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NEWS - Thailand: Locals Say Ecotour
- Subject: NEWS - Thailand: Locals Say Ecotour
- From: Rangoonp@xxxxxxx
- Date: Tue, 10 Nov 1998 21:24:00
Subject: NEWS - Thailand: Locals Say Ecotourism Is Destruction
NOTE: I thought Thailand knew better than to excessively cut-down trees.
That is why they are stripping Burma of its Teak, Rosewood, and other
Development-Thailand: Locals Say Ecotourism Is Destruction
Inter Press Service
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, (Nov. 9) IPS - Somsak Suriyamoltol,
26, has lived all his life amid the thick green forests of
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
and identity is in the forest and I intend to live there
as a farmer."
Somsak's wish however may no longer be so simple.
The Thai government, with a $1.25 million 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
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
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,"
Five years ago, Somsak lead a successful protest against
Thailand's powerful Forest Industry Organization (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
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
11 distinct ones -- play a valuable part of northern
tourism industry. Tourism is the biggest revenue earner for
Chiang Mai province, bringing in $350 million in 1997.
"Unlike the beaches which are the top tourist resorts in
Thailand, Chiang Mai offers visitors a taste of Thai
said an official with the Tourism Authority of Thailand
"As a result, trekking tours which include visits to hill
are very popular."
Wearing colorful native costumes and headdresses, many
hill tribes have turned their villages into exotic tourist
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,
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
to him degrades native culture and threatens traditional
"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
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
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
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
"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
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".