Rumble in the Jungle

Thai protestors lose a pristine forest to a multinational pipeline?but they may be headed for an even bigger showdown.

Image: Earth Rights International


In a dramatic standoff, a small group of Thai protesters last week faced a phalanx of bulldozers in a last-ditch effort to protect one of Thailand’s few remaining undeveloped forests from a transnational gas pipeline.

On March 3, social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and recipient of the “alternative Nobel” Right Livelihood Award, led about 50 students and other activists in an attempt to block completion of the Yadana natural gas pipeline through Western Thailand’s Huay Khayeng National Forest Reserve. Sulak and his group of protestors faced formidable opposition in their bid to save the forest, not only from the Thai government and its state-owned Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT), but also from the unseen hand of multinational energy corporations Unocal and Total, which are partnered with PTT in developing the Yadana gas field in Burma.

They failed. The bulldozers are back at work, and the pipeline’s effects on the once-pristine forest may be irreversible.

But even as the small band of activists was placed under arrest, there emerged a silver lining: a legal challenge that could have far-reaching effects on Thailand’s politics and its environment.

Biodiversity vs. Industry
Nestled in a range of limestone hills along the Burma border—a biologically rich area that boasts several national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and a World Heritage Site—the Huay Khayeng forest comprises several distinct forest types and an unusual ecosystem of rivers and caves that is habitat to an almost comical variety of species, from several herds of endangered Asian elephants to caves full of Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, the world’s smallest mammal, to the rare tricolored Royal crab.

Forsaken Fauna
The doomed forest is home to rare and endangered species, some of which live nowhere else.

Huay Khayeng’s “reserve” status offers nominal protection to one of Thailand’s few remaining areas of primeval forest, but not the full protection conferred on national parks—and this is a country where even the national parks are being logged illegally, despite a nationwide logging ban that began in 1989. Spurred by its recent economic boom, from 1982 to 1992 the nation lost some 14 percent of its forests to extensive commercial logging—legal and illegal—and the household demands of local villagers, according to the World Resources Institute. Huay Khayeng appears to have escaped the devastation largely due to its remote location near the Burma border.

Until now, that is. The $1.2 billion, 400-mile Yadana pipeline will transport natural gas from production fields in the Andaman Sea off Burma to an electrical power plant still under construction in Ratchaburi, outside Bangkok. On the way, it bisects the Huay Khayeng forest. Construction is already complete in Burma (renamed Myanmar by the military dictatorship that controls the country), where Thailand’s PTT is a 25% partner in the consortium developing the Yadana field, along with the Burmese junta and subsidiaries of the French petrochemical giant Total and the American multinational Unocal.

The Thai section of the pipeline is being built by the government-owned PTT at a projected cost of $640 million. It traverses 30 miles of forest in Kanchanaburi Province, four miles of which is categorized by the government as “first-class watershed,” including portions of Huay Khayeng, one of Thailand’s last stands of virgin forest.

Shoddy Eco-Assessment
Forest defenders say the government can afford the estimated $45 million cost of rerouting the pipeline around the forest along existing roads, but PTT has insisted on proceeding with the project, even after a government committee rejected its initial environmental impact assessment (EIA) in 1996 for insufficient data on wildlife and forest impacts. Environmentalists have harshly criticized PTT’s flawed EIA, conducted by a private subcontractor, in part because it somehow ignored the rare crab and missed more than 40 elephants, claiming there were only five in the forest. Opponents also objected to PTT’s control of the EIA and public hearings processes.

Rather than redesign the pipeline, PTT has vigorously cultivated its “green” image with an expensive PR campaign including television commercials and tree-planting programs.

Not all the criticism is ecological. Critics also question whether the country has the demand to justify buying more than 80 percent of the Yadana field’s gas in the middle of a national economic crisis, which began last year and has reduced the nation’s projected gas requirements over the next decade by 20 percent, according to industry analysts.

Forest Blockade
Beginning in December, Thai environmental activists took direct action, occupying Huay Khayeng forest. As PTT’s construction contractor bulldozed a 40- to 70-foot-wide swath through the virgin forest, a handful of protestors blocked the last few kilometers of the pipeline route in an attempt to halt the project and protect the reserve. Eventually hundreds would take part in the encampment.

“This watershed is worth much much more than the 2 billion baht [$45 million] the government may have to spend amending the project,” activist Phinan Chotirosseranee of the Kanchanaburi Conservation Group told the Bangkok Post in an interview at the forest camp. “If I had known [their intentions] when they first inked the deal,” she continued, “I wouldn’t have even let them set eyes on my province.”

The dispute grew into a national controversy in January and quickly became a major test for the Democrat Party of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, which is committed to the broad democratic principles embodied in the new national constitution adopted last October—including the explicit rights of the Thai people to defend natural resources and the environment, and to participate in decisions about development projects.

On February 9, eight foreign conservationists delivered to Chuan’s office a letter of concern, authored by the International Rivers Network and co-signed by more than 50 organizations and activists worldwide, urging Chuan to settle the Yadana pipeline dispute openly and fairly.

“Foreign environmentalists have an obligation to assist national groups opposing multinational oil companies like Unocal and Total whose projects are detrimental to the environment,” said Pam Wellner, coordinator of the International River Network’s Burma project.

