A group of some 40 reporters were flown to Nan on Saturday to cover a gathering by hundreds of local residents, police officers and soldiers. Together, they hailed 32 households’ decision to voluntarily end their encroachment on 300 rai of forestland. The families are hopeful that Banthoon’s initiative will help them survive now that their cultivatable land has been taken away.
Supachai Chearavanont was there, representing Charoen Pokphand Group. The agricultural conglomerate is a big piece of the jigsaw Banthoon is piecing together as a model to sustainably preserve forestland. If CP can come up with a way to maintain farmers’ income level without the need to cultivate the forest, it should discourage them from further encroachment for good.
Reporters were greeted with quite a scene, as Banthoon and Supachai sat lunching together on a makeshift bamboo bench in the steamy heart of the Nan forest. The two men were soaked with sweat but wreathed in smiles after a morning spent planting bamboo on the reclaimed forestland.
Stranger still was that reporters had earlier been invited to watch a documentary in which CP was blamed for contributing to forest encroachment in Nan, through the unending demand for corn from animal-feed mills. That message was not mentioned in the presence of Supachai. In fact, it was conservationists and concerned locals who invited him to Saturday’s event.
Anyone who watched the documentary would say that CP owed a good deed, having played a background role in the encroachment for some time. Yet that prompted me to ask myself a question: How many other feed-mill companies will think of doing the same? Will they dare join the project – or will they shy away, fearing that negative public feeling against them will remain despite the good deed?
Hopefully, they won’t shy away. The reality is that, along with consumers, private companies have a crucial role to play in preserving the forests.
A key motivation for forest encroachment is to grow crops.
This is where the issue of food wastage becomes an important part of the equation.
According to the Pollution Control Department, 42.11 per cent of all waste collected in Bangkok in 2007 was food waste. That amounts to an average of over 4 tonnes per day. This daily avalanche from the tables of everywhere from five-star hotels to street food stalls and households is a stunning waste of natural resources, namely the land and water needed to grow vegetables and the animal feed needed for meat.
Meanwhile the campaigns to reduce waste are mostly targeted at recycling – though waste management remains a big problem in Bangkok and elsewhere.
More serious efforts to reduce food consumption could be a way of protecting our natural treasures. A study by a Royal Forestry Department officer notes that any the relief brought by the logging ban was short-lived as forests are now under pressure from agricultural expansion, intensified shifting cultivation and poaching.
According to one member of a conservation network in Nan, farmers are also being paid to cut clearings in a 2,500-rai section to cultivate corn and rubber trees, while leaving surrounding trees in place so as to fool government officials into believing the forest is free of encroachment. Equipment to make drugs was also discovered in the same stretch of forest.
“We caught one culprit red-handed as he delivered food to the workers. There were about 10 of them. We are seizing the land back from them,” she said.
Witnessing the event on Saturday, she was hopeful that more private companies would join the initiative to re-cultivate the forests and get local communities on board to aid the conservation efforts.
What amused me most during the two-day trip was a question posed to Banthoon: How would this conservation project benefit Nan’s tourism industry, given that the province’s key attraction is nature?
The question was superfluous. Though Banthoon has cited his love of history as a reason for his decision to settle in Nan, his 22-rai chalet-style house is nestled in the forest. That speaks loudly of his love for the natural beauty of the province, which most tourists experience in the lush and chilly highlands of Doi Phu Kha National Park.
It also helps explain why he initiated this project and took the trouble to seek a personal meeting with Dhanin Chearvanont, the big boss of CP. And he is committed to selling this idea to other captains of industry.
Let’s hope that the model CP is working on with Nan communities bears fruit and becomes a sustainable solution to conserving our forests.