The Ill Effects of Thailand’s Conservation Efforts

     In Thailand, as in many similarly developing nations, degradation of the environment has motivated the government to take action by creating national parks and other protected areas. While mostly driven by good intentions, the effects of these new protected areas can often impact the livelihoods of local people and, contrary to the government’s or non-governmental organization’s goal, ultimately harm surrounding environments. All too often, local ethnic groups and communities are not consulted in matters of these novel spaces. The lack of dialogue with local people by the Thai government in creating national parks and other similar protected areas has ultimately led to further environmental damage.

     From 1961 to 1991, Thailand saw a fifty percent decrease of its existing forest coverage (Dearden and Hyenegaard, 1998). This deforestation can be attributed to various causes, such as timber extraction for fuelwood, unsustainable agriculture, and national development through road-building and the construction of railways (Hirsch, 1988). Additionally, the Thai government, biased towards economic growth, has emphasized agricultural expansion and similar programs that encourage cash cropping and unsustainable production (Hirsch, 1988). Additionally, as the population grows, residential development has increased and has been accompanied by a rise in energy demand, which is then satisfied by the cutting of forests for fuelwood (Panusittikorn and Prato, 2001). The drastic reduction in forested area helped to inspire a change in thinking and forward movement in the Thai government’s effort to create strict protected areas, such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

     When Thailand first began its foray into conservation with the establishment of Khao Yai National Park in 1962, the government followed the United States model for national parks (Ghimire, 1994). This standard emphasizes the “protection of natural uniqueness for educational and recreational benefits of ‘the public,’” focusing on visitors and leisure seekers as opposed to local people who live off of the land, such as hill tribes and other ethnic minority groups (Ghimire, 1994). This mission has since changed, as growing importance has been placed on biological diversity and preserving ecosystem function in most developing countries (Ghimire, 1994). Now, instead of conservation that aims to benefit visitors, fortress conservation that protects natural areas from human influence is emphasized.

     While the ultimate goals of preservation, stated above as the conservation of species and natural ecosystems services, are noble, they are often difficult to carry out without holistic management and disregard the rights of local populations. Instead, government officials are most concerned with the logistics of protected areas, in particular the enforcement of laws, administrative matters, and the funding of such spaces. Local people, who often depend on the forest or land that is being protected, “are considered secondary” and their needs, such as land for agriculture and logging, are often left unaddressed (Ghimire, 1994). In most cases, local people are not consulted with during the planning or establishment process and feel as if they have no voice in construction or management (Ghimire, 1994; Bennett and Dearden, 2014). They are not able to express their views as important stakeholders in the area and are automatically disadvantaged.

     There is an obvious disconnect about how to best serve the goal of conservation between those who create the boundaries and regulations that control conserved spaces and the people who live in such spaces. This disconnect can directly impact the success of the protected area, as “conservation success is often predicated on local support for conservation” (Bennett and Dearden, 2014). This support is influenced by the impacts and opinions park management officials create for and inspire in local people. In the specific case of the National Marine Parks in Thailand’s Andaman coastal zone, nearby communities felt as if their access to various capital assets like fisheries and harvesting grounds were being greatly reduced or restricted (Bennett and Dearden, 2014). If viewed negatively from the start, local people can lose respect for protected areas and ignore the laws and regulations that govern them. In fact, one official estimated that in many Thai national parks, “up to ten percent of the total area is cleared and resided on by people from surrounding areas” (Ghimire, 1994). This “illegal” land settlement is regarded as one of the largest problems in protected areas, as local people are often seen as unsustainable users of resources who degrade the environment. This clearly ignores such groups as the Karen and the Lua who have complex shifting agricultural systems that allow them to sustainably manage resources so as to use the land for long periods of time (Dearden and Hvenegaard, 1998). While not every local group is able to tenably manage the land, they should not be unilaterally considered a problem but instead as actors who can assist officials in protected area planning.

