CHIANG RAI – As Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government kick-starts its plan for Special Economic Zones (SEZs), locals and activists voice their concerns over the process that epitomizes the old development paradigm which bypasses community rights and the environment.
The SEZ scheme, supported by a bill on land development and tax privileges, was first conceived under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration in 2003. The controversial bill won cabinet approval in 2005, but was eventually shot down by parliament amid strong public opposition.
The Prayut Chan-o-cha government dusted off the plan this year hoping to boost the economy. Without the parliamentarian checks-and-balances system that Thaksin had to go through, Gen Prayut has a free hand to adopt the plan, with the use of the draconian Section 44, which enables the state to clear any legal hurdles to accelerate the development process, Anchalee Kongrut an environmental writer for the Bangkok Post reports.
Talking with Prayong Doklamyai activist and adviser of the People’s Movement for a Just Society, a non-profit organization advocating sustainable development and community rights in the eviction of forest dwellers. He urges the state to assist these villagers to make sure they have a place to live.
Saying “The SEZ policy will add to the plight of landless villagers. Of course, the state may argue that some of those people have illegally occupied public land, but booting them out overnight will marginalize these poor people and deepen social division.”
Apart from adverse impact on locals, SEZ development has triggered environmental concerns given the fact that the 1992 Environmental Act may be compromised. Due to Section 44, a time frame — eight months — has been set for the approval of environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies for factories in the SEZs. At the same time, provincial governors are to be appointed head of committees to approve the EIA documents. Such a time-frame and the role for governors are unprecedented.
In Chiang Rai, locals in tambon Sri Boonrueng, Chiang Khong district, are worried about a plan to use 3,000 rai of rain-catchment forest and wetland in the Ing River basin. The designated SEZ land is fish spawning ground and is recognized for its conservation value.
Thanorm Uttama, president of the Ing River Watershed Council, a grassroots conservation network, vows to fight the plan, which is in its second phase.
Hannarong Yaowalers, a veteran conservationist and former member of the National Reform Council, says the government should wait and listen to local villagers and local business communities. “Of course, the country needs to promote the border economy and there is a need for special economic zones to accommodate the free flow of cross-border trading. But in some areas, locals might need only logistics to facilitate export, and not industrial factories, and the government needs to handle each locality’s needs specifically.”
Mr Hannarong says the site selection for each zone does not take into consideration local geography and current land use. As a result, some sites are not appropriate as they are located in flood-prone areas. Or some areas are too barren, like Tak.
Water shortages could become a problem for factories during the dry season, he said.
In Chiang Rai, heavy land-filling is needed to prepare the area if an SEZ is to be set up. If that is the case, the area could be hit by floods from the Ing River. “We already witnessed the problem with the 2011 flood when industrial estates were built in low-lying areas and blocked flood water from draining. The government will repeat the mistake if it does not take into consideration topographical factors of each area.”
Some investors also questioned the competitiveness of SEZs given that most neighboring countries with similar economic zones offer cheap labor and have tax privileges with some Western nations.
Penchom Tang, director of Ecological Alert and Recovery (Earth), a conservation group monitoring pollution from industry, wonders how the SEZ policy will solve poverty and create sustainable economic growth as the development plan bypasses social aspect and environment. “When promoting industrial estates, the state must also protect the environment through strict law enforcement, and listen to those who will be affected. But since the EIA approval process is cut short, how can the environment and the people be properly protected?”
By Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section for the Bangkok Post.