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Alarm raised over Thai mangrove forests handover to energy firms

Under the Thai government’s “carbon credits” scheme, about 17,000 acres of mangrove forest lands are being placed under the oversight of multi-million baht corporations, leaving some conservationists uneasy.  

Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories
A man drives a boat through a mangrove forest in Southern Thailand. Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

BANGKOK — Environmental activists and community leaders are pressing the government to explain its recent decision to allow private corporations to control large swathes of lush mangrove forests along Thailand’s coasts. 

In an initiative touted as a “carbon credits” project, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources has permitted seventeen companies, including some of the country’s biggest energy conglomerates, to oversee at least 44,000 rai, or about 17,000 acres of mangrove forests. These forests have traditionally been maintained by locals who depend on them for food, income and tourism revenues.

Though the order was approved in late 2022, it remained undisclosed until recent months. It reportedly allows these 17 firms to cultivate and oversee the forests for the purposes of offsetting carbon emission. They are also expected to share some financial gains from this project with communities that join the initiative.

Environment watchdogs, however, question the project’s feasibility. They are concerned about potential restricted access to these forests for local residents, the allocation of profits (with only 20 percent going to local communities), and the long-term impact on carbon emissions from Thai industries.

“This is a greenwashing spectacle,” Somboon Khamhang, a leader of an NGO network based in southern Thailand, said at a panel discussion held late August in Trang province. 

Details about the project only came to light after being shared on social media. Several communities were reportedly approached with offers from private firms looking to take charge of the local mangrove forests, according to Wichoksak Ronnarongpairee, one of the marine conservationists opposing the project.

“This kind of thinking may be suitable for business people and governments who just want a quick fix, but for the public, it does not truly respond to the problem of global warming,” Wichoksak, who heads the Thai Sea Watch Association, told HaRDstories.

“The principle laid by the UN says that whoever causes emission must take responsibility to redress it, but it was distorted into an idea that gives us a carbon credits market,” he continued, echoing similar assessments by international critics of the scheme. “Global warming has to be solved by reducing emission, not by using money to take over what isn’t theirs.”

 

From locals to corporates

Government and corporate promotions portray the initiative as a collaboration between companies and local communities. Participants would receive funds to nurture and expand mangrove forests, helping companies meet their carbon offset targets.

Beneficiaries of the program include big name enterprises like PTT Global Chemical, PTT Exploration and Production, Thai Oil, Shell Thailand, SCG Chemicals.

The whereabouts of these 44,000 rai of forest lands designated for the partnership have yet to be disclosed, but watchdog groups say many of them are “community forests,” pieces of coastal woodlands that have been cared for by local communities for decades, under the auspices of government agencies like the marine resources department. 

 

A coal power station in Krabi province can be seen from a surrounding mangrove forest. File photo from 2013. Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

In return, communities are typically permitted to make use of these seaside forests, such as fishing, trapping, foraging for herbs, and developing the sites into learning centers for visitors and putting their communities on the map of travellers. 

Such relationships between residents and the mangrove forests are at the risk of coming to an end under the current carbon credits scheme pursued by the government, Wichoksak and other critics say. 

Part of their concerns stem from the text in Memorandums of Understandings offered to interested communities. According to those who’ve seen it, the document grants participating companies exclusive “intellectual property” over any benefits arising from the forests – a term that the government has yet to clarify – and the rights to deny the use of forest lands by local residents in any way that the companies deem to be damaging to the ecology. The agreements are set to last for 30 years.

“Many of us already have a problem about land disputes with the state,” Somboon said at the 28 August panel discussion. “If these lands are assigned to the businesses, the old problem will evolve into a new one: a dispute between residents and business tycoons.” 

It is unclear how many communities have signed such agreements. Wichoksak said 39 communities had already done so, but warned that it is likely an undercount, since government officials have been negotiating directly – and privately – with local communities on behalf of the prospective corporations rather than making public announcements. 

The arrangement means that environmental groups and critics who oppose the scheme would often find out about the deals long after they were signed. 

 

‘It wasn’t like they forced us’ 

Despite concerns raised by environmental activists, some local community leaders have embraced the move by the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources as a new way to keep the mangrove forests in their areas well maintained. 

At the panel discussion held in Trang, one representative from a coastal district in Phang Nga province defended his community’s decision to sign the agreement with a firm called Siam TC Technology. 

The man, who did not identify himself by name, said he was reassured by the company that the rights enjoyed by residents under the longstanding “community forest” program, such as fishing and farming sea creatures there, would still apply. 

“We went through three, four rounds of discussions. It wasn’t like they forced us into it,” he said. “We talked about both upsides and downsides of the program.”

Siam TC Technology also paid his community an upfront cash of 200,000 baht in exchange for signing the agreement, which would be used as education fund for local children, and pledged to compensate the residents every year for the cost that arises from growing and maintaining the trees inside their local mangrove forest. 

“Yes, I’ve seen the agreement. The company takes 70 percent of all incomes, 20 percent goes to the community, and ten percent goes to the [coastal resources] department,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter to us how much we’ll get … we never got anything in return for the past 30 years anyway.”

Wichoksak from the Thai Sea Watch said he wants the government to have a frank conversation with the public, so the society can debate the merits of the carbon credits program and what roles communities should play in preserving their local environment. 

“Since there are questions, they should be addressed publicly, and not handled behind the public’s back. The officials like to ask local communities to ‘clear up the misunderstanding’ and ask them not to oppose the agreements, instead of talking to the media,” he said. 

“I want the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources to come clean and invite everyone to think together on how this issue should be managed.”