By Dr Brian J D’Arcy. This article first appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of the RSGS’s magazine, The Geographer.
The Jungle Book is a compelling read. Not the Rudyard Kipling classic, but a compilation of essays first published in the Bangkok Post which reflect on politics and a range of recent issues in Thailand. Hydro-dams or forests? Electricity and irrigation, or sustainable local economies dependent on the natural forests? Tourism and recreational development, or pristine forest reserves? Thailand has experienced all of those debates and has examples of each type of development.
The westernisation of Thailand’s forestry economy over the past 150 years was initially a process of unsustainable resource exploitation, primarily focused on teak extraction for European demand. Forest cover declined rapidly, from c75% in 1900, to 53% by 1961, to only 28% by 1989, when the government introduced a ban on logging. That was followed, however, by a focus on commercial forestry practices exemplified by monoculture planting of even-aged exotic timber species, grown on a clear-fell harvesting strategy. Sadly, there are real parallels with Scottish forestry. In Thailand, the selected tree species for commercial planting were pine and eucalyptus, although only the latter proved economic. If a shift from forests with up to 20 tree species to just one or two seems regrettable in Europe, such a move in a tropical forest where there would naturally be 160+ tree species was probably the intellectual abyss of single purpose forestry philosophy. Globally, the current search for sustainable renewable energy resources, as well as the steady rise in the value of wildlife tourism, threatens to reinvigorate land-use conflicts, driven also by efforts to escape from economic slow-down. and water resources.
The jungles of tropical Thailand are remarkable places, where lianas that would sustain dozens of Tarzan movies hang down from towering trees, where gibbons sing and swing high up in the canopy, and giant squirrels the size of pussy-cats chatter from the security of forest foliage. The birdlife is amazingly rich, and deer, wild boar and elephants create and maintain paths through the undergrowth below. Butterflies flit between trees and flowers, and epiphytic plants growing on the trees include remarkable orchids. A tropical forest in Thailand is still wonderful.
Sign at Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary, making clear the connection between protected forests Thailand has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites gazetted for natural history importance and landscape. The larger site has the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary at the heart of the most extensive continuous area of protected forest in mainland Southeast Asia: the Western Forest Complex. There, an estimated 100 tigers still live in the wild, one of the largest continuous populations on Earth. There are three species of wild cattle – gaur (the world’s largest wild ox), banteng, and water buffalo (one of only four wild populations in the world). Malayan tapir maintain a population, and rumours continue of rhinos. The regional fauna includes a host of other wild animals, from elephants and primates to the world’s smallest bat and longest venomous snake. Several different forest types are present, including dry deciduous dipterocarp forest in the rain shadow of the mountains. The region drains southwards, feeding reservoirs that flooded tropical forests when created, amid considerable controversy. But government policy prohibits further encroachment, underpinning the UNESCO designation, so the dams (damage done) now provide a compatible protected land-use as downstream neighbours of the forest reserves.
North-east Thailand, the country’s poorest region, has featured in many land-use conflicts over large projects seeking to clear-fell forest and either flood with a dam or replace with eucalyptus. But it still has some excellent large and biologically diverse forest areas, including the Dong Phayayen Forest Complex, the other World Heritage Site. Based upon the Khao Yai-Thap Lan National Parks, the UNESCO designation is however under threat, following the upgrading of a strategic highway connecting the north-east with Bangkok and the mainstream economy of the central region. The government is looking at ways to mitigate wildlife impacts of the dual carriageway that bisects the designated area.
The establishment of community forests was enabled by new legislation in 2007. It is heartening to see an excellent example established by local communities at the north-eastern end of Khao Yai, protecting some old forest and healthy naturally-regenerating forest too, stabilising hill slopes and protecting water resources, and encouraging income from wildlife tourism. The pressure for forest timber is still an economic consideration, but in other parts of north-east Thailand, teak plantations are being encouraged on a far smaller scale than would be usual for industrial forestry, as part of securing more economic diversity for farming incomes, using funds for carbon sequestration planting to create small stands of teak. One novel application of teak plantations has created a buffer zone between farmland and the forest reserve at Phu Kradueng National Park, an example of ‘contiguous compatible investment’. Local community action and creative green enterprise can work well alongside government initiatives. The difficulties and the achievements in Thailand deserve greater recognition and offer interesting ideas for wider consideration.