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Communities rally against controversial land bridge project

The “Rak Pato” network alerts global stakeholders to potential environmental damages and impact on local livelihoods from investments in Thailand’s bold plan to bypass the Malacca Strait.

Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories
Members of the Rak Pato network protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok on 4 March, 2024. Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

BANGKOK – As Thailand considers an ambitious land bridge project in the southern region, local communities are raising concerns over the potential impact on livelihoods and the environment. 

On 4 March, a network of local groups from Pato district in Chumphon province under the banner “Rak Pato” submitted an open letter to the embassies of China, Japan and Germany in Bangkok. This action followed a three-day rally, where the network voiced their apprehensions to the related Thai authorities about the mega project planned in their area.

 

Call for responsible investment

The Rak Pato network, an ad hoc conservation group, is urging potential investors from China, Japan, and Germany to reconsider their involvement in the proposed land bridge project. The network emphasises the potential impacts on local communities, including loss of agricultural land and damage to natural resources, which they argue could violate human rights.

The ambitious land bridge project is set to significantly reduce shipping times between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, currently dependent on the Malacca Strait for global trade. This initiative envisions constructing deep-sea ports on both sides of Thailand’s upper peninsula, linked by railways and motorways.

With a budget of 1 trillion baht (28 million USD), the project will adopt a Public-Private Partnership model, offering 50-year management concessions to the private sector. In November 2023, Thailand’s Minister of Public Transport initiated a roadshow to solicit feedback from international investors, with reports indicating keen interest from China, Japan and Germany

A month earlier, the Thai cabinet had greenlit the concept of the project. Meeting minutes reveal that the project is expected to bolster Thailand’s GDP by 0.5 percent and create 280,000 job opportunities in the region. Moreover, it aims to enhance trade connections, attracting 1.4 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo from southern China and the Greater Mekong Subregion countries.

“Please take careful consideration before investing in the land bridge because this project will affect the communities in the area, ranging from losing living and farming land to harming natural resources. This will severely violate human rights,” the opening of the letter submitted by Rak Pato network stated.

The network expressed opposition to the international roadshows, insisting that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) must be conducted prior to finalising any investment agreements.

 

Concerns about environmental impacts 

Somchoke Chungchaturan, a leader of the Pato network and a farmer, highlighted the richness of the designated area, stating, “The designated area is abundant with natural resources. It is an important watershed forest, feeding canals used for farming.” His farm and house are located less than a kilometre away from the proposed motorway.

Farmers in Pato rely on durian, mangosteen, and palm oil for their livelihood. The network reports that the compensation proposed by authorities for the clearance of orchards significantly undervalues the actual worth of their trees, being several times less than their true value.

Starting from the Andaman coast, the Land Bridge project is set to intrude upon a portion of the 3-kilometre buffer zone separating Ranong’s biosphere and nearby communities. This area, known for its lush mangrove forests, is currently undergoing the initial stages of nomination for UNESCO World Heritage status.

The project is currently conducting an EIA and plans to commence its five-year construction phase in 2025, aiming for an opening in October 2030.

Industrial expansion worries

Per the cabinet resolution, the project will be propelled forward with the enactment of new legislation aimed at fostering the Southern Economic Corridor (SEC). The draft act, having completed its public hearings in January 2024, is anticipated to be presented for parliamentary voting within the same year.

The SEC draft act is designed to facilitate industrial growth in two provinces intersected by the land bridge (Chumphon and Ranong) as well as in two adjacent provinces on the Indian Ocean side (Surat Thani and Nakhon Si Thammarat). Additionally, the act allows for future territorial expansion, specifying that the zoning for the special economic corridor may “include other areas in the southern region.”

Communities opposing the project have voiced concerns about being inadequately informed and not involved in the public hearings. According to the hearing summary, an in-person hearing for stakeholders took place in Surat Thani on 6 November 2023, and a direct session was held with relevant authorities. Additionally, the hearings were accessible to the public via a website, garnering comments from 29 individuals over a 105-day period.

“This SEC draft act will unlock the legal hurdles to bypass investment, including making changes to the city plan law which guarantees the right to live in a healthy environment for the people,” said Supaporn Malailoy of the environmental legal watchdog EnLAW. She and other civil society groups are concerned that the SEC draft will spark a broad industrial expansion in Thailand’s southern region.

 

Similarities with the ECC

She highlighted the similarities between the initiative for the Southern Economic Corridor and Thailand’s largest economic zone on the east coast. In 2018, under a military-backed government, Thailand enacted the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) act to bolster development in the area. This included the expansion of a new seaport to increase shipping capacity and facilitate petrochemical industry expansion.

The EEC board aims to attract an annual investment of 400,000 million baht. However, numerous reports over the past few years have highlighted environmental hazards associated with these developments, including a significant oil spill of 47,000 litres near the Rayong shore in 2022.

During a three-day rally in Bangkok, the anti-land bridge network called on the Thai government for a transparent and comprehensive impact assessment process, and they also demanded the cancellation of the project.

“We listen to all the stakeholders and make sure everyone is on the same page before kick-starting the project,” Somkid Chueakong, the Prime Minister’s secretary in charge of political affairs told the Rak Pato network “The Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning is currently studying the situation, so it has not been finalised whether to move forward or withdraw the project.”