Sam Roi Yod National Park has one of Thailand’s largest freshwater marshes and is home to a rich diversity of wildlife. Although this rare wetland has been named as a site of international importance, a controversial road threatens to upset the delicate ecological balance?
Despite its relatively small size – 61,300 rai or about 98 square kilometres – Sam Roi Yod National Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan province boasts a vast array of natural habitats, from limestone mountains, rocky shores and sandy beaches to mangrove forests, mudflats and marshes. Unfortunately, the park is also well-known as being problem-prone.
Recently, Sam Roi Yod came to public attention once again when the mass media reported on a road project that cut through Thung Sam Roi Yod – one of the country’s largest and richest freshwater marsh which covers an area of 43,260 rai on the western side of the national park. Only 23,000 rai of the marsh is within the park boundary though.
Construction of the controversial road – which took place without a proper study of the impact it would have on the ecologically precious marsh – faced strong opposition from conservationists and has been suspended by the Forestry Department as a result.
But this does not mean that the road project will never be resurrected. In fact, the road is just part of the complex problem that is threatening this rare wetland habitat.
Home to at least 116 species of birds (both residents and winter migrants), 24 species of fish, and many species of reptiles and amphibians as well as insects and plants, Thung Sam Roi Yod is an important reason why this particular Thai national park has been listed in the Asian Wetlands Directory of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) as a site of international importance.
But preserving the natural condition of Thung Sam Roi Yod is not an easy task when the Forestry Department does not really have control over the area, even the part within the park boundary. As a matter of fact, the marsh was not part of the national park from the start.
Long before the park was established in 1966, most of the wetland had been claimed by villagers in the area holding such land occupancy documents as Bor Por Tor 5 and Sor Kor 1 which allow them to use the land for their livelihood but not to sell or mortgage it. Villagers had obtained the documents several decades ago, back when Thung Sam Roi Yod was still dry and could be used as farmland.
According to long-term resident Wandee Jaiboon, who lives near the Chinese shrine on the marsh’s edge, Thung Sam Roi Yod used to only be flooded for three or four months a year. “Things changed when the Phetkasem highway was built,” she says. “With the road on one side and the Sam Roi Yod mountain on the other, water is trapped permanently in the old rice fields. The land has turned into a marsh as it is now.”
Villagers then moved from the submerged land to settle along the edge of the marsh at the foot of the mountain. They also changed from being farmers to become fishermen using the marsh as their fishing grounds.
In 1982, about half of the marsh was annexed by the national park. Since then, about 90 percent of the villagers have decided to sell their occupancy rights over the marsh to capitalists. “We can’t cultivate the flooded land anyway, and we don’t know if we’ll ever get legal ownership over our land which has been included in the national park boundary,” says Wandee.
Although selling the occupancy rights is illegal, it is locally accepted that the northern part of the marsh now belongs a former MP from Phetchaburi province and much of the rest – both outside and within the national park boundary – is owned by a local construction contractor and canvasser of an MP in Prachuap Khiri Khan province.
The new owners have filled in parts of the marsh and grown pine trees on the new ground. Meanwhile, they are trying to obtain land rights documents to make their ownership legal.
And it comes as no surprise to learn that one of the new owners happens to have won the contract to build the controversial road that cuts into the marsh.
The new road, which will link the western side of the mountains to the eastern side, will apparently make it easier for villagers on both sides to travel to Sam Roi Yod sub-district office on the Phetkasem highway. For those living on the eastern side, such a trip normally involves making a detour around the long mountain range, a journey of 60 kilometres, to reach the sub-district office.
According to a provincial officer of the Office of Accelerated Rural Development (ARD) which oversees the construction of the road, villagers need a short-cut and have signed a petition to the provincial authority demanding the road be built.
“Since the route is a local one, the provincial authority has the power to approve the construction,” he says, explaining why the road was hastily constructed without the benefit of an ecological impact study.
Chief of Sam Roi Yod national park, Tawatchai Sathienkarn seems to not mind having the road in his area of responsibility. “The road will help park rangers to patrol the marsh. These days we have to do that by punting in a boat,” he says, adding that if the road is completed, the park plans to set up guard stations at both ends to limit traffic.
“But it’s right that the Forestry Department ordered the suspension of the project. There should have been a proper study before the construction,” he adds.
With all these problems threatening the wellbeing of this crucial marsh ecology, how can we save it? One thing to remember, however, is that much of Thung Sam Roi Yod is considered private land – although legally, that is doubtful.
Wetland expert Dr Sansanee Choowaew of Mahidol University suggests: “The rights over the land should be cleared up. The park boundary should be definite. And the areas within the boundary must be strictly protected.
“As for the areas outside the park boundary, they should be designated as ‘environment control areas’, which means they still belong to the owners but certain environmentally destructive activities such as landfilling or building construction are prohibited,” she points out.
But there are also other options.
“The Forestry Department can try to persuade the owners to donate the land for public benefit and then do something to recognise their contribution,” she says. “Buying back the marsh at a fair price is also an interesting idea, but only if we have the money,”
Regarding the buy-back plan, a high-ranking source at Prachuap Khiri Khan provincial authority said there is no way any funds can be used for this purpose. Especially when the rights claimed over the land were illegal from the beginning.
“If you look at the aerial photo which was taken in 1954, you can see that there was no sign of anybody occupying the land in Thung Sam Roi Yod at that time. The area was protected under the reserved forest law,” he explains, “But somehow, when the national park extended its boundary in 1982, the area was full of people. They even had the land occupancy documents.”
He doubts the legality of the villagers’ documents which are now in the hands of capitalists. “You can’t set aside government budget to buy illegal things,” he said.
The source also points out that, given that the occupancy of reserved areas is against the law, it is within the power of the provincial governor to revoke those land occupancy documents. “But the recent cabinet resolution at Wang Nam Khieo which allows villagers to remain in reserved forests make it difficult to do that,” he laments.
A large number of these problems, he said, stem from the lack of cooperation among government agencies. “The cabinet doesn’t want to move people out of the forests. But the Forestry Department does. The Fisheries Department do not mind where people live but they do encourage them to start up prawn farms even though that means clearing away some mangrove forest first.
“These are just a few examples. And if we keep on this way, the future of Thung Sam Roi Yod as well as other reserved areas is worrisome.”
Despite all the looming problems, Thung Sam Roi Yod is still spectacular. The marsh, which has the mighty limestone mountains as a backdrop, is teeming with birds and other fauna and flora. The place attracts a lot of visitors who are a source of extra income for local villagers punting their boats for tourists.
Conservationists are reviving the idea of nominating Sam Roi Yod national park as a Ramsar Site under the Ramsar Convention which aims especially to protect wetland and waterbirds conservation areas of international importance. The status is hoped to bring greater attention and protection to this national park, the same way the “world heritage site” label has benefitted Thung Yai Naresuan and Huay Kha Kaeng wildlife sanctuaries.
Sam Roi Yod is only about 320 kilometres from Bangkok, so why not visit the park and its marsh sometime. Who knows, you may come up with a way to help this splendid place from becoming history.
Reprinted without permission from The Bangkok Post