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REPOST NEWS - Rumble in the Jungle


Rumble in the Jungle 

Thai protestors lose a pristine forest to a multinational pipeline?but
they may be headed for an even bigger showdown. 

                    by Justin Lowe (Mother Jones Magazine)

                    March 10, 1998 

                    In a dramatic standoff, a small group of Thai
protesters last week faced a phalanx
                    of bulldozers in a last-ditch effort to protect one
of Thailand's few remaining
                    undeveloped forests from a transnational gas

                    On March 3, social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, a Nobel
Peace Prize nominee and
                    recipient of the "alternative Nobel" Right
Livelihood Award, led about 50 students
                    and other activists in an attempt to block
completion of the Yadana natural gas
                    pipeline through Western Thailand's Huay Khayeng
National Forest Reserve. Sulak and his group of protestors
                    faced formidable opposition in their bid to save the
forest, not only from the Thai government and its state-owned
                    Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT), but also from
the unseen hand of multinational energy corporations Unocal
                    and Total, which are partnered with PTT in
developing the Yadana gas field in Burma. 

                    They failed. The bulldozers are back at work, and
the pipeline's effects on the once-pristine forest may be

                    But even as the small band of activists was placed
under arrest, there emerged a silver lining: a legal challenge
                    that could have far-reaching effects on Thailand's
politics and its environment. 

                     Biodiversity vs. Industry
                     Nestled in a range of limestone hills along the
Burma border?a biologically rich area that
                     boasts several national parks, wildlife
sanctuaries, and a World Heritage Site?the Huay
                     Khayeng forest comprises several distinct forest
types and an unusual ecosystem of rivers and
                     caves that is habitat to an almost comical variety
of species, from several herds of endangered
                     Asian elephants to caves full of Kitti's hog-nosed
bat, the world's smallest mammal, to the rare
                     tricolored Royal crab.

The doomed
forest is home to
rare and
species, some
of which live
nowhere else.

                    Huay Khayeng's "reserve" status offers nominal
protection to one of Thailand's few remaining areas of primeval
                    forest, but not the full protection conferred on
national parks?and this is a country where even the national parks
                    are being logged illegally, despite a nationwide
logging ban that began in 1989. Spurred by its recent economic
                    boom, from 1982 to 1992 the nation lost some 14
percent of its forests to extensive commercial logging?legal
                    and illegal?and the household demands of local
villagers, according to the World Resources Institute. Huay
                    Khayeng appears to have escaped the devastation
largely due to its remote location near the Burma border. 

                    Until now, that is. The $1.2 billion, 400-mile
Yadana pipeline will transport natural
                    gas from production fields in the Andaman Sea off
Burma to an electrical power
                    plant still under construction in Ratchaburi,
outside Bangkok. On the way, it bisects
                    the Huay Khayeng forest. Construction is already
complete in Burma (renamed
                    Myanmar by the military dictatorship that controls
the country), where Thailand's
                    PTT is a 25% partner in the consortium developing
the Yadana field, along with the
                    Burmese junta and subsidiaries of the French
petrochemical giant Total and the
                    American multinational Unocal. 

                    The Thai section of the pipeline is being built by
the government-owned PTT at a projected cost of $640 million. It
                    traverses 30 miles of forest in Kanchanaburi
Province, four miles of which is categorized by the government as
                    "first-class watershed," including portions of Huay
Khayeng, one of Thailand's last stands of virgin forest. 

                    Shoddy Eco-Assessment
                    Forest defenders say the government can afford the
estimated $45 million cost of rerouting the pipeline around
                    the forest along existing roads, but PTT has
insisted on proceeding with the project, even after a government
                    committee rejected its initial environmental impact
assessment (EIA) in 1996 for insufficient data on wildlife and
                    forest impacts. Environmentalists have harshly
criticized PTT's flawed EIA, conducted by a private subcontractor,
                    in part because it somehow ignored the rare crab and
missed more than 40 elephants, claiming there were only
                    five in the forest. Opponents also objected to PTT's
control of the EIA and public hearings processes. 

