New Land Bridge Project Sparks Local, Environmental Concerns

Koh Phayam, located 17 kilometers off the Andaman Sea coast and covering 35 square kilometers, is Ranong province’s second largest island, celebrated for its pristine forests and beaches, attracting visitors in search of tranquil leisure and the simple fishing lifestyles of its inhabitants.

The beautiful island has recently gained recognition as a beacon of sustainable tourism, successfully balancing economic development while preserving its ecological treasures. Local officials report that tourism on the island plays a major role in bolstering the economy of Ranong.

Chaiyut Anusiri, the acting permanent secretary of the Koh Phayam administrative organisation, stated, “Tourism on Koh Phayam alone generates up to one billion baht annually, a substantial contribution to the province’s total yearly revenue of three billion baht.”

Through collaborations between governmental and private sectors, the island continues to thrive as a sustainable tourist spot, attracting visitors while enforcing rigorous conservation protocols.

Now Comes the Threat

The proposed government Land Bridge project, designed to enhance connections between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman coast, raises public and environmental concerns about potential disruptions to the island’s environmental harmony.

This expansive initiative plans to connect the Pacific and Indian oceans by building deep-sea ports in Chumphon and Ranong and a transport corridor comprising a 100-kilometer expressway and railway.

The proposed Ranong deep-sea port at Laem Ao Ang, situated near Koh Phayam on the Andaman coast, spans 5,600 rai. Included in the plans are three 4-kilometer-long breakwaters and around 7,000 rai of reclaimed sea area.

The project is expected to impact various districts and sub-districts, including six communities, two national parks, and areas designated for marine and coastal protection, as well as national forest reserves and coral sanctuaries.

A tunnel and land bridge stretching 109 kilometers from Ao Ang Pier in Ranong to Laem Riew Port in Chumphon is also planned.

Despite Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin championing the project as a key economic driver, local communities express concerns that advancing the project could severely affect their livelihoods and survival.

In December last year, community representatives met with the prime minister to urge careful consideration of local opinions, highlighting that the project’s feasibility study remains incomplete, yet it is already being promoted to international investors, potentially endangering the island’s tranquility and environmental health.

Local Livelihood at Risk

As the Land Bridge project in Chumphon progresses, worries about land expropriation and environmental impacts have heightened among the locals of Ranong’s Koh Phayam.

Authorities note that the island is home to ethnic communities and sea gypsies who largely lack formal land ownership, prompting questions about compensation and property rights.

The government has emphasized the importance of public consultations and funding to address these concerns.

During a mobile cabinet meeting in Ranong in January, debates intensified between government officials and local tourism stakeholders regarding the Land Bridge project, despite efforts to include them through public hearings.

While some see economic potential, others fear disruptions to the local environment and traditional lifestyles, with Koh Phayam at the center of these concerns.

The meeting also witnessed local protests against the Land Bridge, voicing concerns over potential encroachments on coastal areas and farmlands, impacting fishermen, tourism operators, and farmers.

Parinya Sakulthong, the village headman of Koh Phayam sub-district, sees potential for increased tourism but remains wary of the possible environmental damage, such as soil erosion and its impact on the marine ecosystem.

He emphasizes that while tourism is crucial, the island also relies on agriculture and aquaculture, especially outside the peak tourist season, to maintain economic stability throughout the year, underscoring the need for thoughtful and comprehensive development.

The Future is Unclear

Pradit Rungroj, president of the Koh Phayam Administrative Organization, expressed concerns that public hearings conducted in Ranong and Chumphon last August by the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning did little to alleviate concerns about the Land Bridge project from various groups and local communities.

Some question the project’s cost-effectiveness and the logistical hurdles it poses for shipping operators.

During the hearing, economic experts argued that the massive investment required might not justify the benefits, especially for shipping companies that would need to navigate between Chumphon on the Gulf of Thailand and Ranong on the Andaman Sea.

While the government remains open to feedback from all parties involved, the future of Koh Phayam is uncertain, with many locals and environmental advocates opposing projects that could compromise the island’s natural beauty and peace.

Amidst growing opposition, the government faces the challenging task of balancing economic growth with environmental conservation.