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Mangrove Conservation Can Protect Thailand From Sino-Thai BRI’s Ecological Impacts

Aerial view of one of Thailand's vast mangrove forests in Phang Nga Bay. RDW Aerial Imaging / Alamy Photo

Sino-Thai economic cooperation has been expanding in the last decade, propelled by the nation’s ambition to boost economic growth and by China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) projects. However, the model has been known for continuous building without paying much attention to the coastal ecosystems, including mangroves. The condition may accelerate erosion, intensify wind energy reaching the coast, cost flooding, and raise greenhouse gas levels.

Thailand must begin to prioritize green growth policies, including mangrove conservation, to protect itself from such negative outcomes and grow its economy even further. A study showed that Thailand can earn 7.8% more in national economic growth by protecting wetlands, mangroves, and forests, compared to a ‘business as usual’ approach. 

Implementing green growth policies is estimated to contribute a total of $2.06 billion to Thailand’s national economy. Such financial benefits can be obtained, in part, because green policies improve the domestic water quality and flow regulation services.

Between 1975 and 1993 alone, the size of mangrove forests in Thailand was already halved. Since then, forest degradation continued, sparking national attention to the importance and urgency of mangrove forest conservation. Per Thai geography, one-third of coastal areas are bordered by mangrove forests. 

The presence of mangrove forests provides nursery grounds, food sources, habitats for wild animals, and natural resources for local Thais, including fishers, shrimp farmers, and charcoal producers.

The rate of mangrove deforestation fell significantly between 2000 and 2012, hinting at Bangkok’s decision to better protect its domestic ecosystem in favor of national economic growth.

Each year, mangrove forests in Thailand provide locals with reasonable living. Here, local villagers living within the coastal communities are able to gain access to fish, timber and fuel wood resources. The availability of mangrove forests also helps protect Thailand from extreme natural disasters, such as storms, saltwater intrusion, and shoreline erosion. 

Mangrove forests are deemed the lungs of Thai provinces close to the coastal areas. Such an ecosystem is a breeding ground for aquatic animals that are necessary for environmental conservation. 

While the Sino-Thai “build, build, build” model may be important to support Thailand’s long-term vision of economic growth, such an economic goal should not be realized at the expense of domestic environmental health. Protecting mangrove forests within the country is of utmost importance for environmental policymakers in order to ensure that Thailand can enjoy sustainable, green national development over time.

Not only does Thailand have to lower the mangrove deforestation rates, but Thai policymakers should also propose the implementation of mangrove plantations along the coastal regions. The more mangroves are planted, the better Thailand can restore its vegetation structure for carbon sequestration and coastal stabilization

When Sino-Thai infrastructure development continues, a raft of carbon dioxide is produced, harming the environmental health of Thailand in the long run. Mangrove plantations allow the absorption of excessive carbon chemicals in order to build a more eco-friendly environment for Thai residents and habitats at large.

Both Thailand’s ecosystem and economic growth will benefit from such green development. Therefore, while the Sino-Thai “build, build, build” model has no sign to mitigate in the future, Bangkok has to ensure that it poses no conflicts against its conservation of mangrove resources.

Jason Hung is a final-year PhD in Sociology candidate at the University of Cambridge. He worked as a Fellow at Harvard University Asia Centre. He is an incoming visiting scholar at National Taiwan University.

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