HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES CONTINUE TO CLOUD THE BID FOR KAENG KRACHAN NATIONAL PARK TO BE LISTED AS A WORLD HERITAGE SITE

On Monday (26th July), the Thai government is expected to re-submit its application to list Kaeng Krachan National Park and its adjacent forest complex as a UNESCO World Heritage site at the Extended 44th session of the World Heritage Committee meeting convened in Fuzhou, China.

The application is the fourth attempt by the Thai government.  In the last meeting in 2019, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) decided not to consider the forest complex as a World Heritage site, citing its outdated information regarding boundaries and a lack of participation from local communities.

This national park has been marred with notorious reports of conflicts between state park officials who resorted to heavy-handed measures to evict indigenous Karen villagers from the forest where they had settled for more than a century.

But the Thai delegates are adamant about winning approval this year as Thailand is one of the member countries on the judging committee, and the Thai government is reportedly hopeful of securing endorsement from China, the host country.

Two weeks before the meeting, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) — a relatively quiet state body — made a rare public announcement urging the Thai government to withdraw its application, hinting at human rights issues. The warning fell on deaf ears at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE).

MoNRE — the state body tasked to oversee national parks, has been working hard to show that Kaeng Krachan is the pride of the nation and could be a World Heritage site, as it is an area that highlights the co-existence of humans and forest ecology. As a carbon sink that can absorb earth-warming emissions, it is also a solution to climate change.

Now, the aspirations of the Thai government to clinch the World Heritage Site status lie with UNESCO’s judging committee — a panel of 20 members who vote in secret ballots. regardless of the outcome, some say Thai society has benefited from the debates surrounding Kaeng Krachan National Park and whether or not this forest area deserves to become a World Heritage site, as well as the meaning and benefits of such a status.

The world as well as the Thai society has been able to learn about the struggles of the ethnic Karen villagers who were evicted from their home.  Policy makers in recent years have been forced to revise the rigid forest conservation policy that gives priority to the forest and its people, not just the former.

However MoNRE and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) both need to work harder in cooperating with local Karen communities and settling differences.

World Heritage status means the Kaeng Krachan National Park must be treated as a treasure of mankind, and not just a tourism booster. To achieve that status, the MoNRE and DNP have the task of finding a way to make this national park belong to everyone, starting with the Karen villagers who had been living in this forest longer than anyone else.