Sun, Mar 05, 2017 - Page 15 News List

The fight is on to save Bangkok’s ‘green lung’

Land developers have set their sights on a sprawling artificial island near the city center, whose residents’ changing lifestyles have made selling their land more appealing

By Reuben Easey  /  AFP, BANGKOK

People relax at the Bangkok Tree House hotel in Bang Krachao, the Thai capital’s so-called “green lung,” on Nov. 4 last year.

Photo: AFP

Leaping out from Bangkok’s vast concrete sprawl is a kidney-shaped green space, home to hundreds of plant and bird species, and where cars are outnumbered by bicycles.

However, residents and campaigners fear the unique ecosystem and character of the city’s so-called “green lung” is under threat, as developers lure locals with lucrative land deals.

Bang Krachao is an artificial island formed by a canal and a bend in the meandering Chao Praya River.

The area stands apart on Google Maps: a swathe of greenery in an otherwise concrete jungle of traffic-choked streets, towering condos and sprawling factories.

While the rest of Bangkok has developed at a dizzying pace over the past five decades — often with little thought put into sustainable long-term planning — Bang Krachao remains an oasis of calm. Covering 16km2, its pathways are popular with weekend cyclists and expatriate day-trippers seeking respite from the helter-skelter of Bangkok’s streets.

However, the fight is now on to stop the concrete from consuming Bangkok’s last tropical sanctuary.

Bang Krachao’s abundant space and proximity to the city center have caught the eye of investors. Soaring land prices are teasing residents into selling up.

“I feel bad to sell it, but my aunt is ill. She needs the money to take care of her health,” said 62-year-old Supi Saengta, who has lived in the area her whole life, but is now selling the family’s 6,400m2 plot of land, which could fetch as much as 24 million baht (US$686,107).

More buildings mean more roads — a major change in an area where many residents still get around on a network of raised concrete footpaths that snake through the tropical foliage.

Eventually, “these paths will be knocked down and replaced by big roads which block the waterways,” said Jakkaphan Thruadmarakha, an environmental campaigner who was born in the area.

“We can already see that some of the canals are becoming stagnant and have problems with water drainage,” he added, urging future development on the wedge of land to be sustainable.

Those battling to keep the Green Lung green have some powerful backers in their corner.

Revered late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej is said to have declared his wish for Bang Krachao to be preserved for future generations. His popular daughter Princess Sirindhorn has made several visits to the area.

In the wake of Bhumibol’s death in October last year, the military government announced a plan to safeguard Bang Krachao’s wild character. The three-year scheme, which involves the Royal Forest Department, Kasetsart University and Thai oil firm PTT PLC, aims to renovate public green spaces and ensure that at least 60 percent of the area remains free from development.

The difficulty in a country such as Thailand, where land is in short supply and corruption rampant, is that developers and powerful businesses have long found ways to circumvent, or simply ignore, environmental protections.

“If we do nothing, the traditional way of life, with houses in farmland, with mangrove forest surrounding Bang Krachao, will disappear,” said Montathip Sommeechai, a lecturer in Kasetsart University’s forestry faculty.

Many of the environmental challenges facing the district have their roots in the changing lifestyles of those who live there, she said.

Whereas most residents once made their living from farming, many now just tend to their gardens in their free time, so alternative uses for the land need to be found.

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