EARTH Thailand

No pollution solution to Map Ta Phut

Bangkok Post 03 July 2014 | Ploenpote Atthakor

It has been a nice surprise to see the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) seeking to take an active role in solving the environmental problems surrounding the Map Ta Phut industrial estate in Rayong.

Under an NCPO order, the 76th in the NCPO order series since the military took power on May 22, a new committee was set up to oversee and streamline efforts to tackle environmental problems that have plagued the industrial area in this eastern region for years.

The order came less than two weeks after I raised the issue of Map Ta Phut in this column ("Hearings are no longer for the public"), which made this news more than welcome. The chronic Map Ta Phut problem, like other stubborn issues in this country, may require the NCPO’s special powers.

However, Gen Prayuth didn’t announce the name of the committee head. He just said the panel will be under the NCPO deputy leader who is responsible for economic development affairs. So it must be none other than ACM Prajin Juntong. The committee is filled with all the big shots, C-11 level officials of relevant ministries, ranging from Finance to Health and Environment; and other agencies including the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), the Industrial Council and the Chamber of Commerce.

According to the order, the committee will be all ears to those affected by the industries and, if necessary, there may be sub-committees or working groups. At the time of writing, the committee had not called a meeting.

Even though the NCPO chief mentioned positive terms such as sustainable solutions and integrated measures, and there is no doubt regarding his goodwill and his strong wish to see the end of the problems, I dare not be too optimistic.

My pessimism relates to the composition of the committee. At a glance, it is dominated by state officials and those from the private sector. There is a lack of people’s participation as no representatives from the people’s sector, the major stakeholder, are appointed to the panel. Besides, no experts or academics who have stringently studied this issue have been named to the committee either.

Judging from the committee's composition, it’s obvious Gen Prayuth chose to make use of the old mechanism that is exactly part of the stubborn problem. The general may not be aware that it is this flawed mechanism that makes the Map Ta Phut maladies linger, rather than clearing them up. That the problem has gone on for decades attests to my argument.

In fact, the Map Ta Phut issue lets us know that all types of government, be they democratically elected like the Yingluck Shinawatra administration or the Democrat-led administration under Abhisit Vejjajiva, can be just the same, not to mention other previous governments before them. Numerous committees were appointed in past years; there’s still no end to this old problem.

As recently as last month, industrial accidents still hit the nearby communities, forcing a school evacuation. What is new, perhaps, is the types of toxic substances or chemicals that wreak havoc on nearby communities in each disaster. But the nature of the problem remains much the same — there is a failure to maintain a balance between development and environmental well-being.

It’s undeniable that the Map Ta Phut project, as part of the eastern development, has brought economic prosperity to the country. But it’s a plain fact that it is costly development. Wealth is evidently concentrated in the industrial sector, while local people have little bargaining power in protecting their right to good health and environment. If the general is not aware, these people had almost no voice in the last public hearing on the amended version of the Map Ta Phut city plan while the industries, with discreet support from state agencies, aggressively pushed for industrial expansion.

As the Map Ta Phut committee is under the deputy leader who is in charge of economic development, we have every right to be concerned the committee may prioritise economic advancement at the expense of local people.

Gen Prayuth and his deputy ACM Prajin in his capacity as head of Map Ta Phut committee must prove to us that this is false suspicion. Even better, they have to prove that their special powers can make a difference.

Ploenpote Atthakor is deputy editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.