Governor Pawin Chamniprasert squeezed Citylife in for a 40 minute interview, hence the rather rapid Q&A format. I have also taken the liberty of combining some of our questions and answers for brevity.
Citylife: What is on your agenda for the coming year?
Governor Pawin: We are working on our ten year plan, following the guideline of the national strategy, focusing on sustainable tourism, high value and organic agricultural practices, environmental restoration and sustainability and health.
Citylife: Can you please be specific?
Governor Pawin: Firstly tourism is our biggest earner, so we are looking at infrastructure in terms of extending the runway and improving and enlarging facilities at the airport. The Land Transportation Department is coming up with a plan to offer solutions regarding traffic for any eventualities re-extension towards Hang Dong. As to the new airport, we are talking 20 years. There is disagreement about its location; both Lampang and Lamphun want the airport. We are also studying the possibility of a monorail in the city…yes, this is the third study that I know of, but unless we get a budget from Bangkok, it won’t happen. We also need to protect our natural resources with sustainable tourism.
Citylife: There has been a lot of news about lack of standards at many tourism destinations, especially the adventure type activities.
Governor Pawin: As far as I know, most of these companies have invested heavily in their equipment. Most of the accidents are human error. Tourists not having enough sleep, or drinking all night and when they get tired they can get shocked. Maybe they also don’t listen to advice [from the staff].
Citylife: You are blaming the tourists?
Governor Pawin: No, if the staff see that the tourists can’t handle it then they need to stop.
Citylife: What about encroachment onto National Park lands by many businesses?
Governor Pawin: That is another problem, I can’t talk about it. We can look at safety, but if they have legal documents then…So it is about transportation, infrastructure, and we are also investing in IT (information technology), creating an app called “Chiang Mai I Love You” for tourists, giving them excellent information about where to go and what to do.
Citylife: Talking about IT, what do you think about the digital nomads and their future here?
Governor Pawin: We are trying everything to make it easier for tourists, but the Thai laws are, well, a lot.
Citylife: I hear that yourself as well as the consular corps and other groups have tried many times to talk to immigration about reform and improvement of services.
Governor Pawin: They are trying. They lack resources, and don’t forget they are in a temporary office, when the new one is completed things will get better.
Citylife: You don’t want to talk about immigration?
Governor Pawin: I don’t want to touch that. For now they are doing their duty and improving on things we have asked them to.
Citylife: What is the focus with agriculture?
Governor Pawin: We are focusing on organic farming, thanks in large part to the Royal Project which is leading the way. We must care for people’s health, our farmers still use too many chemicals. We will offer training, support and new seeds or saplings which are more resistant to disease.
Citylife: You mentioned high value agriculture, please explain.
Governor Pawin: Our coffee plantations are doing very well because we can market them as organic. This pushes the price per kilo from the hundreds into over a thousand baht. The same with strawberries and other crops. Our farmers are beginning to see that an initial investment to go organic pays out later. We are also encouraging coffee and tea farmers to grow them in a sustainable way, amongst other plants because our teas and coffees are plants which prefer shade, so that we can keep our biodiversity. So we can have a jungle above and coffee underneath. We already have a budget for this and are working with Chiang Mai University, I think in three years we will start to see results. Coffees are grown above 800 metre elevation, so it would be excellent to grow to help regenerate the forests. We are seeing coffee farmers working very hard to build firewalls and patrol their areas for fire because they have a high value crop. Once we get more and more farmers planting organic coffee in the forests, I think we will see their restoration and a reduction in burning. It is important for people in the forest communities to see value in their surroundings, once they do, they will be the protectors.
Citylife: What about encroachment onto forestry land by private citizens? There has been a lot of construction around Doi Suthep’s foothills recently.
Governor Pawin: If we suspect someone has done that then we can check and find out whether they have the proper documents or not, recently we just stopped the construction of twenty sites in Mae On. On the other hand, if they do have the proper documents, we then have to check if they were properly issued by the officials. If not, then the officials will be removed from duty and permits revoked.
Citylife: What about the pollution?
Governor Pawin: The success of the fight against pollution is up to the people. There is a cost to the disposal of agricultural waste, and burning is the cheapest cost. So the solution is a matter of giving them a financial incentive not to burn. We are working with many groups such as Warm Heart Foundation [one of the three recipients of Citylife’s recent Garden Fair fundraising] who are showing farmers how to turn their waste into biochar which can then be sold. So waste won’t cost money, but will actually make it. There is now a market to buy biochar for 20 baht a kilo. There are so many other people working on so many solutions too. As a government we simply don’t have the resources to go everywhere and solve this problem. It is a problem we all share and must all work together to solve. I hope to see tangible results within five years.
Citylife: Last year we had a drought which could have been much worse if the rains hadn’t arrived early.
Governor Pawin: Yes, last year scared a lot of us. Our target last year was to build 7,200 weirs to manage our water resources, but many have been destroyed by floods. We are more prepared this year.
Citylife: What other health issues are you focused on?
Governor Pawin: Food hygiene, promotion of spa industry, promotion of herbs and such.
Citylife: Some of our readers wish to know what your actual role is?
Governor Pawin: I receive policy from the government in Bangkok which are the agendas the government wish to see happen. I then work with local bodies to see how the government’s agenda fits in with what is happening here on the ground. It is a way of finding common ground between the two. There are many local bodies such as municipality, the provincial administrative organisation (PAO), the police, army, and such who all have their own duties, I direct and make sure that all is being done according to duty. Sometime government agendas don’t match with that of the area. My job is to coordinate. I look at the bigger picture while the PAO does admin. It is very important to listen to the many many groups from village communities to specialist groups and grassroots people because they are the ones on the ground who know the real issues.
Citylife: A reader asked about the ongoing problem of illegal jasmine sellers around the foothills of Doi Kham that are causing a mess, why can’t this issue be solved?
Governor Pawin: We turn up and clear them out and they just come back again after we leave. We don’t have people to stay there all the time. Again I ask people to help us, if you don’t buy their garlands then they will move elsewhere.
Citylife: Another reader asked about the police checkpoint that is set up in front of Lok Molee temple every day, seemingly only arresting foreigners to solicit fines.
Governor Pawin: As far as I know it is a policy to enforce traffic law on a daily basis, rather than just before huge holidays when fatalities are at their highest. It is supposed to be aimed at Thai drivers who break the law. I will look into this.
Citylife: Do you approve then of social activism groups such as Raks Mae Ping?
Governor Pawin: I am OK with this, they have an important function in shining a spotlight on these issues for us, I just wish they would listen a bit more sometimes. But somethings like their lobbying for green space is right, Chiang Mai city needs more of that.
Citylife: I have given up writing about the application of Chiang Mai to UNESCO as there seems to be so many groups involved and none appear to agree with each other.
Governor Pawin: Now we have set up one committee to push for Chiang Mai’s old city to be a World Heritage Site. But please don’t ask me anything yet, let our committee come up with something concrete first.
Citylife: There is a lot of grumbling about the economy.
Governor Pawin: We continue to get a budget from Bangkok which we do our best with. This year it is even bigger than last at 4.2 billion baht for the upper Northern provinces. We have put aside 50-60 million baht this year just for Chiang Mai’s reforestation; planting, maintaining, creating communities to care for the forests, and raising awareness. It is important to find a way for communities to live with the forests, not just taking away from them. There are 12 million rai of forest lands in Chiang Mai, only about half a million have been illegally invaded.
Citylife: Thank you for your time governor.