                    Rather than redesign the pipeline, PTT has
vigorously cultivated its "green" image with an expensive PR
                    campaign including television commercials and
tree-planting programs. 

                    Not all the criticism is ecological. Critics also
question whether the country has the demand to justify buying more
                    than 80 percent of the Yadana field's gas in the
middle of a national economic crisis, which began last year and
                    has reduced the nation's projected gas requirements
over the next decade by 20 percent, according to industry

                    Forest Blockade
                    Beginning in December, Thai environmental activists
took direct action, occupying
                    Huay Khayeng forest. As PTT's construction
contractor bulldozed a 40- to
                    70-foot-wide swath through the virgin forest, a
handful of protestors blocked the last
                    few kilometers of the pipeline route in an attempt
to halt the project and protect the
                    reserve. Eventually hundreds would take part in the

                    "This watershed is worth much much more than the 2
billion baht [$45 million] the
                    government may have to spend amending the project,"
activist Phinan
                    Chotirosseranee of the Kanchanaburi Conservation
Group told the Bangkok Post in an interview at the forest
                    camp. "If I had known [their intentions] when they
first inked the deal," she continued, "I wouldn't have even let
                    them set eyes on my province." 

                    The dispute grew into a national controversy in
January and quickly became a major test for the Democrat Party
                    of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, which is committed
to the broad democratic principles embodied in the new
                    national constitution adopted last October?including
the explicit rights of the Thai people to defend natural
                    resources and the environment, and to participate in
decisions about development projects. 

                    On February 9, eight foreign conservationists
delivered to Chuan's office a letter of concern, authored by the
                    International Rivers Network and co-signed by more
than 50 organizations and activists worldwide, urging Chuan
                    to settle the Yadana pipeline dispute openly and

                    "Foreign environmentalists have an obligation to
assist national groups opposing multinational oil companies like
                    Unocal and Total whose projects are detrimental to
the environment," said Pam Wellner, coordinator of the
                    International River Network's Burma project. 

                    Chuan called a ten-day halt to construction on
February 12 and authorized a high-level panel to review the
                    environmental impacts of the project and make
recommendations to the government. Chaired by former Prime
                    Minister Anand Panyarachun, the committee of
economists, lawyers, and environmental experts heard testimony
                    from PTT and conservationists?in return for
environmentalists' commitment to withdraw from the forest following
                    Chuan's decision. 

                    The committee concluded that PTT's environmental
assessment was too shoddy, and its decision-making
                    process too secretive, but it stopped short of
recommending that the pipeline be delayed or rerouted. After
                    reviewing the panel's recommendations and visiting
Kanchanaburi on March 1, Prime Minister Chuan announced
                    his decision: The project will proceed. 

                    Oilers, Drugs, and Money
                    Meanwhile, in El Segundo, California, Unocal Corp.
maintains a low profile on the
                    environmental controversy in Thailand, noting dryly
that "development of the portion
                    of the pipeline extending from the Myanmar-Thai
border to Ratchaburi is the
                    responsibility of PTT." However, the company's huge
investment in the Yadana
                    pipeline, and its 36-year presence in Thailand's
energy market, where it is the
                    country's largest gas producer, belies its attempts
to distance itself from the
                    dispute. Unocal supplies 20 percent of Thailand's
total energy needs and supports
                    more than a third of its electrical generation.
Further muddying the waters, the chairman of the hastily assembled
                    Yadana review committee, former Thai prime minister
Anand Panyarachun, runs one of the country's biggest
                    industrial conglomerates?and is reportedly an
adviser to Unocal. 

                    Unocal is also a major investor in Burma's energy
sector, where its partnership with PTT, Total, and Burma's
                    ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council
(SLORC, recently renamed the State Peace and Development
                    Council) in construction of the Yadana pipeline has
provoked a landmark lawsuit now underway in Los Angeles.
                    The plaintiffs, Burma villagers from the vicinity of
the pipeline, are suing Unocal for financial compensation for
                    human rights violations, including rape, torture,
extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and other "crimes against
                    humanity," allegedly perpetrated by SLORC on behalf
of the pipeline consortium. Unocal representative David
                    Garcia told MoJo Wire these allegations are "false
and unfounded." 

