Another Defeat for the Nam Choan Dam, Thailand

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On 18 March 1988 the committee chaired by Gen. Thienchai Sirisamphan, Thailand's deputy prime minister, to consider the controversial Nam Choan Dam in western Thailand decided that the project should be "shelved"; the recommendation was submitted to the government on 25 March. The decision ended the most recent efforts of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) to construct a hydroelectric project on the upper Kwae Yai (or Quae Yai) River in Kanchanaburi province.

The dam would have threatened the integrity of Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, along with that of contiguous Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary to the east. The two sanctuaries, which together measure 5,775 km², constitute one of the most important protected areas in mainland southeast Asia and have been proposed for recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Several thousand Karen and Hmong hill tribe people remain in Thung Yai Naresuan, although the Third Region Army is in the process of moving the latter out of the sanctuary; all tribal people have been evacuated from Huai Kha Khaeng.

The Nam Choan Dam is part of an overall project to harness the hydroelectric power of the Kwae Yai River. EGAT began studying the engineering aspects of the project in 1971, two years after the government made the enterprise responsible for the generation and transmission of electricity in Thailand. As part of the project, the Srinagarind Dam (540,000 kW production capacity) and the Tha Thung Na Dam (38,000 kW production capacity) were completed in 1978 and 1981, respectively.

With a scheduled production capacity of 580,000 kW, the Nam Choan Dam would have been the single largest source of hydroelectric power in Thailand. The site of its proposed construction is about 135 km upstream from the Srinagarind Dam in Kanchanaburi province. Nam Choan was designed as an earth-filled dam, 187 meters in height and 430 meters in length; the completed dam would create a reservoir about 75 km long with a maximum storage capacity of 5,950 cubic meters. The cost of the dam originally was estimated at 12 million baht (about US$600,000 at the time).

Opposition to the Dam

Opposition to the Nam Choan hydroelectric project was voiced on the local, national and international levels. On 20 November 1987 a group of wildlife officials and villagers (who may have been Karen) from Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary began a 119-km "jogging protest" to express their opposition to the construction of the Nam Choan Dam. Three days later the group was scheduled to join an anti-dam rally in Muang district, complete with live entertainment, that reportedly attracted about 10,000 people. On 21 February 1988, 40 local groups comprising the Anti-Nam Choan Dam Center in Kanchanaburi province voted unanimously to ask the government to abandon the project and traveled to Bangkok to submit the request in a letter to the prime minister. Some of the local organizations opposing the Nam Choan Dam, as identified by Wildlife Fund Thailand (1987), include a group of four members of Parliament representatives from Kanchanaburi, the House Wife Society of Kanchanaburi and the Lion Club of Kanchanaburi Province. University students, the press and organizations such as Wildlife Fund Thailand helped to make the dam a national issue.

International opposition was expressed by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh and various US-based conservation groups. The international protest culminated in a resolution passed during the 17th Session of the

IUCN General Assembly, which met in San José, Costa Rica, in February 1988. Resolution 17/73 (Rev.) recommends that the government of Thailand carefully assess the total impact of the Nam Choan

Dam on western Thailand and the real costs of its construction and maintenance for the country. The resolution continues that no decision to construct the dam should be taken until the results of these assessments are weighed carefully by the Thai people. The resolution further recommends that multilateral, bilateral and private funding should be withheld from the project pending satisfactory completion of the environmental impact studies.

Politicizing the Controversy

The controversy surrounding Nam Choan has become infused with political overtones. Initial protests claimed that the "Thienchai committee" (the committee appointed to review the dam in September 1987) was biased with "pro-Nam Choan members" and was only a ruse to deflect criticisms that the government would build the dam at all costs. The committee reportedly sent out its public relations team to lobby support for the dam's construction on the argument that it would bring "progress," and student conservationists accused Gen. Thienchai of acting as a "mouthpiece" for EGAT. Although his committee supposedly invited public opinion and debate on the project. Gen. Thienchai denounced students and conservationists as allegedly resorting to "mob rule" when they held public rallies against the dam. He also charged that students "were paid" to oppose the dam and that student unions and conservation groups were "manipulated" by some opportunists who wanted to turn the project into a "national political issue."

The opposition to Nam Choan did grow to include members of Parliament. A significant number of MPs who were aligned with the government, notably members of the Democrat, Chart Thai and Social Action parties, spoke out against the dam in the weeks preceding the decision of the Thienchai committee, threatening to take the issue to Parliament. The dam began to appear turn into a 'political matter' which the parliamentary opposition might use as a condition for ousting the government.