     When managed properly, the creation of protected areas can both benefit locals and improve the environment. With an increase in protected area often comes an increase in tourism, especially ecotourism that stresses the beauty of natural landscapes. This new sector can add jobs to the economy, as locals can serve as knowledgeable tour guides of protected areas. Furthermore, tourists can create a new marketplace for locals, who can sell off cultural items or other crafts. In addition to economic benefits, protected areas can lead to other positive outcomes. National Marine Parks, for example, can improve fishery landings and have on occasion been shown to better local health and community governance and organization (Bennett and Dearden, 2014). Lastly, creating a protected area can increase awareness of conservation issues. Locals as well as national and international visitors who may have been unaware of environmental issues can become educated on the topic by park officials or NGOs (Dearden and Hvenegaard, 1998). However, if there is no collaboration between local people and park managers or government officials, there will not be equitable environmental or socioeconomic benefits. Bennett and Dearden described the results of most protected areas as “biological successes and social failures” (2014). While biodiversity might be conserved, it is at the cost of local groups who have their autonomy ignored.

     Moreover, local people are also often vilified. While not every group may practice sustainable agriculture, there are massive generalizations made about these groups by governments, NGOs, and academics alike. For example, authors Panusittikorn and Prato wrote that “local villagers, both inside and outside of the [Khao Yai National] park, lack the knowledge and goodwill needed to support conservation” (2001). There is no attempt mentioned to help these local groups learn about sustainable management, only the authors’ views that locals are both not intelligent enough and not moral enough to want to conserve their surroundings. These ideas can lead local villagers to distrust governmental, organizational, and academic faculty that try to alter their lifestyles without truly knowing what they entail. Instead of support, locals often find only contempt and have no incentive to work with the protected area management towards conservation goals. This outcome can then lead to furthering environmental degradation.

     With all of the potential negative effects that local people must confront in the face of biodiversity protection, like relocation or loss of assets for their livelihoods, it is no surprise that many international organizations now suggest that conservation programs must take note of the resource needs of local inhabitants. USAID, the World Wildlife Fund, and other organizations now recognize the importance of local collaboration (Ghimire, 1994). Since the mid-1980s, some programs have tried to create conservation measures that take into account rural and agricultural development (Ghimire, 1994). Ghimire notes the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB) that, in the 1970s, advocated for buffer zones (1994). In theory, buffer zones are established in between protected areas and local settlements to allow livelihoods to remain intact while also promoting conservation. Unfortunately, Ghimire reports that these programs have been stronger on paper than in practice, as the objectives of the government are prioritized over the objectives of the local people (1994). There are some programs that have been promising, however. One is the World Wildlife Fund’s promotion of conservation education and small loans for crop diversification for people who pledge not to work in or alter the forest. A second example is the Rural Development for Conservation program, which works similar to the WWF except for an additional emphasis on family planning and ecotourism income (Ghimire, 1994).

     Sometimes, instead of collaboration with local people, the government’s action is to remove them from the conservation equation entirely. Government policies in Thailand have varied in the past, but have included removal from the area by force or by policy, relocation, or a movement to smaller sectors of land outside of the protected area (Ghimire, 1994). Removal often proves difficult, as there is rarely motivation for local people to move and no suitable alternative offered (Ghimire, 1994). Relocation and movement to outside of the protected area, likewise, are unattractive to local groups. The changes are often to completely new climatic zones, meaning that traditional agricultural practices no longer work (Ghimire, 1994). This then leads to increased environmental degradation in the new settlements, as traditional crops deplete soils. Additionally, resettled locals often have to clear more forested area, as the move leaves them unable to fulfill their subsistence needs (Ghimire, 1994). The forced removal or relocation of locals, practiced less frequently today, often leads to further environmental harm as opposed to the improvement it advertises.

     Ultimately, the livelihoods of local people and the goals of protected areas based upon the idea of fortress conservation are seemingly at odds with one another. In developing nations, it is difficult to balance the resource uses of local people with the exclusive protection of areas of biodiversity (Ghimire, 1994). While there are some success stories, a large number of case studies reveal conflicts between management and locals in the planning of protected areas (Ghimire, 1994). Thailand is “unlikely to achieve its conservation potential without significant improvements to governance and management and increased attention to local development” (Bennett and Dearden, 2014). Thailand must repair the relationships between local groups and the government in order to create an equitable, successful conservation system.

