But the financial backing that keeps the corn plantations and vast forest destruction going non-stop comes from the agro giants and their animal feed industry.
Corn is a cheap ingredient for animal feed. And it is even cheaper when it comes from “free” land.
Last year, MR Disnadda Diskul, chairman of the Royal Initiative Discovery Institute, summed it up when he discussed the cause of forest destruction in Nan province. “It’s greed, the filthy greed of the contract farming business.” The hill peoples, he added, were mere victims of contract farming.
Mae Hong Son, a scenic province situated in a valley surrounded by high mountains, is among the hardest hit.
Residents find it hard to breathe, flights are cancelled, and tourists stop visiting. Droughts and flash floods have also become frequent. It’s the same with other northern provinces.
Negligence from state officials is often to blame. But now, Mae Hong Son governor Surapol Panas-amphon means business. Earlier this week, he issued an order to his district chiefs to work with kamnan, village heads and local administrative bodies to stop supporting contract farming. Within just a few years, he said, Mae Hong Son has lost more than 60,000 rai of good forest to corn plantations. Forest clearance through burning has also caused widespread forest fires which are difficult to handle due to difficult terrain, resulting in more serious haze. From now on, he threatened, any local officials who help along the contract farm corn plantations will be punished.
Thanit Thaitrong, head of Mae Hong Son Chamber of Commerce, gave full support to the governor’s moves. It’s clear the feed industry for export is in conflict with local interests which are based on tourism.
This shows the problems in the remote mountains of Mae Hong Son are probably not far away from the boiling politics in Bangkok. For when a province is facing conflicting development paths, who is to decide?
At present, governors are primarily policy co-ordinators. All policies are decided from the different ministries in Bangkok with their own officials in charge in each province. This means that if forest officials turn a blind eye to corn plantations in the forests, the governors can do nothing about it.
Decentralisation through direct election of governors is one of the central proposals from the anti-government movement. This should not be. Decentralisation is the way forward and should be embraced by the government. It’s also the best cure for disparity which, if allowed to worsen, will plunge Thailand deeper into political turmoil.