Chuan called a ten-day halt to construction on February 12 and authorized a high-level panel to review the environmental impacts of the project and make recommendations to the government. Chaired by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, the committee of economists, lawyers, and environmental experts heard testimony from PTT and conservationists—in return for environmentalists’ commitment to withdraw from the forest following Chuan’s decision.

The committee concluded that PTT’s environmental assessment was too shoddy, and its decision-making process too secretive, but it stopped short of recommending that the pipeline be delayed or rerouted. After reviewing the panel’s recommendations and visiting Kanchanaburi on March 1, Prime Minister Chuan announced his decision: The project will proceed.

Oilers, Drugs, and Money
Meanwhile, in El Segundo, California, Unocal Corp. maintains a low profile on the environmental controversy in Thailand, noting dryly that “development of the portion of the pipeline extending from the Myanmar-Thai border to Ratchaburi is the responsibility of PTT.” However, the company’s huge investment in the Yadana pipeline, and its 36-year presence in Thailand’s energy market, where it is the country’s largest gas producer, belies its attempts to distance itself from the dispute. Unocal supplies 20 percent of Thailand’s total energy needs and supports more than a third of its electrical generation. Further muddying the waters, the chairman of the hastily assembled Yadana review committee, former Thai prime minister Anand Panyarachun, runs one of the country’s biggest industrial conglomerates—and is reportedly an adviser to Unocal.

Unocal is also a major investor in Burma’s energy sector, where its partnership with PTT, Total, and Burma’s ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, recently renamed the State Peace and Development Council) in construction of the Yadana pipeline has provoked a landmark lawsuit now underway in Los Angeles. The plaintiffs, Burma villagers from the vicinity of the pipeline, are suing Unocal for financial compensation for human rights violations, including rape, torture, extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and other “crimes against humanity,” allegedly perpetrated by SLORC on behalf of the pipeline consortium. Unocal representative David Garcia told MoJo Wire these allegations are “false and unfounded.”

Unocal also disputes allegations that its Burmese partner, SLORC’s Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), is a principal agent in laundering a portion of the estimated 50-70 percent of Burma’s revenue earned from heroin production. In March 1996, the U.S. State Department reported that Burma is the world’s largest producer of opium and the source of over 60 percent of the heroin seized on U.S. streets. According to Francois Casanier, a researcher with the French organization Geopolitical Drugwatch, “MOGE has been the main channel for laundering the revenues of heroin produced and exported under the control of the Burmese army.”

Under the Bulldozers
Even as the Kanchanaburi Conservation Group and its supporters began to pull out of the forest after the prime minister’s announcement, a new team of protesters not bound by the previous agreement took their place. At the end of February, Sulak Sivaraksa, the 65-year-old leader of Thailand’s Kalayanamitra Council, along with a group of students and protesters, moved in to block construction crews. “This is against what the prime minister ordered,” Sulak told reporters. “He promised the public that the continuation of the project would be possible on the condition that further construction will not affect the forest and that threatened wildlife will be recuperated. However, [PTT’s contractor] did none of these. Instead they are cutting more big trees.”

The demonstrators lay down in the path of four bulldozers attempting to clear the forest on March 4, blocking further construction as the drivers threatened to run them over.

The standoff lasted two days before police moved in and used water cannons to disperse the demonstrators before arresting about 50. Sulak was charged with violating the Petroleum Act, a statute that protects PTT’s energy operations. He now faces possible fines and a maximum prison term of six months.

“My friends and I may not be able to protect the forest,” Sulak said after the arrests, “but we want to demonstrate that development without consideration for human rights, environmental issues and local participation is fundamentally wrong. Development must benefit the poor, the grassroots, animals and trees. Most grand schemes of economic development benefit multinational corporations and the super-rich, but harm the majority of people.” Bulldozers resumed clearing the forest along the pipeline route shortly after the arrests.

Constitutional Showdown
Sulak pleaded not guilty and, released on his own recognizance, he now anticipates a show trial beginning May 13 at which he will attempt to justify the occupation of the forest—and seek testimony from PTT officials as well as the prime minister. “I hope that the trial will enlighten the public on how PTT and the government have been lying to us,” Sulak said.

Environmentalists also hope the trial will be a test of the new Thai constitutional right to protect natural resources and the environment. Any ruling on these new constitutional issues is likely to set a precedent that will affect government and industry throughout Thailand. Yadana opponents have already achieved a national precedent with the first-ever public hearings on the environmental implications of a major development project.

In the meantime, Thai environmentalists continue to demand a new EIA on the project. Thai activists yesterday picketed the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, where they delivered a letter addressed to President Bill Clinton urging him to ask Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai to stop the project. Chuan leaves tomorrow to visit the U.S. with his finance minister in an attempt to shore up investor confidence in the shaky Thai economy.

Nationwide elections later this year will reveal whether the Thai government’s apparent violation of the new constitution will have any impact in the political arena. What seems certain is that PTT’s “green” image will never recover from the Yadana project. Neither will Huay Khayeng forest.


Thai activists are calling on U.S. students and human rights groups to launch their own protest of the Yadana pipeline project this week, when Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai visits Washington. To learn more, visit the Free Burma Coalition or the No Petro-dollars for SLORC campaign.


Photographs courtesy of Earth Rights International