|The Impact of Technology on Human Rights: Global Case-studies (UNU, 1993, 322 pages)|
|3. Technology and human rights: critical implications for Thailand|
Pervading all the issues raised so far is the spectrum of the environment, in particular its evident devastation in Thailand. It is an issue which has come to the fore most poignantly in the last few years. Natural disasters and untimely deaths have captured the imagination of the press and the population. Concurrently, there has been a rise in environmentalist lobbies which has added another dimension to human rights advocacy.
From the angle of technology, here as elsewhere there is an intrusive paradox affecting many environmental concerns: while the technology for exploitation of the environment, in particular of natural resources, is advanced, the technology for protecting the environment and for regenerating that which has been destroyed is underdeveloped.
In terms of national planning, the Sixth Plan pays much attention to the question of natural resources and the environment.75 It emphasizes the following problems. First, the land and forest question, in particular the rapid disappearance of forests through excessive logging, the problem of encroachment upon national forest land and the lack of title deeds for some 50 per cent of agricultural land. Second, water resources, in particular the insufficiency of water sources and the move away from large dams. Third, mineral resources, in particular the negative impact of mining. Fourth, fisheries, in particular the depletion of fisheries resources in Thai waters due to too effective, large-scale fishing equipment. Fifth, other resources which suffer from pollution, such as the air and rivers, and the destruction of mangroves.
With these problems in mind, the Sixth Plan enunciates the following policies having an impact on the environment, people, technology, and related rights:76
1. Coordinate the environmental development plan with economic development as a whole.
2. Plan and manage the environment by geographical area; for example, plans will be formulated for defining categories of river basin quality, managing the environment on the Eastern Seaboard and in the Songkla Lake basin. 3. Amend laws, rules, and regulations on the environment to make them more suitable and supportive of economic development in various sectors.
4. Improve the basic administrative structure for environmental work, including organizations, production of environmental personnel, follow-up and inspection, research studies, and environmental information systems.
5. Encourage the use of modern technology which allows natural resources to be used efficently and without damaging the environment or causing pollution problems.
6. Encourage a correct understanding and awareness of the environment among the private sector and the general public, who should participate in the promotion and protection of environmental quality as much as possible.
Despite the planning process, the picture at the local level is at times more complicated owing to the conflict of interests; this is illustrated by the following examples.
The technology for building large and small dams is clearly available in Thailand. The benefits for irrigation would seem to be obvious. However, in recent years other enviromental concerns have emerged that have questioned the utility of large dams, and the environmentalist lobbies have been effective in preventing further construction of large dams where they deem the human and environmental costs to be too high.
The classic case must be the Nam Chaon Dam proposed for western Thailand.77 As a large dam, it would have submerged key wildlife areas with historical interest. A number of people would have been displaced by it, while data on the environmental and social impact were lacking to justify its feasibility. The government was at first favourable to it, claiming that it was needed to store water and produce electricity. However, owing to intense lobbying by the press and environmentalists, the government has been pressured into shelving the project.
In 1990, history was repeating itself with the government's proposal to build two other dams: the Pak Moon Dam in north-eastern Thailand and the Kaen Krung Dam in southern Thailand. The former has given rise to a physical clash between ordinary people and the authorities, and a court case is pending. Although the government has given the green light for them to be built, the environmental backlash continues.
Mining has long been regulated by legislation in Thailand. For example, the Petroleum Act 1971 stipulates in section 75 that:
In conducting petroleum operations, the concessionaire shall take appropriate measures in accordance with good petroleum industry practice to prevent pollution of any place by oil, mud or any other substance.
In the event that pollution of any place by oil, mud or any substance results from the concessionaire's petroleum operations, the concessionaire shall take immediate action to combat such pollution.78
However, it is recognized that pollution, particularly in marine areas, still takes place through mining operations.
The most recent example of the clash between technology and people's concern for the environment is the mining of rock salt in north-eastern Thailand. Although prohibited by law, some entrepreneurs are extracting salt through the use of water pressure. Subsequently, when the waste water is discharged into nearby rivers, it causes the water and adjacent soil to become saline, thereby stultifying the growth of crops in the vicinity. In 1990 this issue led to a physical clash between protesting environmentalists and the police, leading to several arrests. It exemplifies the increasing politicization of environmental issues, brought about by the conflict between vested interests, the utilization of technology, environmental protection, and the people's livelihood.
