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Right place, right time for the Phuket environment

PHUKET: Considering Phuket Governor Maitri Inthusut’s love of the use of acronyms, it was inevitable that he would share a certain affinity with environmental organisation SEEK (Society Environment Economy Knowledge) founder Sean Panton.

By Jody Houton

Friday 31 January 2014, 09:42AM

In fact, Gov Maitri has written many handy little pocketbooks filled with acronyms, lists and diagrams on management, with titles like The Seven Miracles from the Phuket Governor.

So it was of little surprise that, when he had to leave halfway through SEEK’s latest meeting ‘Developing a Sustainable Phuket’ on January 24 held at Prince of Songkla University (PSU), that he imparted Mr Panton with the task of thinking up a new acronym to encapsulate all that has been learned in the two or so years since SEEK began, and all that still needs to be done in the future.

Speaking earlier on, Gov Maitri had said, “We all need to focus and solve the environment problems and work together to solve them. I think the best place to [do this] is at this university.”

Also present at the first half of the morning’s meeting was Dr Kalidas Shetty, a professor at North Dakota State University in the US, who delivered a complex, complicated and considered lecture on the need for an integrated framework that incorporates the economy, environment and biology.

At the heart of a future sustainable Phuket, explained Dr Shetty, was ensuring that emphasis was placed on the local as opposed to national.

“At least thirty per cent of all food consumed needs to be local – this will result in benefits at every level – health wise, economically and environmentally. The many negatives of mass farming are well documented.

Mr Panton referenced that at the Phuket hotel he worked for, they had started clearly labelling that the vegetables on the menu were grown locally and as a consequence sales had risen dramatically.

“Phuket needs to build relationships with certain farmers and develop ecology centres,” continued Dr Shetty, “so that the new generation can thrive and continue to spread knowledge and aptitude.”

With future SEEK meetings now likely to be held at the university – PSU’s Faculty of Technology and Environment will host regular seminars from next month – it seems Phuket’s environmental problems are now being addressed in the right place.

As Chantinee Boonchai, a lecturer for the Environmental Management programme at PSU, was both the chairperson of and translator for the event, it is highly likely that the baton is also now, very much in the right hands.

“PSU can foster worldwide collaborations,” says Dr Shetty, “and from there bring in local government and community initiatives.”

Dr Shetty explained that it is often universities’ roles to provide the science, theory and academics to substantiate ideas that involve the next generation, the schools and communities.

“Awareness needs to be implemented in the school curriculum, perhaps by giving [students] a school garden to maintain.”

Mitsu Tiansin Motors

Hinging on all of this though is being able to implement changes at a government level, through policy and reform.

“It needs to be incentivized,” Dr Shetty tells The Phuket News after the event, “[For example], fresh markets are big business in the US, or perhaps charge garbage tax to ensure garbage is collected or that there are adequate numbers of people working.

“There needs to be policy in order to incentivize people to do the right thing,” reiterates Dr Shetty, “otherwise nothing will happen; nothing will change.”

A point raised was that of the necessity to ensure people, tourists especially, were aware of the benefits and therefore adequately prepared to perhaps pay extra to bring about the change necessary.

Unfortunately, after Dr Shetty left the stage, and Gov Maitri left the room, a slightly less inspirational and more realistic atmosphere befell the room as the second half of the meeting ‘Phuket Sustainability – What has been done and what’s next’ began.

One of the first slides was entitled: ‘Problems with information on environment in Phuket’. The subsequent headlines included, ‘Many organisations have it but we don’t know where’, ‘Data collection is a mystery’, ‘Official records do not always reflect reality’, ‘Data is not up to date’, and ‘Discrepancy and inaccuracy are often found’.

There were glimmers of light however, as both Thai and foreign NGOs took to the podium to say how they were working voluntarily to improve things on a small scale.

Such projects already under way included the resurgence of the Magic Eyes campaign, full time beach cleaners, designated trash areas and use of recyclables for art.

An interesting and recurring point raised was that often many local NGOs and communities were quite sceptical when either foreign or large companies were involved.

What seems to be imperative is that local communities need to take ownership of the projects in their own backyards, but that well-meaning, experienced and informed expats and tourists also need to be involved, either in a monetary sense, (perhaps through a garbage tax) or through volunteering.

What is also obvious is that Thai experts, professors and politicians need to lead the way in discussions, especially when it relates to formulating new policy, and as Gov Maitri himself put it, “The best place to do it is at the university.”

Or as I like to call it, ‘TKO’: Teacher Knows best Organisation...

Perhaps I should leave the acronyms to the governor.

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