                    Unocal also disputes allegations that its Burmese
partner, SLORC's Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), is
                    a principal agent in laundering a portion of the
estimated 50-70 percent of Burma's revenue earned from heroin
                    production. In March 1996, the U.S. State Department
reported that Burma is the world's largest producer of
                    opium and the source of over 60 percent of the
heroin seized on U.S. streets. According to Francois Casanier, a
                    researcher with the French organization Geopolitical
Drugwatch, "MOGE has been the main channel for
                    laundering the revenues of heroin produced and
exported under the control of the Burmese army." 

                    Under the Bulldozers
                    Even as the Kanchanaburi Conservation Group and its
supporters began to pull out of the forest after the prime
                    minister's announcement, a new team of protesters
not bound by the previous agreement took their place. At the
                    end of February, Sulak Sivaraksa, the 65-year-old
leader of Thailand's Kalayanamitra Council, along with a group
                    of students and protesters, moved in to block
construction crews. "This is against what the prime minister
                    ordered," Sulak told reporters. "He promised the
public that the continuation of the project would be possible on
                    the condition that further construction will not
affect the forest and that threatened wildlife will be recuperated.
                    However, [PTT's contractor] did none of these.
Instead they are cutting more big trees." 

                    The demonstrators lay down in the path of four
bulldozers attempting to clear the forest on March 4, blocking
                    further construction as the drivers threatened to
run them over. 

                    The standoff lasted two days before police moved in
and used water cannons to disperse the demonstrators
                    before arresting about 50. Sulak was charged with
violating the Petroleum Act, a statute that protects PTT's
                    energy operations. He now faces possible fines and a
maximum prison term of six months. 

                    "My friends and I may not be able to protect the
forest," Sulak said after the arrests, "but we want to demonstrate
                    that development without consideration for human
rights, environmental issues and local participation is
                    fundamentally wrong. Development must benefit the
poor, the grassroots, animals and trees. Most grand
                    schemes of economic development benefit
multinational corporations and the super-rich, but harm the majority of
                    people." Bulldozers resumed clearing the forest
along the pipeline route shortly after the arrests. 

                    Constitutional Showdown
                    Sulak pleaded not guilty and, released on his own
recognizance, he now anticipates a show trial beginning May
                    13 at which he will attempt to justify the
occupation of the forest?and seek testimony from PTT officials as well
                    as the prime minister. "I hope that the trial will
enlighten the public on how PTT and the government have been
                    lying to us," Sulak said. 

                    Environmentalists also hope the trial will be a test
of the new Thai constitutional right to protect natural resources
                    and the environment. Any ruling on these new
constitutional issues is likely to set a precedent that will affect
                    government and industry throughout Thailand. Yadana
opponents have already achieved a national precedent
                    with the first-ever public hearings on the
environmental implications of a major development project. 

                    In the meantime, Thai environmentalists continue to
demand a new EIA on the project. Thai activists yesterday
                    picketed the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, where they
delivered a letter addressed to President Bill Clinton urging
                    him to ask Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai to stop the
project. Chuan leaves tomorrow to visit the U.S. with his
                    finance minister in an attempt to shore up investor
confidence in the shaky Thai economy. 

                    Nationwide elections later this year will reveal
whether the Thai government's apparent violation of the new
                    constitution will have any impact in the political
arena. What seems certain is that PTT's "green" image will never
                    recover from the Yadana project. Neither will Huay
Khayeng forest.  

                      Thai activists are calling on U.S. students and
human rights groups to launch their own protest of the Yadana pipeline
                       project this week, when Thai Prime Minister Chuan
Leekpai visits Washington. To learn more, visit the Free Burma
                                          Coalition or the No
Petro-dollars for SLORC campaign. 

                                            Photographs courtesy of
Earth Rights International