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Si Thep Park needs a voice

If everything proceeds by current plans, the first oil exploration rig will begin operations this year right about where the camera took this photo. (Photo by Melalin Mahavongtrakul)

It beggars belief how a proposal to dig for oil 100 metres from one of the country’s most significant archaeological buildings is close to being green-lighted.

Neither the Fine Arts Department nor the Ministry of Energy have registered noticeable opposition. Phetchabun province villagers have become the only defenders of the Dvaravati-era stupa within the supposedly protected Si Thep Historical Park.

The eager petroleum exploration company is Eco Orient Resources (Thailand) — a subsidiary of Hong Kong’s Eco Group. Eco Orient Resources applied for and received permits to search for petroleum in Si Thep district of Phetchabun in 2004. The firm now seeks to begin operations. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is due in April, and Eco Orient Resources is promising many measures that it says will mitigate noise and the ugliness of drilling rigs.

The site where this drilling is supposed to begin later this year is the northern part of the historical part. Khao Klang Nok is a colossal Buddhist monument. Archaeologists generally describe it as a temple, but by any standards it is huge. It dates from the Dvaravati period, or the 6th to the 11th century. The stupa of the temple is widely known and a destination for tourists, mostly Thais.

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The Fine Arts Department (FAD) has applied to Unesco for the status of World Heritage Site. The application covers the entire Si Thep Historical Park and its surrounding areas, including the Khao Klang Nok monument and stupa. Understandably, a huge majority of local residents backed the Unesco application, and opposed the attempt by Eco Orient Resources to drill for petroleum. If Unesco recognises the park as a World Heritage Site, local communities stand to gain from cultural tourism. The Phetchabun Chamber of Commerce has an identical stance.

The absence of strong advocates for park preservation is beyond troubling. The FAD has been too complacent over the issue and it should take a public stance.

The government must recognise that their search for fossil fuels has a huge public relations problem, but beyond that, they must limit the intrusion on communities and local people. Even an exploration contract to Eco Orient Resources will mean road building, noise, unavoidable destruction of plants and trees. Accidents happen when oil rigs are near, and the stupa, monument and natural flora are at constant risk.

The FAD has no authority to intervene directly. But it has ability to speak out — and the silence is deafening.

Even ignoring the cultural and potential archaeological damage, what are the chances Unesco will provide World Heritage status to a site spotted with oil derricks?

Furthermore, the value of a historical site in an area where the main business is sucking petroleum from the ground, is diminished at best, if not, completely destroyed.

The Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (Onep) will consider the process of the EIA. By law, Onep must hold at least one more open hearing to officially reveal the results of the assessment and rule on whether Eco Orient Resources should get an exploration licence. Before that, government and the FAD must come to their senses and support the people of Phetchabun in keeping oil exploration and commercial drilling away from Si Thep Historical Park.