Although logging is controlled by various forestry laws, there has been rampant illegal logging over the past few decades. It was in large part due to such deforestation and the exploitative use of technology that there was a catastrophic mudslide in southern Thailand in 1988, which led to a national outcry about deforestation.
One should at this juncture distinguish between the practice of ordinary villagers in chopping wood for their basic needs and that of larger vested interests in acquiring logs for commercial gain. It is the latter which is objectionable. In response to this situation and the 1988 disaster, in 1989 the government enacted a royal decree revoking all logging concessions in national forest areas, subject to compensation for existing concessionaires.79
Although the legal situation now looks brighter, the reality of illegal logging continues. One of the current issues is how to enable the village level to participate more in growing and preserving forests. Hence the idea of community forests or social forestry protected by localities is gaining ground, although it has yet to be implemented in practice.
As already noted, only 50 per cent of agricultural land has title deeds.80 Meanwhile, there is great encroachment upon national forest land owing to demographic pressures. One of the complaints related to technology in this respect is that the maps and cadastral surveys undertaken by officials often diverge from and land areas and rights claimed by villagers.
The land issue is of enormous importance in view of the sharp rise in land prices over the past two years, due mainly to incoming foreign investment. Any attempt to promote land reform is thus a sensitive subject. Nevertheless, the Sixth Plan has set the following aims:81 - To accelerate the issue of title deeds. - To formulate a national land-use plan to ensure that land resources are developed and used efficiently.
- To promote land reform to enable landless and tenant farmers to have their own land to earn a living.
- To accelerate land allocation to self-help settlements and cooperatives.
- To issue temporary possession documents to people encroaching upon national reserve areas.
A positive step in this area is the 1989 Agricultural Land Reform Act, which permits the conversion of national reserve land to agricultural land, and the transfer of such land coupled with possessory rights to needy farmers.
In the past few years, there has arisen another form of investment which has affected forestry in Thailand: commercial forestry and the introduction of eucalyptus from Australia. As a hardy plant, it has been distributed to farmers in areas where the soil is arid. It has also been used to cover denuded forest areas and is exported to other countries as a commercial raw material. Recently there has been a backlash against the spread of this plant in Thailand.82 Rural people have claimed that it deprives the soil of essential nutrients, thereby destroying nearby crops. However, there is another lobby which suggests that the plant does not harm the environment. As there is a clash of evidence between both parties, the problem is still unsettled. What is clear is that there is among many rural people a feeling of mistrust for this plant which has been transferred to rural Thailand as a technological innovation.
The problem of pesticides was referred to earlier in relation to agriculture. It is closely linked with the broader dimension of toxic wastes in Thailand, including those transported here from abroad. A while ago, this issue came to the fore when a row of drums containing toxic waste, which had been transported from a neighbouring country, was found at Bangkok port. Here again, one is faced with the conflict between advanced technology that produces such waste and transports it to this country, and not enough technology at the level of prevention. Much will depend not only upon local laws and policies, which already exist, but also on international agreements, including bilateral arrangements to curb such transfers. For the present, Thailand has not yet signed the Basel Convention on the transport of toxic wastes. 83
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
The advent of EIA in Thailand can be traced back to 1981 when the Ministry of Technology issued its notification requiring specific projects to submit information for assessment of the project's impact on the environment.84 A report by experts submitted to the National Environment Board is now needed if the projects are to get the go-ahead for implementation. That board is entitled to approve or reject the project within 30 days of the submission. The types of operations subjected to this procedure tend to be large-scale, e.g. mining activities, the building of dams and ports, and various industries such as petrochemicals.
The EIA itself is contingent upon the use of technology. The expert's report depends heavily upon statistical analyses, including matrices concerning the potential impact of the project in question. In a way, it is a manifestation of the use of technology for the positive pursuit of environmental protection.
If there are shortcomings with the present system, they tend to stem from the scientific nature of the EIA itself. Measurements conducted on intricate matters of pollution are faced with difficulties unless appropriate equipment is available. Statistics also tend to prove quantity rather than quality and lack sufficient analysis of the impact on human livelihood and sentiments. One shortcoming in this respect is the failure to study in depth the repercussions of each project on the people who live nearby or who are displaced in the process. The loss of their way of life cannot be measured by statistics alone.