Former prime minister Kukrit Pramoj warned that going ahead with the dam against the will of the people would compromise government stability and precipitate an uprising such as that which occurred in October 1973: an infamous hunting accident in Thung Yai involving a group of military officers, merchants and movie stars generated political unrest that led to the expulsion of the government of Gen. Prapas. However, the vernacular press suggested that by appointing Gen. Thienchai, the leader of the Rassadorn political party, as chairman of the dam review committee the prime minister had extricated himself from the "direct line of fire" at the same time that he had eliminated a potential political successor.

Impact of the Dam

The arguments raised against the construction of the Nam Choan Dam originate primarily with environmentalists and conservationists. Major resources that would have been affected by the dam include forests, wildlife, minerals and archaeological sites (these are discussed in the Position Paper published by Wildlife Fund Thailand in 1987). The major losses would have been sustained by non-replaceable forests and wildlife, the value of which cannot be expressed in monetary terms.

The Royal Forest Department estimated that the real impact of the dam would result in a loss of some 590,000 rai (about 944 km²) of forest, exacerbating losses already sustained in Kanchanaburi province through construction of other hydroelectric projects. Such destruction is contrary to the National Forest Policy, which calls for an increase in forest area to 40 percent of Thailand's land area, divided between "preserved forests" (15 percent) and "economic forests" (25 percent).

The Nam Choan reservoir would have covered at least 142 km² by flooding all parts of Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary below 380 meters in elevation. Although this represents only 4.4 percent of the sanctuary's area, the 75-km long reservoir would have extended across the entire sanctuary from south to north, separating it into three unequal sections. The consequences of this would have been loss of rare lowland riverine forest, which is the preferred habitat of the endangered green pea fowl and is seasonally important to many mammals such as tapir, tiger, wild cattle and elephant; blocking of the migration routes of large mammals such as elephant and gaur; and fragmentation of animal populations into smaller units, thus increasing the chances of extinction through inbreeding and accidental fluctuations.

Opposition to the Nam Choan project stemming from social concerns emphasized that the dam would be situated on a geological fault zone, which carries the possibility of earthquake's. Most of the residents of Kanchanaburi province are reported to have opposed the dam's construction "on this ground alone." Only infrequently was mention made of the villages within Thung Yai Naresuan that would have been displaced by the construction of the dam.

Hill Tribes

The Royal Forest Department (RFD) estimates that about 4,000-6,000 Karen and Hmong hill tribe people live in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. In Thailand, areas such as protected forests or wildlife sanctuaries and hill land legally cannot be owned or occupied by anyone, including tribal minorities. The RFD's policy toward the hill tribes in these areas is that they are "encroachers" or "illegal squatters who must be moved to other settlement areas". The highland Hmong villages in the eastern part of the sanctuary, as well as the older, lowland Karen villages in the western part of the sanctuary, may all predate the gazetting of the sanctuary in 1974. The Karen, the most numerous hill tribe in Thailand, began to move eastward from Burma into Thailand about 250 years ago; the Hmong have entered Thailand within the last 100 years. The government reportedly has claimed that the Hmong "encroachment" on the sanctuary began only in 1979.

Early in 1985 the RFD announced that the Karen and Hmong would be evacuated from Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. The tribal people are to be relocated with the assistance of the Third Region Army at a lowland resettlement site in an area of degraded forest on the Mae Sot-Umphang road in Phop-Phra subdistrict to the north in Tak province. To date, no action appears to have been taken against the Karen. However, on 14 April 1986 the Royal Forest Department and Third Region Army began to move against the Hmong when the residents of Huai Yew Yee (or Yooyi), the only Hmong settlement in contiguous Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, were ordered from their village and forced to seek temporary refuge with relatives in Thung Yai Naresuan. The Hmong's habit of raising opium as an easily transportable cash crop has increased their vulnerability to development schemes.

The Third Region Army vowed to use "force if necessary" to evict the Hmong from Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. On 25 March 1988 the Third Army reportedly arrested 200 Hmong who refused to leave U-kaeki village in the sanctuary for the resettlement site in Phop-Phra subdistrict.

