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NEWS - Thailand: Locals Say Ecotour

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
            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 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
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
            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
            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
            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".