Eco-tourism may be the way to preserve the future of Bangkok’s ‘Green Lung’, Bang Krachao
It is hard to imagine that Suan Pa Ket Nom Klao — 75 rai of forest in Bang Krachao — is so close and accessible from the centre of Bangkok. Just a few minutes ferry ride from the pier at Klong Toey, visitors find themselves in leafy orchards and among a web of small canals.
The image is so picture perfect it is hard to believe it when Prempree Trairat, a local conservationist, says that the area was not long ago a garbage dump, and those canals were clogged with debris.
Pollution took place after the government designated the Bang Krachao area, in Phra Pradaeng district, a reserve for urban forest areas in 1985. That forest expansion policy led to the plan to purchase 9,000 rai of land covering six tambons (Bang Krachao, Bang Yor, Bang Krasorb, Bang Kor Bua, Song Kanong and popular tourist floating market, Bang Nam Phueng). But due to local opposition, the state managed to buy only 1,200 rai, or around 10% of the planned area, from landowners.
“After the land acquisition, authorities put banners here and there warning people not to enter the national forest reserve,” says Prempree, leader of a local conservation group called Network of Bang Krachao Conservationists. Since then, she adds, the leafy orchards disintegrated into an eyesore. Disconnected from villagers, the forest became a garbage site, while flowing canals were tarnished with sediment and debris.
“The authority did not know how to manage the unique ecology of orchard forests and canals. The staff just left the forest as it was with some hope that trees would grow. But orchard forests need regular vetting and canals need to be dredged every few months. Without proper care, the forest became degraded land without any meaning and connection with the community.”
Suan Pa Ket Nom Klao is more fortunate than other forest reserve areas as the Network of Bang Krachao Conservationists received permission from the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) to help clean up the area, and that turned the wasteland into a lush green pocket of trees.
But the future of Bang Krachao is still uncertain. Locals fear that the fruit farming business which has been a part of the community for a long time will be in jeopardy because of the change in water ecology caused by a dam built to prevent flood and soil erosion.
The dam damages the canal’s ecology as it blocks nutrient-rich sediment from replenishing the soil and prevents seawater from seeping into the canals. Bang Krachao and the orchard around the Chao Phraya River’s estuary has been known as the “Ecology of Three Streams” — the meeting point of fresh water from the river and seawater that growers use to water their fruits.
“The brine water makes fruits from orchards in this area famous. But the dam structure will spell the end of this natural process and end fruit growing,” says Phongsak Taewtuen, a sugar palm grower.
Bang Krachao is also slowly transforming into an urban zone. Original orchard growers have sold land and the demand for real estate has driven up the land price by 10 times — from around 5,000 baht per rai to 50,000 baht per rai for inland orchard over 10 years. The plots close to the river may fetch over 1 million baht. The latest land use policy also drives up development as it permits the construction of single detached houses and small resorts — and there is a loophole since developers can still build big housing estates by applying for the construction on a single house basis.
Amid all these threatening changes, some local people are trying to protect the environment and the community’s way of life, and their tool is tourism.
The Network of Bang Krachao Conservationists is an example of how community participation can help the state take care of the forest. The group is trying to promote the area as a trail route and ecological tourism site where visitors can experience traditional orchards and taste local dishes and fruits. Next month, the community is planning to hold a cycling trip while doing a gourmet tour of local delicacies. Community people are joining force with other civic groups such as BIG Trees, an urban conservation group, to help manage and redevelop bicycle routes which link many unseen spots throughout six tambons in the district — expanding the tourist area from the already-famous Bang Nam Phueng.
Prempree believes eco-tourism will provide incentives and motivation for people to protect nature; the forest will be preserved when there are people living in it.
Warangkana Rattanarat, programme officer at The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), says the authority should let the local community take part in preserving and taking care of the forest. RECOFTC is an international conservation group which advocates that local communities live in the forest on condition that they help protect it.
With unregulated land development, Warangkana believes that the renowned green area — a unique spot so close to the urban bustle of Bangkok — will be just a dot of green forest surrounded by commercial and residential areas.
Forest degradation at Bang Krachao reflects the problem in the state’s forest management policy: forest reclamation moves people out.
“The authority has used this policy for 30 years and we have seen the forest disappear,” says Warangkana. “It is a time to re-examine why the forest management policy does not work.”
According to her, the only way to protect the forest is to make local villagers guardians by allowing them to benefit from the land by carrying out small scale planting or being involved in tourism.
“With good incentives and community participation, villagers can start benefiting from and protecting the forest,” she says.