Thai Loggers Devastate Forest

Timber companies cross international borders in race to get concessions for dwindling trees

FOR Sueb Nakasathien, the future of Thailand's dwindling forests and wildlife was dark. ``The government says it has banned logging in Thailand, but it still continues,'' the outspoken conservationist said in a Monitor interview earlier this fall. ``The time is coming when we will have nothing left. It's hard to see how we can turn it back.''

Two weeks later, Mr. Sueb, a government official who headed the country's most pristine rain forest and wildlife reserve, killed himself. He died, friends said, in personal turmoil and professional anguish over Southeast Asia's mounting environmental crisis.

Thailand, long admired as one of Asia's most gentle and gracious cultures, is becoming a byword for environmental rapacity.

Thai logging lords continue to slash the country's slim forest cover, despite a two-year-old ban, Thai and Western environmentalists say. And the country's influential logging companies are even impinging on the forests of Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Malaysia. Since 1980, Thailand, once famed as a teak exporter, has had to import large amounts of timber to fill demand for furniture exports and meet construction needs during a period of unparalleled growth.

The race for logging concessions crosses international borders and has become a major force in shaping Southeast Asian politics, analysts say.

``Thailand has become an agency for destroying the forests of this region,'' says a Thai environmental activist who asked not to be named. ``The logging companies don't care about politics or the environment. They will go wherever they can make business.''

Thailand's growing confrontation over logging mirrors spreading alarm about runaway deforestation in Southeast Asia. Although its crisis has yet to attain the profile of that in Latin America, the region is consuming its forests at double the rate of a decade ago.

More than 42 million acres of tropical rain forest are destroyed worldwide each year, 11.75 million of that in Asia, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

In Southeast Asia, the logging lords have economic and political clout. The region accounts for almost 90 percent of the $7 billion annual trade in tropical timber products.

Yet, in some countries, the impact of deforestation is stirring outcry, forcing governments to prohibit logging. In early 1989, after scores of Thais died in flooding and landslides in southern Thailand, Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhavan imposed a logging ban. The disasters were widely blamed on illegal logging.

As a result, the government claims forest plunder has dropped and a turnaround has begun. With only 28 percent of the country still forested, officials have set a goal of rebuilding wooded cover to 40 percent.

The ban, however, is having an unsavory side effect. Because of the desperate need for new sources of commercial hardwood, a valuable trade in teak has sprouted between Thailand and its heavily forested neighbors.

To placate Thai businessmen, bureaucrats, and Army officers who held timber concessions, the government and top military leaders have cut controversial deals to keep the logs rolling.

Despite a cutoff of aid to Burma, Thailand conducts a lucrative timber border trade with Rangoon which earns dearly needed foreign exchange. Thai logging companies also have been granted concessions by Karen insurgents to fund their uprising against the Burmese regime.

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, whose rule in the 1970s is blamed for the deaths of 1 million Cambodians, sells wood to Thailand to help fund its battle against the regime in Phnom Penh. In turn, the trade pays off for the Thai military, which controls the border.

Logging also underpins Thailand's growing commercial relations with the communist-led government in Laos. Last year, the Viangchan regime took control of logging concessions from provincial administrators in a move to control unruly Thai loggers. But the forests continue to dwindle.

``Laos is at the mercy of Thailand, which is stripping the forests and taking the profits home. No replanting is being done,'' says a Western aid worker with extensive experience in Laos. ``Logging is being done by Laotian companies which are fronts for Thai financing.''

As Thailand exports its devastation, the ravaging at home continues despite the ban, environmentalists say. Indeed, Western and Thai environmental experts say official figures for forest cover underestimate the problem.

``We can't expect to increase forests in Thailand back to 40 percent,'' says Witoon Permpongsacharoen, director of the project for Ecological Recovery, a private environmental lobby in Bangkok which estimates forest cover at 18 percent, down from 53 percent in 1960. ``Now our concern must be to protect the forests we have.''

As Sueb discovered, however, that is hard to do. The logging industry operates within a web of politics and corruption that includes prominent officials and senior military officers, Thai and international environmentalists say.

Logging circles are so high-powered that the chorus of critics is afraid to speak openly of the environmental exploitation. Thai foresters in the field, like Sueb, are high-risk policemen who frequently find themselves in gun battles with poachers and illegal loggers.

Not long after Sueb became chief of Huay Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary in 1989, the conservationist had a price on his head, friends say. Located 100 miles north of Bangkok, Thailand's last major rain forest became a front-line against poachers and illegal loggers.

Hundreds of poor villagers trying to scrounge a living had encroached on the sanctuary and were cutting trees and hunting and trapping the reserve's unique wildlife. Encouraging the pillaging were powerful logging companies, wildlife traders, and corrupt military and government officials, according to Sueb and Western environmental officials.

Although the forces arrayed against Sueb appeared to overwhelmed him, his Sept. 1 suicide became a symbol of Thailand's troubling environmental future.

Bangkok's press likened him to the late Brazilian environmental crusader Chico Mendes, and, in a unique honor, Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej lent his name to Sueb's funeral rites and backed a foundation to fund conservation projects and welfare benefits for forest rangers. The Army also threw its support behind policing Huay Kha Khaeng as a showcase sanctuary.

Environmental experts say Thailand's problems run far deeper, however. The Thailand Development Research Institute recently estimated that about 10 million poor farmers and landless laborers have encroached on the forests in the struggle to survive.

Calling for widespread land reform, the institute contends the poor ``provides the smoke screen for forest encroachment by others such as illegal loggers and land speculators.

``There can be simply no successful forest policy unless the issue of land ownership over encroached forest lands is clarified and settled,'' the report says.

Sueb agreed. ``Without poor people having their own piece of land, the forest cannot be saved,'' the forestry official said. ``The people have to rise up. It can't be left to the government alone.''

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