As the conflict over the controversial Chana industrial park project in Songkhla heats up, locals and academics insist the government needs to conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to defuse the dispute and ensure suitable development for the locality.
Civil society organisations have accused the government for conniving with a development company to push forward the project by allowing the expropriation of lands from locals. The government denies any dodgy deals have been made.
Locals battle to save homeland
It has been almost a week since Posiyah Tohkarhi, a senior citizen of Songkhla’s Chana district, left her home in tambon Sakom to go to Bangkok to protest against the Chana industrial park project, which would turn 16,800 rai of land close to her home into an energy industry complex, gas power plants and deep-water seaport.
“It is difficult to live on the side of the road without a roof over our head. We have to endure hot sun and pollution during the day and chill and dew during the night,” Ms Posiyah said, as the group camps on the pavement in front of the United Nations headquarters in Bangkok.
“We are also at risk of prosecution by the police just because we have come out to protest. But this is the price we are willing to pay, to protect our homeland from industrial development.”
Ms Posiyah and 36 others from Chana in the “Chana Rak Thin” (Protect the homeland Chana) group were arrested and charged after crowd-control police stormed their protest at Government House last Monday.
“It has been a year now since the government promised it would suspend the project and conduct an SEA study, so we are here to remind the prime minister to keep the promise,” she said.
Previously in December 2020 when the Chana Rak Thin group turned up in Bangkok to protest against the project for the first time, Capt Thamanat Prompow, then-deputy minister of agriculture, agreed to comply with their demands by signing an MoU with the Chana Rak Thin group.
However, they say the government has made no move to embark on an SEA. Further, the developer has announced a public hearing on the project, to be held online this Monday.
Ms Posiyah said that even though the project has not yet been built, locals are already affected.
“Many households in three tambons of Chana — Sakom, Taling Chan and Na Thap — are landless, because they were forced to sell their land to agents that have connections with a local politician to develop the park,” she said.
“They were evicted from their ancestral land with no place to go, while those who resist and stay are faced with lawsuits. If we allow the park to be developed, our rich marine resources in the sea that sustain our livelihood will be next to be destroyed.”
High-level connections drive project
Prasitchai Nunuan, secretary-general of the NGO Coordinating Committee on Development (Southern Region), said there are many suspicious aspects about the government’s plan.
Firstly, Mr Prasitchai said there is no real need for an industrial park in Songkhla, as there are already three parks there, which still have plenty of vacant land for industrial investment.
Also, the government promoted the project by advertising “unrealistic” benefits, while hastily pushing the plan bypassing Chana’s City Plan to allow industrial development.
“It is odd that they should push such an unnecessary project, but when we consider the close connections between a major company and the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, it is clearer why,” he said.
“This company already held some land in Chana, so they are likely to lobby the government to develop a new park, to increase the land value.”
Prasertpong Sornnuvatara, a Move Forward Party MP, said Deputy Interior Minister Nipon Boonyamanee is a policymaker behind the project. Many land agents involved in buying and selling land in the area are believed to be related or closely connected with him, he said.
In January 2020 alone, he said, these agents bought 464 rai of land from locals for a total value of 110 million baht; 450 rai were quickly bought by this company for 271 million baht at the end of that month, right after the cabinet approved the project on Jan 21.
He asked whether Mr Nipon had a conflict of interest by using his knowledge of the project to make a profit from land resales.
However, talking to the press this month, Mr Nipon said he had nothing to do with the project or land-grabbing allegations.
“There are legal procedures which this project needs to pass, including an Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA], before work can start, so I want those who oppose the project out of environmental concerns to reconsider, as this project can provide great economic opportunities for the district,” he said.
On the land grab issue, he said it was not against the law for land agents to gather property for resale to the developer.
Asked about a conflict of interest, he admitted some of his relatives were gathering and reselling land for the development, but it was their right to do so.
“I support this project, because Chana district is a suitable location for building a deep-water seaport and industrial park, though I did not get involved with the land deals myself,” he said.
An SEA could be way out
Dean of the Faculty of Economics, Prince of Songkla University, Sinad Treewanchai said the conflict over the park was intense.
“The situation at Chana is similar to the conflict over the Thepa coal-fired power plant project a few years ago, which was defused by an SEA,” Mr Sinad said.
He said the SEA is a study of the economic, social and environmental background of each area to assess strategic development options for that locality. An SEA assessment will provide more choices for the development plan, based on the local natural resource base and economic potential.
“Local people do not oppose economic development per se. They only want to protect the natural resources they rely on,” he said. “So, when we have done the SEA report for Chana district, we will find the most suitable development option for the district on which everyone can agree.”
Source: Bangkok Post