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DEVELOPMENT-THAILAND: Locals Say Ecotourism is Destruction

Suvendrini Kakuchi

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Nov 9 1998 (IPS) - Somsak Suriyamoltol, 26, has lived all his life amid the thick green forests of Baan Wat Chan here, in what is called Thailand’s last remaining patch of virgin pine forest.

Somsak belongs to a Karen hill tribe in western Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north. His forefathers came from Burma 300 years before him.

Along with the 700 Karen families who live in Wat Chaan, Somsak says their lives are simple and content, mostly dependent on farming and hunting. Clothes are homespun and people have known little want.

“I don’t want to live anywhere else,” says the young man dressed in jeans and shirt, who divides his time between his forest village and studying at Chiang Mai University. “My life and identity is in the forest and I intend to live there forever as a farmer.”

Somsak’s wish however may no longer be so simple.

The Thai government, with a 1.25 million dollar loan from Japan, plans to turn his remote Wat Chaan into a thriving tourist destination, where visitors from rich countries will pay handsomely to stay in the forest and observe the Karen.

Wat Chaan’s future has become the object of a bitter contest for Somsak and the Karen community and the government.

The Karen’s outrage is shared by many academics and grassroots groups who say the project — which would require cutting down thousands of acres of virgin forest — would affect natural water supply to the Karen village and destroy their livelihood.

The government views its plans for Wat Chaan as a fine example of ecotourism. But for critics, the word “ecotourism” has come to mean a way for the cash-strapped government to open up Thailand’s precious national parks to environmentally destructive foreign investment.

“The concept of ecotourism is a tool being used by the Thai government to promote a business that will encroach into Thailand’s national parks and lush forests,” said Chayant Pholphoke, who teaches development economics at Chiang Mai University.

Chayant, along with local non-governmental groups, are supporting Somsak and 100 other young people from Wat Chaan who have set up a lobbying network called the Wat Chaan Protest Group.

“We want a halt to the project because we fear we will have no homes or will lose our culture and environment,” explained Somsak.

Five years ago, Somsak lead a successful protest against Thailand’s powerful Forest Industry Organisation (FIO), which had plans with Finland to chop pine trees in the area for export. The project was later abandoned.

For the Karen, the project would have meant sacrilege. Somsak says that according to tradition, Karen are not allowed to cut down a single tree.

“We are taught by elders to think about the future of our children. If we protect our forest there will always be rain. We believe a spirit in the forest protects us,” he explained.

“The FIO has not consulted with us, the Karen, who live on the land. We are ready to discuss the project and will not oppose it if there are clear plans that our livelihood and environment will be protected,” added Somsak.

Despite that victory, Somsak says he cannot rest because he suspects the government is keen to pursue this ecotourism project to green its image.

Thailand’s ecotourism appeal rests a in a major way on its rich cultures and hill tribes.

The Chiang Mai Tourist Authority says hill tribes — there are 11 distinct ones — play a valuable part of northern Thailand’s tourism industry. Tourism is the biggest revenue earner for Chiang Mai province, bringing in 350 million dollars in 1997.

“Unlike the beaches which are the top tourist resorts in Thailand, Chiang Mai offers visitors a taste of Thai culture,” said an official with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). “As a result trekking tours which include visits to hill tribes are very popular.”

Wearing colorful native costumes and headdresses, many hill tribes have turned their villages into exotic tourist spots. They sell their textiles and jewelry or dance or pose for photographs for foreign visitors.

Many of the hill tribe projects are touted by the government as a viable way of “developing” the north — ending opium growing in these remote villages, curbing illegal logging, and allowing indigenous groups to join mainstream Thai society.

But Somsak dreads the possibility of his village, which he says does not trade in opium, turning into a show project that to him degrades native culture and threatens traditional lifestyles.

“I do not want to see my people turned into a human zoo,” he explained. “If we are to change, then we must do it on our own terms.”

Tourism officials agree that hill tribes must be consulted before projects affecting them are started. But the problem, the TAT official says, is indigenous people do not have the educational background or experience to negotiate with officials on equal terms.

“To begin, with the Karen in Wat Chaan for example speak a different dialect to mainstream Thai. Then of course there is the difficulty of understanding legal terms and the consequences of investments that runs into millions of dollars,” said the TAT official, who requested anonymity.

And despite controversies like that engulfing Wat Chaan, the TAT says ecotourism remains the future path for the tourism industry.

Adam Flinn of the tourism firm Green Tours, which has earned praise from TAT for its conservation tours, says part of the problem lies in the loose definition of the term “ecotourism”.

“The term can be exploited by tour operators to build destructive projects. There must be focus on how ecotourism can be made responsible for the environment and the conservation of local lifestyles,” he pointed out.

Green Tours has developed the Elephant Nature Park, where elephants are not made to work whole days and tourists are limited to 100 a day. The park also provides jobs to former teak loggers. “This could be an example of an ecotourism project,” Flinn said.

“The world has changed and hill tribes are aware of the fact that they cannot remain living in isolated forests,” he observed. But genuine ecotourism projects should give them “much needed better health care and jobs and safeguard their lifestyles as well”.

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