Deforestation in North Thailand deserves action from all parties

Nan lost around 28 square kilometres of forestland in 1964 as farmland. Last year, 200skm of forestland was lost. Over the years, 2,470skm disappeared, accounting for about 24 per cent of the northern province's forest area.

It's clear that deforestation is progressing at an alarming rate for the mountainous province, which was originally 85 per cent covered by trees. At this rate, the forests will be entirely gone in a few decades.

Banthoon Lamsam, chairman of Kasikornbank, was saddened by the negative development, while showing the latest update of the province's forestland condition during a seminar early this month.

Among those attending was Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who showed her personal concern.

"Deforestation is like a cancer," the banker said. "The killing speed is fast and as time goes by, it becomes more and more incurable."

There are three things that have to be focused on in order to slow down the deforestation in Nan, he said.

First, monitoring the progress of the recovery and conserving the forest annually through Theos, the Thai earth observation satellite.

"It's like a test to pass every year," he said.

Second, setting up "accountability units" for each of the 99 tambon of Nan.

Third, recruiting organisations and agencies with specialised knowledge to support the programme.

Reforestation is now part of KBank's CSR programme, thanks to the chairman's concern. He recently bought a hotel in the province.

In his presentation, Banthoon showed a worrying increase in the rate of forestland lost in recent years. The average area of forestland lost more than doubled from 2004-08 to 2008-13. He also showed a correlation between the increases in deforestation and imports of pesticides, as well as increased production of maize and natural rubber from para rubber trees.

According to the Pid Thong Lang Phra Foundation, which has been active in raising environmental awareness in the province in the past few years, Nan is facing many factors aggravating the deforestation problem. It is the third poorest province, with average household debt of Bt127,524. Its food production is so low that Bt1.69 billion worth of food is imported every year from neighbouring provinces.

The original source of deforestation in Nan were people looking for sources of income and the military cutting down trees to avoid ambushes by communist guerrillas in the 1970s. More recently, areas where the trees have been cut down were moved into by people looking for areas to grow crops, especially maize for animal feed, as well as rice and rubber.

As more people look to earn income from farming, more trees are burned down to open up space for their crops. The problem here is that farming in such a way is not only unsustainable, but also wasteful. Only about three to four months out of a year are used to raise maize, while during the rest of the year the area is left vacant and unused.

About 1,412skm are being used to grow maize, 466skm to grow rice and 447skm to grow rubber trees.

Nan Governor Ukrit Puengsopa said forestland has been lost to poverty, desperation and to a certain extent, greed. Problems arise from the farmers' lack of information and their poor attitude towards life and lifestyles. They have resorted to chemical fertilisers to speed up the growth of plants, which is damaging both to the land and the environment.

Worse, some farmers set fires to clear forestland for cultivation. Ill-managed fires lead to forest fires, which exacerbate the problem.

Problems out of hand

The problems were getting out of hand because of the lack of strict law enforcement, lack of cooperation among agencies and lack of proper management of information systems. This has led to inefficient management of the underlying problem, he said.

He expects a brighter future, though. As part of the "make Nan an attractive province" project, each tambon and district is signing a memorandum of understanding for cooperation in preserving and stopping further destruction of forest resources, as well as preventing forest fires.

Besides their cooperation are projects to revitalise the forestland.

The Pid Thong Lang Phra Foundation is now active in three districts. It aims to educate farmers in natural farming methods and encourage them to grow more trees. An important element is that a reasonable amount of forestland is reserved for community use, to be a source of sustainable income for them.

The foundation follows the Doi Tung Model in the province. About 60 per cent of the forestland is kept out of human reach, while 20 per cent is preserved as an economic forest for the planting of trees, which yield fruit or other products, and 20 per cent for farming and housing.

The foundation has shown success in the past five years.

Farmers in the operating areas enjoyed an increase in earnings and savings, as well as a decrease in debts. They have moved from "surviving" to "having enough", and the next step is to move on to the "sustainable" path.

The seminar also featured a discussion panel as well as presentations by schools and organisations of their projects to improve the situation.

Technology and the creativity to implement methods to reverse deforestation are there, Banthoon said, and all that is need now is to make it happen. "We do have hopeā€¦[but] we don't have infinite time."