     While it remains to be seen how to best achieve that equal success for governments and local people in protected areas, the conservation movement is not slowing down. In developing countries especially, the number of protected areas are increasing rapidly. As the idea of nature conservation grows in popularity and attractiveness amongst the Thai, an increasing number of protected areas are created. While previous motivations for wildlife sanctuaries and national parks had been the preservation of various plant and animal species, motives have since changed. Instead, there mere fact that an area contains forest is justification enough for its protection (Ghimire, 1994). In 2001, there were 95 national parks that covered approximately 16% of the country’s land area (Panusittikorn and Prato, 2001). Currently in Thailand, there are 127 national parks (“Thai National Parks,” 2017). This represents nearly a 75% growth over sixteen years in the number of national parks and does not even include similar areas like wildlife sanctuaries and forest parks.

     A catalyst for the creation of protected areas has been an abundance of foreign assistance. In the 1970s and 1980s, the World Wildlife Fund, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and others provided generous funding and assistance for the management of conservation spaces (Ghimire, 1994). The availability of this aid “has provided important incentive for government officials to create more parks and sanctuaries,” as the programs “generally offer additional project allowances, office, housing, and transport facilities, and oversea studies” (Ghimire, 1994). The investment by NGOs and other agencies has sparked the creation of additional protected areas as it can lead to greater development and increased national revenue by creating jobs and economic opportunities in order to build infrastructure. While this can be a good thing for Thailand as a whole, the positive effects of these investments rarely reach rural villagers.

     Another, more unfortunate, reason for the increased number and area of protected land is due to local people and the perceived impacts they have on the environment. The Thai government believes that spaces such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries will prevent “occupation and exploitation” by groups who practice swidden agriculture or migrants (Ghimire, 1994). Surprisingly, the timber industry agrees with this motivation. As settlers clear land and deplete forest, timber corporations support regulations that prevent these groups from such practices (Ghimire, 1994). These businesses wish to regulate the locals who diminish resources they wish to capitalize on. It is interesting to note that conservationists and timber companies can find common ground on the issue of local people’s relation to preserved spaces.

     One last highly influential factor that contributes to the rapid creation of protected areas is tourism. Thailand has seen a fast growth in the tourism industry, an important source of capital for its burgeoning economy. In fact, most of the income from national parks and other areas flows directly from tourism (Ghimire, 1994; Panusittikorn and Prato, 2001). The Tourism Authority of Thailand has created a policy that is devised to increase ecotourism, as visitation to national parks and other areas grows in number (Dearden and Hvenegaard, 1998). It is ironic that such an emphasis is placed on growth and development in Thailand when it contributes so considerably to environmental degradation. As Panusittikorn and Prato note, tourists act both intentionally and unintentionally to disturb the environment and ecosystems of national parks (2001).

     Ecotourists in the parks contribute to degradation in various ways. Human waste is left around the park and on trails, and the constant movement of people on the trails impacts the soil and surrounding area through compaction and erosion (Dearden and Hvenegaard, 1998). Additionally, tourism helps to deteriorate the environment by infrastructure development. Using the Doi Suthep National Park in northern Thailand as an example, Panusittikorn and Prato observe that the building of access roads, parking lots, and other accommodations like a railroad car has undermined conservation efforts (2001). In the Doi Inthanon National Park, facilities like campgrounds, community areas, bungalows, and restaurants have similarly impacted the environment (Dearden and Hvenegaard, 1998).

     Ultimately, the goal of ecotourism appears to be the increased capital it brings in as opposed to educating visitors on conservation. National parks and other protected areas are steady sources of profit important to a developing nation like Thailand. Local people do not bring in the same amount of money, as they often live through subsistence farming and by utilizing the surrounding environment. While many people believe that ecotourism in national parks can bring benefits to local people, profits are mostly seen by the government and companies that cater to these visitors. Locals often lack experience in providing customer service and are not encouraged to become involved in the protected area and therefore miss out on the benefits that ecotourism could provide (Dearden and Hvenegaard, 1998). Instead of working to improve the environment alongside tourism companies, locals are often isolated from protected areas for their perceived environmental degradation.

     The relationship between locals and areas of conservation “is one of the most important aspects of protected area management” (Dearden and Hvenegaard, 1998). However, it is only recently beginning to be widely regarded as so. Without proper collaboration between government management and local groups, protected areas will not achieve their conservation goals. The lack of dialogue between the two parties will lead instead to increased environmental degradation in contrast to protection.