2013 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Green Mountain College
Individual Research Projects on Thailand’s Environmental Development:
In Front of the Green Curve
Mentor: Sam Edwards, Environmental Law & Policy
Students: Kristen Friedel ’14, Titania Green ’15, Nicholas Ravotti ’14, Luz Salazar ‘15
Thailand is held as a model for economic development. Our research team investigated Thailand’s environmental development to see what lessons can be drawn for other countries seeking a similar development path. Under the umbrella of environmental development each student selected an area of research: water policy, forestry policy, agricultural policy, and citizen participation in environmental policy-making. Through an extensive literature survey, the students gained a background understanding of Thailand’s policies on paper. This prepared them for three weeks of field interviews with the top NGOs, government officials, academics, and religious figures in Thailand. Our team also partnered with law students from Thammsat University, one of Thailand’s top law schools. Our initial results indicate that Thailand’s environmental development is a complex story with many strong points and challenges, similar to those in the U.S. Of particular note is the strength of civil society in Thailand where NGOs play an essential role in representing the interests of various stakeholders including those of the ethnic “Hill Tribes.” The strength of NGOs coupled with a strong judiciary are aspects that can serve as a model for other countries seeking similar environmental development
My research focuses upon “Citizen Participation in Environmental Policy in Thailand.” Thailand’s 2007 Constitution guarantees citizens the right to participate in natural resource decision-making, yet Unger and Siroros explain that there is minimal evidence of effective democratic natural resource regulation (2011). Three weeks of interviews were conducted in Thailand, between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, to investigate the actuality of the promised citizen participation in natural resource regulation. They show that a range of barriers impede active involvement by citizens in environmental issues including the country’s routine top-down decision making process that lack the necessary element of transparency to invite full-fledged participatory governance. Another challenge is that many of the “Hill Tribes,” made up of ethnic minorities, illegally live in recently protected national forest areas. There is distrust among many Thais that these tribes will mismanage natural resources in these forests. However, several cases where citizens effectively lobbied to redress serious environmental problems have occurred. It is also clear that NGOs play an active voice for those lacking leverage to seriously participate in the environmental debate. Because NGOs have standing in the administrative court process, they are key to addressing environmental issues.
The focus of my research is on “Forestry Policy in Thailand.” Historically, Thailand has adopted a top-down approach in establishing forest policy. One study suggests that Thai forestry policies have evolved through four stages: 1) the exploitation stage, 2) the expanding of exploitation and management stage, 3) the decline of forest exploitation stage, and 4) the sustainable management stage. Although the Royal Forestry Department has committed itself to reducing deforestation, its top-down, preservationist approach has proved unsuccessful because of conflicts with indigenous people. My research suggests that increasingly NGOs are providing a platform for more effective dialogue between the Thai government and indigenous people regarding forests. Further research needs to be conducted on the utilization of community forestry techniques being implemented among the “Hill Tribes” to sustain forests.
My research is centered upon “Agricultural Policy in Thailand,” and considers the impact of the “Green Revolution” on Thai agriculture and the environment. This revolution exponentially increased the use of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides in rural Thailand, with a concomitant adverse impact on the Thai environment. Through interviewing farmers, officials, and especially leaders of NGOs from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, one discovers that the lack of Thai citizenship among minority groups in the Hill country has led to high unemployment among them and forced them to accept high-risk jobs in informal sectors where salaries are low and other benefits minimal. It is also clear that industrialized agriculture is displacing small farmers. The main company monopolizing the agriculture industry in Thailand is the Charoen Pokphand Group. They provide farmers with necessary seeds, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides and encourage them to produce cash crops. Minorities, who still farm in the mountainous areas of Thailand, are being forced by economic necessity to switch from traditional agricultural practices and compete in the production of cash crops destined for the marketplace.
My research for this joint study on economic development and its impact on environment in Thailand is focused upon “Water Policy in Thailand.” It is grounded in three weeks conducting interviews with government officials, leaders of NGOs, Thai academics and others. I quickly discovered that the Thai approach to environmental concerns is of a collectivist nature, i.e., the starting point in discussing whether a policy is good or bad is its effect on society, not a given individual. Views regarding water management tended to differ between Bangkok government officials and local officials and leaders of NGOs in Chiang Mai. I also discovered that water management is a sensitive issue because of competing interests in the economy, and also because most of the rivers in Thailand cross international borders. In short, mismanagement of water resources might adversely affect Thailand’s standing in the ASEAN group of nations and consequently its future economic development. Another area of interest yet to be fully researched is the building of dams and management of flooding in both rural and urban areas.