WHEN GIVEN a choice between renewable energy and wildlife conservation, people in Samut Sakhon have opted for a solar farm for financial reasons.
Tractors and trucks loaded with soil were seen busily working in a field yesterday to fill a salt pan in Ban Khok Kham in Samut Sakhon where a three-megawatt solar farm project costing Bt180 million will begin operations in December.
Conservationists have protested against the scheme because they say the solar farm is being built on an important wetland and threatens the existence of the endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.
However, Wai Rodtayoi, the owner of the site, said farmers were not worried about the impact on the birds because leasing the land to the solar farm operator was financially beneficial. This is why, he said, he chose to lease his 42 rai (6.7 hectares) of land to Sunseap Energy Co Ltd.
“We don’t get anything from the birds. They just come here to catch fish and we don’t earn anything from that. We cannot hunt them because it is against the law and they also eat the fish from our ponds,” Wai said.
“We prefer the solar farm over the birds because we will get substantial cash from it. We don’t profit from producing sea salt anymore because the price of salt is very low and unreliable. The solar farm gives us a much better chance of surviving.”
According to Sunseap Energy, the land owner will get more than Bt1 million per year for the 25-year lease.
Wai added that the traditional occupation of producing salt in the Bay of Bangkok, which is the northernmost part of the Gulf of Thailand, was no longer sustainable as the price is just Bt1,000 per 1.5 tonnes of salt.
“We are all too old to continue panning for salt and the new generation is not interested in the work either. I think it would be better to use this land for producing solar power because it is clean, instead of us selling the land for the sake of soil or for building factories, as that would cause more ecological damage,” he said.
However, prominent bird watcher and Mahidol University lecturer Philip Round said the salt pan in Ban Khok Kham was an essential wetland for migratory birds and one of the last two habitats in the Bay of Bangkok area for the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.
“This [salt pan] is a critical area for the birds. It is one of only two areas [in Thailand] that are declared as a reserve site for shore birds under the East Asian-Australian Flyway Partnership of which the Thai government was also a signatory,” Round said.
“The Ban Khok Kham salt pan is a very crucial area for bird conservation. It welcomes up to 500,000 migrating birds per year. There are around 50 species of shore birds here and 12 of them are endangered, including the nearly extinct spoon-billed sandpiper.”
He added that he was against the construction of any structure in the area because “we do not know what the impact of the development to the bird population would be, and if the solar farm is built in the area, then it may result in an irreversible loss of this rare bird habitat.
“People often say that birds have wings and can fly to other places, but in this case they will have nowhere to go. This is a habitat loss and it will further reduce biodiversity and a chance for the survival of many other bird species.”
Thathaya Pittayapa from the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST) said 200 rai of salt pan in Samut Sakhon is going to disappear and be replaced with other developments because there is no law to conserve bird populations on private land.