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Thailand’s Protected Areas System Plan: Toward Resilient Landscapes


The System Plan for Thailand’s PAs is designed to enable the nation’s 370+protected sites to function as a coherent system that puts the entire network into its broader social, cultural, economic, and environmental context. It shows how to integrate protected areas into the 2012-2016 National Economic and Social Development Plan by communicating the multiple values of protected areas to national planning agencies, and to the many sectors whose activities can affect protected areas, or be affected by them. These include tourism, agriculture, fisheries, health, energy, forestry, transport, and even the military. The System Plan incorporates protected areas appropriately within the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan(NBSAP), as part of Thailand’s implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Preparing a System Plan is also called for the Program of Work on Protected Area by CBD (Article 8a), and will help meet several of the Aichi Targets for Biodiversity.

Problem, challenge or context: 

When Thailand banned commercial logging in 1989, large expanses of forested land became available for other uses, including conservation. The Royal Forest Department used this opportunity to expand the terrestrial protected area estate substantially. But this expansion was opportunistic rather than systematic. Many isolated areas were declared, as virtual islands of forest surrounded by agricultural lands that nibbled away at the PA boundaries. Managing nearly 20% of Thailand’s terrestrial territory and nearly 8% of its seas as protected areas also posed a significant ecosystem management challenge, calling for vigorous responses to ensure the survival of hundreds of species that were listed as Threatened by IUCN. So the challenge was clear: How to meet the CBD’s Aichi Target 11 for protected areas, by 2020, for Thailand’s protected areas to be “conserved through an effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected system of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.” The System Plan provided the solution or at least the foundation for it.

Specific elements of components: 
Explicit description of the problems facing Thailand’s protected areas
The problems Thailand is facing in management of natural resources include maintaining food and water security, promoting participation of local communities in natural resource management, ensuring jobs and sustainable livelihoods, supporting education and training, creating regional connectivity for social and economic stability, and maintaining the productivity of the fisheries, forestry and agricultural sectors, all in the face of rapid climate change and while managing natural resources and the environment toward sustainability. The intersection between protected areas and the development goals guiding the government priorities presents some of the greatest challenges, as well as opportunities, to Thailand’s protected area policy makers, planners, managers, and researchers. Therefore, the System Plan, and the individual site management plans, must contribute to the larger issues of economic and social development. 
Description of the benefits that protected areas delivery to the people of Thailand
A key to addressing the problems mentioned above is to highlight the multiple benefits of protected areas. Most obvious for most people, protected areas are designed and managed to conserve natural and cultural heritage – a valuable contribution that is beyond any monetary price. But this has been insufficient to ensure the conservation of biodiversity, so the System Plan focuses on the many kinds of benefits protected areas provide to people, especially in the form of ecosystem services. These benefits are discussed in detail in the System Plan. Economists emphasize that many of these are public goods that are not well managed by conventional markets, suggesting that innovative conservation organizations, such as Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), are required to take these values into account. Given that Thailand has always been geographically, culturally, and biologically dynamic, the surviving natural ecosystems may be key contributors to future forms of sustainable development. Because these systems have already shown the ability to adapt to dramatic geographic, climatic, and cultural changes, they can be an essential part of any measures designed to enable the country to adapt to the changing conditions the future will surely bring. The System Plan focuses especially on the contributions of protected areas to such adaptations since these are where the richest species diversity is found, where “nature’s toolbox” is at its fullest. 
The geographic approach to protected areas and filling any remaining gaps
By considering the relations of protected areas with surrounding lands and waters as part of the System Plan, mutual benefits are more likely to be achieved and potential conflicts can be reduced or addressed. Links to other land uses in the rural landscape and seascape depend on significantly increased collaboration with other government agencies involved in the adjacent areas. Thailand has become a leader in establishing complexes or clusters of protected areas, working together in close collaboration to facilitate their planning and management on an ecosystem basis. Conservation corridors are connecting protected areas, thereby expanding their effective size, but they require agreements to be negotiated with the owners of the land that provides the required links. The Complexes are now developing their own comprehensive management plans that include appropriate monitoring measures.
A systematic approach to funding protected areas
Protected areas are significant parts of the national economy, but are currently undervalued and under supported. The System Plan provides a better recognition of PA economic contributions to Thai society is leading to stronger support from both traditional and innovative sources of funding, requiring effective business planning. The System Plan describes diversified funding strategies that enhance the sustainability of protected areas. Tourism to protected areas generate greater funding when the PA managers are provided appropriate incentives, the funds are handled in a completely transparent manner, and the increased flow of funds from tourists leads to observable improvements in management. Innovative sources of financial support are coming from payment for ecosystem services, such as access to genetic resources, carbon storage, and a variety of water-related services. These also demonstrate that maintaining healthy ecosystem services is a valuable public good worthy of greater public investment. Income from these innovative sources could be managed by an innovative financial management mechanism: a National Conservation Trust Fund.
A standard set of policies
The System Plan promotes a systematic approach to policy that enables DNP to communicate its practices to other land management agencies and others that may affect protect areas. It provides a particular focus on a revised policy on the preparation of management plans would give greater responsibility to those who will be expected to implement the plan, namely the PA Superintendents and other staff; comprehensive policies on tourism management; a policy on public-private partnerships that can be an important means of enhancing protected area management, with the various parts of the private sector having differential contributions to make; a policy on roads to provide a basis for limiting their problems and addressing issues with the Department of Highways and Department of Rural Roads; and a policy on expanding research as an essential element of protected area management.
Key lessons learned: 

Establishing a coherent and well-coordinated system of protected areas is no simple matter, and has required considerable investments in capacity building, new approaches to working with local people, objective assessments of monitoring management effectiveness, and implementing innovative forms of management that are reviewed and modified on the basis of experience (known as adaptive management). These investments have proven their worth in terms of the increased flow of benefits from the protected areas to the people of Thailand, more effective management of the protected areas, and stronger support to global efforts to conserve biodiversity and address the problems of climate change.

Impacts and outcomes: 
  • Nineteen protected area complexes have been established to bring various categories of protected areas together or link them by conservation corridors that are now being managed by well-coordinated management plans. The effective size of the protected areas in ecosystem management terms has been substantially increased, to the benefit of Thailand’s biodiversity. 
  • Protected areas are now widely seen as providing healthy ecosystem services as a valuable public good worthy of greater public investment, with development agencies routinely using these concepts. Income from innovative sources of funding are being managed by innovative financial management mechanisms, leading to a National Conservation Trust Fund.
  • Over 12 million visitors to protected areas each year are demonstrating that the sites are well appreciated by the people of Thailand (and international visitors), and they are bringing significant economic benefits to the rural communities in the buffer zones around protected areas.
  • A modern geographic information system is being used for effective management of protected areas, including anti-poaching, controlling illegal encroachment, designing management plans, and communicating with the general public.
Contact details: 
Dr. Songtam Suksawang, Director and Expert of Nation Parks and Protected Areas, Innovation Institute Department of National Parks Wildlife and Plant Conservation, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Bangkok, Thailand
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