Although the Asia-Pacific People's Environment Network (APPEN) in Malaysia, for one, attempted to call attention to the disruption of tribal settlement that would be caused by the construction of the Nam Choan Dam, the plight of the Karen people appears to have received very little coverage in the Thai press and has not been a major issue in the controversy in Thailand surrounding the hydroelectric project. An article in the 21 November 1987 Bangkok Post may be an exception, although it fails to identify the affected villagers as Karen. Five hundred Karen comprising about 150 families in the Mae Jantha (or Mae Chantha) valley would have required resettlement, and the village of Mae Jantha, one of nine Karen settlements in Thung Yai Naresuan, would have been submerged in the center of the reservoir created by the Nam Choan Dam. Dam supporters are alleged to have claimed that this area already was heavily deforested, but aerial surveys taken in late 1987 by the RFD showed that only about 2,285 rai (or 3.7 km²) already had been inundated or completely destroyed, with an adjoining 9,783 rai (or 15.7 km²) in "secondary growth forest."

EGAT's record of relocation of villages displaced by dam construction has been questioned. An article in the Bangkok Post (21 November 1987) describes EGAT's policy as one of paying compensation and moving villagers to areas above the flooding, with little or no subsequent concern for their well-being. Villagers might be resettled on land not suitable for farming, with the consequence that displaced villagers might seek out new land within forested areas. Resettlement has been implicated as a cause of deforestation in Thailand. However, if the decision had been taken by the government to proceed with the construction of the Nam Choan Dam, the Mae Jantha valley Karen probably would have been relocated not by EGAT but by the Third Region Army in Phop-Phra subdistrict.

On 18 March 1988 the committee headed by Gen. Thienchai Sirisamphan recommended the shelving of the Nam Choan Dam project pending further study of its environmental and ecological effects. One response of the Thai press has been to exhort the opponents of the Nam Choan project who worked so hard to stop the dam to put as much effort into protecting the forests and wildlife of Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary from human exploitation. According to the Bangkok Post (1 August 1987), a management plan for the sanctuary being formulated by forestry experts and sponsored by Wildlife Fund Thailand proposes to "set aside resettlement zones for hill-tribes and recreation areas for tourists while preventing human intrusion into the remaining areas." Hopefully, the management plan will be implemented for the benefit of the Karen, if not also the Hmong, in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary.

History of the Nam Choan Dam Project

* 1971 EGAT (Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) begins studying engineering aspects of project to harness hydroelectric power of Kwae Yai River in western Thailand.

* 1978 EGAT hires a local, private consulting firm, TEAM Consulting Engineers Co., to assess environmental impact of Nam Choan project. Assessment subsequently proves inadequate, due to insufficient funding, staff shortages, inadequate survey time and political insecurity in the area.

* 1979 Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) assists EGAT with engineering and economic aspects of project.

* March 1981 EGAT submits project to government for consideration. National Environment Board (NEB) asks EGAT to come up with measures to alleviate project's negative effects on the environment.

* January 1982 National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) approves environmental plants submitted by EGAT and includes Nam Choan Dam in its Fifth Plan.

* 1982 World Bank begins active review of project on request of Thai government. Their involvement signals start of public opposition to the dam.

* 1982 EGAT begins illegal construction of an access or survey road into Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary without obtaining prior approval of Forestry Industry Organization.

* October 1982 Dr. Boonsong Lekagul, the "father of conservation in Thailand," solicits support of international conservation community in opposing dam. At the same time, Thai Cabinet hears testimony and decides to delay decision on project. Minister of Finance Sommai Hoontrakul is appointed head of committee to review the project and report to cabinet. The World Bank gives project a marginal rating and leaves decision to go ahead up to Thai government.

* April 1983 Thai Cabinet decides to shelve project indefinitely, apparently in response to strong worldwide environmental campaign against the dam. Dam is subsequently removed from World Bank's program for Thailand.

* 1984 Dr. Nart Tuntawiroon, Dean of Environmental Sciences at Mahidol University and a leading Thai conservationist, travels to Washington, DC, to convince US Congressmen to turn down any World Bank appropriations that might finance the dam.

* April 1986 EGAT again requests the government to review the project and to reach a definite decision on its construction, claiming that any indecision would disrupt Thailand's electricity production planning. JICA agrees in principle to finance project.

* May 1987 Project is submitted to council of economic ministers.

* September 1987 Prime Minister Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda appoints Gen. Thienchai Sirisamphan, Deputy Prime Minister, to head dam review committee.

* November 1987 Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee concludes that project will not result in forest or environmental destruction if government can prevent "log poaching."

* February 1988 Gen. Thienchai claims that EGAT had "all necessary data' to justify the project since 1982."

* March 1988 House Committee on Agriculture and Cooperatives calls for project to be deferred, noting that there is no need yet to destroy forest reserves when alternative energy sources are available.

* 18 March 1988 Thienchai committee concludes lack of information on environmental impact of dam does not justify its construction in the face of widespread public disapproval of project.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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