The iconic view of Phanoen Thung of Kaeng Krachan National Park.

Thailand to push for inscription of Kaeng Krachan as World Heritage despite deferral recommendation

The World Heritage Committee meeting in China_the extended 44th session, which kicks off today and will end at the end of this month, will see Thailand trying to push for an inscription of Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex as its third natural World Heritage site despite World Heritage value assessing body’s recommendation to defer the attempt once again. The meeting will also see the country trying to defend two of its World Heritage Sites, Ayutthaya Historical Park and Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, from the World Heritage status downgrading

The Cabinet this week has endorsed resolutions made by the National World Heritage Committee, which approved the country’s stances on critical issues raised by the World Heritage Committee against its two prime World Heritage Sites, Ayutthaya historical park and Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, and one nomination site, Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex.

The two World Heritage sites have been facing various kinds of threats including infrastructure development and encroachment, while the nomination site of Kaeng Krachan has been encountering strong opposition by local communities.

The Cabinet has resolved to back the NWHC’s decisions to push for an inscription of Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex despite conflict with local communities inside Kaeng Krachan National Park, the core area.

Its resolution proposed to the Cabinet for endorsement stated; “If the country’s delegation views that the WHC’s decision would cast negative impacts on the nomination plan, it is authorized to “explain and convince” the WHC, advisors, as well as the World Heritage Center regarding the situation and way of life of local communities in the forest complex so they will provide support Thailand’s push for an inscription of the site. In addition, amendment of the WHC’s (draft) resolution must be insisted on if needed.”

Kaeng Krachan National Park is part of the pristine Tenasserim Range bordering Myanmar.

Embattled Kaeng Krachan

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex (KKFC), comprising Kaeng Krachan National park as the core area, Kui Buri National Park southward, Mae Nam Phachi Wildlife Sanctuary and Chaloem Phrakiat Thai Prachan National Park northward, has been the country’s hope for a third natural World Heritage site, after Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries and Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, which were inscribed in 1991 and 2005 respectively.

The site was first nominated for the status in 2014, and the proposal was first tabled for the WHC’s consideration in 2015 in the 39th Session. However, the forest complex was not immediately accepted as a new World Heritage site.

Although acknowledging the strong potential of the site to meet the criterion (X), which requires the nominated property to “contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation”, the WHC decided to have the proposal deferred and referred back for the first time following the conservation issues and concerns regarding Karen communities within the Kaeng Krachan National Park.

The proposal was deferred again in the 40th Session in 2016 with similar issues raised.

According to the decision, the WHC referred back the proposal to allow the country to “more fully address the concerns that have been raised regarding Karen communities within the Kaeng Krachan National Park, including the implementation of a participatory process to resolve rights and livelihood concerns, and “to achieve a consensus of support for the nomination of the property that is fully consistent with the principle of free, prior and informed consent.”

In 2019, the proposal was referred back again for the third time at the 43rd session to allow the country to demonstrate that “all concerns have been resolved, in full consultation with the local communities.”

Revision of boundaries of the site based on an agreement between Thailand and Myanmar was also requested as well as comparative analysis on ecological values of the site before and after the boundary revision. The committee also encouraged the two countries to work in partnership on future biological connectivity opportunities and collaborative efforts on conservation between the site and the protected areas in Myanmar.

Over those years, concerned officials have been attempting to address the issues, especially those concerning Karen communities in Kaeng Krachan. Those are being done via the promulgation of the new National Parks Act, being in effect in late 2019, which allows communities in the protected areas to continue their living with conditions to be agreed upon and imposed.

However, the issues have not been settled as early this year some local residents from the Bangkloi community had fled their village and attempted to return to their ancestral land, the act which was prohibited by the park. (Read: Bangkloi Saga)

The evaluations

According to the World Heritage value assessing body, IUCN, which provides recommendations to the committee on property nomination proposals, it has recommended deferral of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex nomination proposal for another year, citing that considerable concerns still remain among villagers regarding land allocations, livelihoods, and others, although the country continues to take considerable efforts to address the concerns.

According to its World Heritage Evaluations 2021 report submitted before the meeting, it notes that local participation was noted at the rate of less than 10%, and “a consensus of support fully consistent with the principle of free, prior and informed consent does not appear to be in place.”

The organization further notes in the report that there is a need to improve the representation of local communities in the Protected Area Committee.

“Considering this background, IUCN notes that the Committee’s requests have not been fulfilled yet, because the situation continues neither to be one where all concerns regarding Karen communities have been resolved (the 39th and 43 rd decisions), nor one where a consensus of support for KKFC’s nomination has been achieved, in conformity with the principle of free, prior and informed consent (the 40th decision).

“Therefore, IUCN considers that it is not possible to recommend acceptance of the present revised nomination,” notes the body, while adding it considers that the nomination cannot be considered further through the referral mechanism as this will not allow for an adequate assessment of these serious matters.

The body recommends instead the country “works closely and in full consultation with the affected indigenous peoples and local communities, and with the Special Rapporteurs via the Special Procedures Branch Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) to seek satisfactorily and fully resolve the concerns that have been raised by the Special Rapporteurs.”

“IUCN reiterates that until there is a means to resolve equitably the long-standing reported issues in regard to the rights of local communities, the nomination of KKFC will not be able to proceed to an inscription on the World Heritage List,” notes IUCN, recommending an independent, third-party, arbitration process, in consultation with UNESCO and working closely with Special Procedures Branch of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, be established.

Its recommendations appear in the draft decisions for the proposal this year.

Varawut Silpa-archa, Environment Minister, meanwhile, has insisted that Thailand has adhered to the law to resolve the community issues, especially the new National Parks Act and the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act, which allow continued living in the protected areas. Concerned authorities have been working to improve the villagers’ quality of life through various schemes, in addition.

The country has also tried to invite IUCN to jointly work on the issues and provide advice three times, but failed due to Covid-19, he said.

The iconic wildlife watching station, Nong Phak Chi, in Khao Yai National Park.

“World Heritage in Danger”

Embattled with rapid development around the site, this year Ayutthaya Historical Park, the country’s first World Heritage site, is under threat from the government’s mega project of high-speed railway train development, which is part of China’s grand Belt and Road Initiative.

According to the Cabinet, the state of conservation report of the park will be considered at the meeting this year. Among the issues to be reported at the meeting for consideration is the threat brought by the high-speed railway train project.

The World Heritage Center and the committee’s advisors have raised the issue. They view that the project is a large-scale one which would cast negative impacts on the universal value of the site. They have recommended the Heritage Impact Assessment be conducted before the project goes ahead.

The Cabinet has endorsed the country’s stance on the issue following the NWHC’s decision, which stated; “If the country’s delegation views that the WHC’s decision would cast negative impacts on the nomination plan, or result in a downgrading of the property, it is authorized to “explain and convince” the WHC, advisors, as well as the World Heritage Center to see and understand the country’s conservation and mitigation efforts against any threats against the property.

Dong Phayayen-Khaoyai Forest Complex, meanwhile, is also prone to see its status downgraded to the “World Heritage in Danger” status as this will be considered at the meeting this year. Over the years, the site has been under various threats, from encroachment to illegal logging, especially for its Rosewood trees.

The country’s delegation is authorized to “explain and convince” the WHC, advisors, as well as the World Heritage Center to see and understand the country’s conservation and mitigation efforts against any threats against the site, and decline to list the site as “The World Heritage in Danger”, according to the Cabinet.