The Mae Jo University Eco-Town Seminar was an all day event conducted on campus on Tuesday 21st December 2010.
This report records impressions from the event following a discussion by two attendees the following afternoon.
The program was as follows. The morning session was opened with an address by the Rector of MJU, followed by presentations by lecturers on the subjects of:
- Bicycles & Japan
- “Green City”
- Restoring a canal in Korea
In the afternoon:
The Governor of Chiang Mai Province formally opened the seminar and gave an address.
Then the meeting heard from a panel consisting of the Nayoks of Mae Jo, Ban Phai & Nong Harn municipalities presided over by a DJ from the Chiang Mai MCOT radio station. (Most attendees were local folk.)
Finally questions and comments from the floor were invited.
Comments and analysis
The morning session had many references to “Low Carbon” towns & communities but really no analysis of what this would mean.
For example how much “High Carbon” results from various urban features: Ferro-cement buildings, fast travel, air-con, etc.
1. Bicycles & Japan
This talk showed many pictures of bike paths and facilities in Japan and made reference to how such paths could be introduced at MJU. However there was no discussion of how other campuses have succeeded in being free of motor cars, thereby making cycling stress free with no need for special construction and the opportunities denied to corrupt officials for self enrichment at public expense. Nor was the larger picture of the unsustainability of private motoring and motor cycle use addressed. One wonders if the presenter had seen the recent film “Aftershock” which begins with scenes of urban China in 1976? The streets were filled with bicycles apart from a few heavy trucks and one limosine. There we saw something closer to an eco-city than exists today together with high personal mobility.
2. “Green City”
This presentation also had lovely pictures from foreign lands. One I particularly liked showed trees under planted with tussock grasses. These allow improved retention of rain water than lawn grass and their low maintenance requirements mean that fuel and labor are not wasted in regular mowing. This issue was not developed in the commentary. Nor was the importance of a diverse native under storey for conserving local plant species and providing animal habitat. One slide was of greenery at the Huey Khong Khrai project. The greenery of the under storey was dominated by the weed Saap Seur from Central America which suppresses native species.
The idea of green roofed buildings was promoted without discussion of possible alternative uses such as photo-voltaic electricity generation, hot water and solar cooking of drying the laundry or of the energy required to pump water to roof tops during our six rainless months. Nor was there discussion of how white painted roofs can reflect solar radiation back beyond the stratosphere and keep buildings cool.
3. Restoring a canal in Korea
This was a presentation about how a dirty canal, lined with slum housing was transformed into firstly a drain under an elevated freeway and later a recreational asset flowing with clean storm water while sewage was removed in a tunnel underground. The freeway was demolished.
There were references to Chiang Mai’s Mae Kha Canal but it is unfortunate that Dr Wasan , who has been championing its restoration was not present at this session, (He arrived after lunch.) for he cold have been asked to explain how an almost identical treatment of a canal here, except that there was no freeway to demolish, had failed to see the sewer take sewage and how a project supposedly to help the people had turned into nothing more than a graft ridden construction project, with no recurrent management budget.
This was an issue of particular relevance to the largely rural audience. The presenter was alone among the lecturers in adding comments during the final question session
Each Nayok talked about issues in his municipality and the discussion of waste management featured prominently.
The head of the Ban Pa Phai municipality lamented the lack of bamboo in his area. Bamboo planting and use is of particular importance in the discussion of a “Low Carbon” future. With proper preservation treatment it is an ideal low energy building and furniture material. Bamboo is among the most efficient plants for sequestering carbon due to its fast growth rate and its production of phytoliths** which store carbon in the ground. This issue was not raised in any presentation.
Observations were made about the recent cutting of the tree tops along the main road to Prao. We were told that there had earlier been protests at Roads Dept plans to destroy a beautiful tree lined avenue by widening the road.
The trees had been cut illegally by the Roads Dept on the pretext of installing lighting along a small stretch of the road opposite a new government housing project.
The chairman was presented from the audience with an extract from the Thai Constitution asserting the rights of communities to be informed by the state about projects which affect the environment and to participate in its protection, which he read, with enthusiasm,to the meeting.
The audience was led to understand that a project was underway but no mechanism was announced to allow community participation.
The last part of the seminar – Audience Questions & Comments.
This session, very late in the day drew comments from only three members of the audience, all seated at one table and not from the rural sector and an explanation of the differences between aerobically produced compost and fermented organic fertilizer. We were also told the welcome news that MJU is to commence a new course on organic agriculture in the coming year.
Audience comments touched on a few of the issues worthy of consideration, reforestation and pesticide use included.
In the morning session a brochure from the audience, was circulated to those attending. Its subject was about some of the lifestyle changes Chiang Mai must adopt to reduce our Carbon Footprint. In the afternoon a leaflet about tree planting policy was copied for distribution by the seminar organizers. However once its distribution commenced an officer from the Planning Branch of the Environment Ministry ordered that distribution cease. The officer concerned had received a copy of the leaflet at a meeting early in 2010 and had never raised any objection to its content.
This outrageous suppression of opinion and the failure of the seminar to even touch on the myriad of issues which must be addressed to move towards an ecologically sustainable urban of rural lifestyle calls into question the role of the Environment Ministry in public events of this nature. Ministry officials are well aware of the range of environmental problems facing Thailand but are behaving in a secretive and manipulative manner contrary to their obligations under the law.
No opportunity to form a collective view of the meeting in the form of resolutions on either policy or process matters was offered the participants and so there was no outcome or result from the meeting.
It is recommended that the Governor of Chiang Mai Province issue a directive on the future conduct of government sponsored seminars and workshops including the following:
- 1. An opportunity be given to participants early in any meeting raise any issues they consider relevant and warranting discussion.
- 2. Participants should be given opportunities to work for a period in small groups to ensure all have a chance to speak. This should happen before any final plenary session.
- 3. The meeting should be required to draft a declaration related to issues discussed, which can be adopted and issued to the press for community information.
- 4. The meeting should resolve on a participatory mechanism and to advance matters agreed upon and mechanism for reporting to participants and the community.
- In the case of the seminar on Eco-towns discussed about it is recommended that the Governor make an order under point 4 above.
- 5. An independent person be assigned to audit and report on future seminars.
Further it is recommended the Governor raise with the Minister the unsatisfactory behavior of his officials at the meeting.
* Please note: The author of these notes is not a native speaker of Chiang Mai, took a short afternoon nap after lunch, finds the issue of rubbish management not to his interest, and has surely made mistakes for which he apologizes in advance. Corrections are welcome.