Ahead of election, Thailand’s green development vision under fire

Before Sunday’s general election, the Bio-Circular-Green Economic model faces accusations of greenwashing and inequity.

In 2022, the Bio-Circular-Green Economic (BCG) model was proposed to other countries at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting held in Bangkok, and officially adopted as part of the APEC leaders’ declaration. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

The incumbent government’s vision for a sustainable future for Thailand is being criticised ahead of Sunday’s snap general election.

Local communities, opposition parties and environmental groups say the vision, known as the Bio-Circular-Green Economic (BCG) model, is failing to deliver on its stated aims of ensuring sustainability and equity. Instead, it is focussing on policies that keep power concentrated with the elite, they say.

According to opinion polls, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is trailing the younger leaders of opposition parties Pheu Thai (PTP) and Move Forward (MFP). If one of the challengers wins, they will very likely ditch the BCG altogether, with their manifestos making no mention of it.

What is the vision?

The BCG is a broad plan to push Thailand toward sustainability and from a middle- to high-income country. Originally involving four primary dimensions – sustainability, equity, security and progress – the BCG became part of the national agenda in 2021, but few specifics have been publicly released.

The model has been defined and implemented by the current government, led by Prayut, who first took power in a military coup in 2014 and was then voted in as prime minister after the disputed general election of 2019.

Does the BCG or carbon credits really help solve climate change? Or is it just a means to justify irresponsible acts against the environment by these companies?

Somboon Khamhang, chairperson, NGO Coordinating Committee on Development

The inventor of the BCG concept, Dr Suvit Maesincee, a former government minister, tells China Dialogue that it largely resulted from a need to shift from an industry- and globalisation-driven economy to one better able to withstand disruptions like Covid-19 and geopolitical conflicts, with an eye to meeting the UN sustainable development goals.

In 2022, the BCG was proposed to other countries at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting held in Bangkok, and officially adopted as part of the APEC leaders’ declaration. But widespread and violent protests from Thai civil society and environmental groups have ensued, partly over the opaque nature of the plan and accusations of greenwashing.

Is it really ‘green’?

Suvit thinks the main problem with the BCG in Thailand is the large difference in understanding around it, both among political parties and the public. “It’s an opportunity for our people to have a fair chance with development, as it promotes fair income and wealth distribution,” he says, remarking that the model has so far been implemented in a way that sidesteps these distributive and inclusive elements. Instead, technocratic committees, featuring CEOs from the country’s top companies, oversee the model, which has led to accusations of favouritism.

The challenge, Suvit says, is how to translate the concept so it reaches and improves the situations of communities on the ground.

Civil society opposition to the BCG reached fever pitch during the APEC meeting late last year. In particular, activists called out as greenwashing its bio-technology and carbon credit proposals.

A number of NGOs, including FTA Watch, Greenpeace, Bio Thai and EARTH, have said the BCG is a good concept in theory, but have questioned its implementation, given the large companies invited to sit on its executive committee and sub-committees. Bio Thai’s director Witoon Lianjamroon said representatives from various industries including sugar, food, and alcohol production are sitting on these committees.

Meanwhile, Somboon Khamhang, chair of NGO Coordinating Committee on Development, a network of Thai NGOs, has questioned the government’s push to create and sell carbon credits through reforestation projects.

This push is not entirely new: the government has been implementing a carbon credit scheme for some time through the Clean Development Mechanism, under the UN climate convention’s Kyoto Protocol, and more recently through private sector investment in renewable energy and reforestation.

But the authorities have become more eager to expand the idea into reforestation since Thailand signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use at the UN’s COP26 climate talks in 2021. Recently, a new carbon credit exchange platform known as FTIX has been created to encourage these efforts in the country.

Somboon questions whether carbon credit schemes help cut carbon as claimed, and their knock-on effects. He fears, for example, that reforestation projects could exacerbate land conflicts. Despite a 2019 national parks law that recognised forest-dwelling people’s right to live in certain areas, these communities have not been granted deeds to the land. The state owns the land, and communities fear the entrance of private companies could lessen their protections. 

Somboon says carbon credit schemes are “paving the way for big companies to use millions of hectares to regenerate the forests. The point is we have not yet seriously discussed other problems that can follow such as land conflict and violation of rights.” He asks: “Does the BCG or carbon credits really help solve climate change? Or is it just a means to justify irresponsible acts against the environment by these companies?”

Greenpeace’s Thailand director Tara Buakamsri says the government’s plans to address climate change are flawed in their focus on carbon credits rather than emissions cuts.

Frustration has been growing among some communities concerned about new developments. A planned wind turbine project in Tambon Paniad, in the Kok Samrong district of the central province of Lopburi, for example, has been met with a backlash for fear it could create competition for forest land and affect livelihoods.

“Power from the wind is green and clean, but what would it be worth if it destroyed nature? To what extent would you have to destroy it before you get ‘clean’ energy?” asks Anan Sirisalung, a resident living near the project site. “For us, the wind turbines are not worth it.”

So far, there are no public reports available on how, where or which projects fall under the BCG. It remains a broad umbrella concept and its future shape and material effects may depend on the result of Sunday’s snap election.

The looming election

The election, called by the Prayut government, is a make-or-break event for Thailand’s major political forces. There is much uncertainty about if or how the BCG will be implemented. None of the political parties, including Prayut’s, have mentioned it in their manifestos.

Decharut Sukkanoed, director of the Think Forward Center, a policy think tank run by the progressive Move Forward Party, says the ruling government is using the BCG as a political gimmick. It is not an out of the ordinary development paradigm, he adds.

Over time, people have begun to question the motives of the BCG, as the benefits have so far fallen into the laps of major investors and capitalists rather than the people, Decharut says, noting the CEOs of major companies sitting on the BCG’s key committees.

“It’s not as fairly shared or distributed as we wished. The point is [the Prayut government] introduced the concept, so they then can lay claims of ownership on it,” Decharut says.

In Decharut’s view, the BCG is about centralisation of power and those who invented it can determine its “definition” or meaning as well as goals and beneficiaries.

Decharut said people agree with the idea of BCG as it is fundamentally about sustainability and resilience. However, they have reservations about the version the Prayut government is implementing.

The Move Forward Party, he says, would come up with its own development policies that are inclusive, distributive and accountable to the people.

Suvit, the BCG’s architect, maintains that it is a worthwhile concept, if implemented properly. “The BCG itself is actually distributive and inclusive, while sustainable and life-securing. It is democracy and decentralisation itself.”

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

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