The environmental campaigners were speaking at Phuket-based environmental organisation SEEK’s first official conference at the Holiday Inn, Patong last Friday (August 24).
Politicians, teachers, representatives of the hospitality industry, business owners and a whole host of concerned local individuals were all in attendance at the ‘SEEKing a Sustainable Phuket Conference & Forum’.
Speaking to The Phuket News, Sean Panton, one of the founding members of SEEK, said how far the project had come since the idea first came to him.
“I remember swimming with my son a few years ago and being hit three times by plastic bags, and I thought that when he’s my age, he probably wouldn’t be able to do this.”
This occurrence was the catalyst in Sean founding the NGO SEEK (Society, Environment, Economy and Knowledge) and after years of hard work, he, along with other significant members of the group, has made enough noise and raised enough awareness of Phuket’s environmental problems that a significant section of Phuket society are beginning to listen.
The event was split into two halves with lectures and overviews in the morning and group work and breakout sessions in the afternoon.
During a talk in the morning, Bangkok-based Robert Steele, from Systainability Asia, a sustainability consultancy firm, stated the aim of the day, which – perhaps unintentionally – further highlighted the rather problematic task ahead.
“We need to make sure we are all on the same page,” he said.
This elicited a question from the audience in reference to the disproportionate number of Westerners in the audience. The question posed was, that although the majority of Westerners and the English language media on the island were aware of issues of pollution, littering and recycling, were the Thai press and by extension Thai people? Were they on the same page?
Mr Steele said: “That’s part of the challenge... but don’t give up.”
He added that it was imperative that regardless of how many schemes and initiatives were launched within the foreign community, it was important to involve the local people, “This is something for SEEK to think about... Please try and be as inclusive as possible.”
Without a cohesive plan, even the finest theories and strategies will fail if it is not inclusive.
Panuwat Phakdee-auksorn, Ph.D Lecturer at Songkran University, agreed: “Phuket people must work together. It’s a good project, but it’s very ambitious... and might prove difficult. Phuket is still very much seen as a great business opportunity and everybody wants to take what they can get.
He referenced how expansion and building work and a lack of enforcement of building regulations had harmed the island over the last 10 years.
Professor Panuwat said it was for this reason he thought that at least the concept of the day’s conference was positive.
“This is a challenging project and they have some good examples from different countries around the world. I think it’s good to be focusing on Phuket at the moment as it’s very much needed.”
He did however deliberate as to whether the right people were focusing. “Yes and no... I think how can they make a change with the local people? Can they identify key people? If they can’t talk with the right people it’s going to be difficult.”
Although there were many of the ‘right’ people in attendance, including Kathu Mayor Chai-Anan Suttikul, who pledged to support island sustainability planning with SEEK, Professor Panuwat said he would like to see more local people, more representatives from the government sector, hospitality industry and local municipality at such events.
He also said he was surprised that there was still no real modern-day equivalent of the hugely successful ‘Magic Eyes’ litter campaign of his childhood.
“More could be done, especially with the more tech-savvy younger generation through Facebook and other social media,” he said.
However, SEEK is still very much in its infancy and working on finalising the 24 ‘indicators’ that highlight the most pressing areas of concern and what can be done.
“The initiative of introducing these indicators comes from Dr Paul Chamniern, the Executive Director of Thailand Environment Institute, who was sick of people not really knowing what was wrong and what could be done to help,” Mr Panton said.
“With these points established, it will raise awareness and people can monitor them, and then hold the relevant people to account if they don’t follow them.
Dr Chamniern also called on local government to work quickly to better understand the island’s carrying capacity and establish tougher enforcement of existing regulations and rules, suggesting that as much as 50 per cent of all buildings on Phuket may be illegally designed and constructed.
“If we are not careful, the Phuket tourism industry will go the same way of Spain’s with regards to the building work and the effect it had on the industry there. Phuket needs city planning,” Professor Panuwat said.
Next on SEEK’s agenda is an island-wide litterbug campaign, supported and promoted by Paiboon Upatising OrBorJor President (Provincial Council) for Phuket Province.