Guest contribution by Kaying Thor and Julianne Behrens

Kaeng Lawa Lake wetlands are a critical ecosystems that support a wide variety of vegetation and wildlife. Photo credit: Julianne Behrens

BAN PHAI, KHON KAEN – Last Thursday, an environmental preservation group, academics, community leaders and local business representatives raised concerns about a ten-year national plan to industrialize Khon Kaen Province.

At a forum in Ban Phai City, 20 participants discussed potentially negative effects of the development plan on communities and the environment in the Lawa Lake area and how to increase people’s participation in the government’s decision-making.

Lawa Lake is a critical ecosystem that supports a wide variety of vegetation and wildlife and a main water resource to the city of Ban Phai and its surrounding villages. It is thus is a key environmental concern for all parties.

In 2015 the military government passed a ten-year national plan to boost industrialization in areas outside of the Bangkok Metropolitan Region. In Khon Kaen Province, 13 companies are set to invest in infrastructure projects and build factories.

At the forum, organized by an local environmental preservation group, participants shared information about the projected industrial development. Conversations circled around the area being indicated as an industrial zone, and the need to withstand the environmental implications of this development.

Some companies have already made first steps to prepare the industrialization of the area according to locals activists.

“There are 2,300 rai of land has already been bought by investors in the area, and brokers continue to talk to villagers,” says Tianchai Sunthong, a member of an environmental preservation group in Kaeng Lawa.

A recent survey conducted by the environmental protection group and two American students indicates that residents in the Lawa Lake area are largely uninformed about the plans for industrial development. The 126 respondents from 12 villages expressed conflicted feelings about industrial development in the area as it might lead to potential economic benefits yet environmental destruction.

About 76% of participants stated that they believe development will have environmental impacts that might affect people’s ways of life. Concerns range from water and air pollution, increase of noise and smells, loss of biodiversity, negative effects on agricultural and livestock, and overcrowding in the area.

However, 41.1% of those who completed the survey also stated that development may be beneficial in providing jobs and increasing business in the area, which in turn may slow down rural to urban migration.

The survey also notes that about 68% of respondents are unaware of their individual rights, and 62% are unaware of their community rights. Participants at the forum noted that knowing one’s rights is a key concern for further discussion and action to be taken in regards to the industrial development in the area.

Narisorn Chanyanithat, a businessman who attended the forum, believes that the people of Ban Phai should be able to direct this development because of the overall impact it will have on them.

Narisorn also stated that the industrial sector is currently “spending near 450 million baht on research of the environmental effects of turning Khon Kaen into an industrial area, claiming that biodiversity and the environment will remain unharmed.”

As the forum progressed, it became clear that the focus of participants’ discussion had shifted from stopping the industrialization of the province to organizing people of Ban Phai to fight for having a voice in the industry’s development.

“How can we adjust ourselves for the development coming in because the development is unavoidable?” asks Jarunpit Jantasri, a local activist working in the Lawa Lake area.

At the end of the forum, participants agreed on four key areas to guide further discussion on industrial development in Ban Phai including developing a name for the movement Khon Rak Ban Phai (People Who Love Ban Phai), researching community rights intensively, gathering more solid facts about future development to be done in the area, and studying previous impacts of industrial development in other areas.

The group also agreed to meet more frequently to strengthen their abilities to steer the industrial development as it becomes an impending reality.

Kaying Thor is a Social Work student at Bethel University. Julianne Behrens is a Marketing and International Development student at Tulane University. They have been studying about development and globalization issues in Khon Kaen for the last four months.