- More than a twenty luxury resorts and mansions illegally built in national parks in Thailand’s Western Forest Complex have been demolished or ordered to be demolished since October 2020.
- Officials say prosecutions for encroachment rarely succeed, due to legal ambiguities created by legislation that allows people to remain on land they owned prior the declaration as a national park.
- Under the law, residents allowed to remain on park land cannot transfer land outside of their families, but one park official estimates that close to 20% of this land has, in fact, been sold.
- The owners of the newly demolished buildings include retired military generals and prominent businesspeople.
Since October 2020, Thailand’s national parks authority has demolished or ordered the demolition of more than 20 luxury mansions, resorts and tourist hotels illegally built in national parks throughout the country’s Western Forest Complex, a globally significant biodiversity conservation corridor.
Among the properties already demolished are a 3.2-hectare (8-acre) resort with 20 bungalows, allegedly belonging to the daughter of a retired general, and a 17-bungalow resort reportedly owned by a retired general. Other demolished properties include a mansion belonging to the owner of a milk factory, and a floating hotel with a blue granite swimming pool.
Fifteen of the properties already torn down or awaiting demolition sat on the banks of the Srinakarin Dam’s 420-square-kilometer (162-square-mile) reservoir. The old-growth tropical forests surrounding the reservoir form an integral part of Srinakarin Dam National Park.
Six others sat in Sai Yok National Park, on the banks of the world-famous Kwai Noi River.
Both parks are part of Thailand’s Western Forest Complex, which covers more than 18,000 km2 (7,000 mi2) and encompasses 19 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Just a two-hour drive from the capital, Bangkok, the lush forests have become a major tourist attraction and are home to hundreds of hotels and tourist resorts.
Nipon Jamnongsirisak, head of the Department of National Parks unit responsible for both Srinakarin Dam and Sai Yok national parks, told Mongabay that owners of properties built within park boundaries have been charged with encroachment on national parks, but that most will ultimately go free. Historically, Nipon said, the public prosecutor has tended to view these occupations as “lack[ing] intention to encroach.” In 1998, to end long-standing conflicts, the Thai government allowed people to remain in place if they could prove they had lived in an area prior to its declaration as a national park.
Within Nipon’s jurisdiction alone, there are 52,600 hectares (130,000 acres) occupied by 11,790 families that fall under this special agreement. These people have the right to remain on their land, but not to sell or transfer it outside their families.
In practice, however, land frequently changes hands, Nipon said. “Close to 20% of these lands have been sold,” he said. “That’s how those fancy buildings exist in the national park.”
Under a new law launched in 2019, the situation has changed. Now, regardless of the court’s ruling on criminal intent, park authorities are allowed to remove buildings constructed within protected areas. This legal change has raised concerns that Indigenous and other forest-dependent people will find their access to forests restricted, but officials say it has already helped close a legal loophole that previously benefited wealthy encroachers.
“The prosecutor can turn the case down for any reason. The building needs to be removed anyway. And if you don’t, we will,” Nipon said. “You can be free from court cases. But your property obviously sits right within the national park. That’s the fact.”
Another seven resorts and homes in Srinakarin Dam National Park are still awaiting demolition, along with five properties in Sai Yok National Park. An additional 20 cases are still moving through the courts.
These include a 32-hectare (80-acre) lakeside property seized from the billionaire executive of a listed textile company, and 4 hectares (10 acres) occupied by a big retail businessman. Both owners claim to have the proper documents allowing them to remain on protected land.
Others claimed to have bought buildings without being aware of the status of the land. Nipon dismissed these claims with a sarcastic laugh: “Encroachment is defined as illegal occupation of state forest land. You may lie in court, but the damage has been done.”
To Nipon, the prevalence of luxury properties within protected areas represents the abuse of the agreement made to protect Indigenous peoples and small landholders from dispossession. “The rich enjoy the privilege the state gives to the poor,” he said. “The poor were then forced to start new encroachment. This circle needs to stop.”
For Mongkol Kamsuk, head of the Hang Kat Wildlife Sanctuary in Phitsanulok province, the problem of encroachment is not just about buildings, but also other destructive activities within protected area boundaries. The “domestic encroachment” he has seen since 1998 has claimed not only forest, but also wildlife, he said.
“In the old days, there were herds of wild elephants and tigers over the areas,” Mongkul said. “Now they could be seen only in the western deep forest near the Myanmar border. Camera traps in recent years showed only small wildlife like civet and wild boar.
“It is us encroaching their area,” Mongkol added. “Wildlife has been forced to retreat day by day. With fewer forests, their lives are under threat.”
In 2020, the most recent year for which official statistics are available, 32% of Thailand was forested, compared to close to 50% in the early 1970s. This, Mongkol said, speaks to a problem that is broader than individual encroachers.
“We cannot blame everything on the people,” he said. “Recent decades have come with state infrastructure and facilities reaching into forests or even mountaintops. We trade our forest for electricity, roads, schools and hospitals.”
Back in Sai Yok National Park, where Nipon and his team have just finished tearing down one batch of encroaching properties, clients have already been told a hotel will be reopened soon nearby, in a new location also on the banks of the Kwai Noi River.
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