Thailand is one of Southeast Asia’s leading economies, but its economic development has been achieved at the expense of human lives and the environment. The country’s race toward “progress” began in the 1960s with relentless deforestation for teak and timber, followed by agricultural expansion for rice and rubber, and then rapid industrialisation in the late 1980s and ’90s with toxic and hazardous technologies.

This dominant paradigm of development at any cost, for the most part excluded the country’s most important stakeholders – Thai citizens and communities -and diluted legislative and regulatory environmental measures. Predictably, this has led to the unprecedented poisoning of air, water, agricultural fields and the rich fishing waters of the Gulf of Thailand, posing serious dangers to the health and livelihoods of millions of Thais.

Currently, Thailand’s centrepiece for this single-minded pursuit of development is Map Ta Phut industrial estate. Established in 1988, the estate is part of a government policy to develop the Eastern Seaboard.

The government touts this sprawling complex of petroleum refineries, agrochemical, plastic and PVC factories, iron and metal manufacturing facilities, and coal and gas power plants, as a vital engine that keeps the wheels of the country’s economy running.

But the story is different for the tens of thousands of Thais living around this compound. Even with just the simple act of breathing, they are putting their entire lives at risk. Map Ta Phut is perhaps the most toxic place in Thailand.

The rapid development of the industrial sector and the formation of industrial clusters in the Map Ta Phut area have brought about environmental and occupational health management problems such as air pollution, shallow-well water contamination, evaporation of organic compounds and water resource shortages, all of which to this day remain unresolved.

The incidence of cancer cases around this area is higher than in any other place in the Kingdom. A Greenpeace study in 2005 revealed that people in Rayong province are breathing cocktails of toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens, 60 to over 3,000 times higher than health standards in developed nations. A test on fly ash samples taken by Greenpeace in 2005 from the BLCP coal plant project in Map Ta Phut showed contamination from a range of substances toxic to humans such as mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic and nickel.

The continued of expansion of coal plants and energy-intensive industries in Map Ta Phut also contribute to climate change, which is projected to catastrophically affect the country.

However, evidence of health and environmental problems have not diminished Map Ta Phut’s role as an economic hub. On the contrary, the industrial estate is gearing up for expansion, and worse, the government is showing signs that is keen to replicate the “success” of Map Ta Phut. Plans are ongoing to build similar industrial estates, together with more coal power plants, and nuclear plants, along the country’s southern seaboard.

Such plans are going ahead even while human health and environmental impacts of the showcase project remain unaddressed. And in this respect the government is hard-pressed to assure its citizens that it values the interests and well-being of the Thai people.

The case of Map Ta Phut shows that the Thai government’s unchecked race toward industrialisation favours dirty development and victimises resources essential for economic sustainability. Such resources – people’s livelihoods and health, and the natural ecosystems and biodiversity on which these depend – are sacrificed for short-term prosperity that benefits only a very small sector of society.

Clearly this is a development paradigm that is unjust and unsustainable. The belief that human and environmental health is the price to pay for progress is in fact the root of the most critical humanitarian and environmental crises that many developing countries, including Thailand, are facing now. It is a paradigm that locks nations in a vicious cycle of poverty and environmental degradation that is contrary to any concept of development.

But, Thailand is in a position to break away from this cycle of decline if it acknowledges that there is a model of development that is sustainable and just. This is the model of development which communities across the Kingdom – from Nakhon Si Thammarat, Chumpon and Surat Thani to Rayong – are calling for and catalysing. Thailand must shift gear toward a green and sustainable development model.

The current crisis offers a unique opportunity for laying the foundation for a greener and fairer economy, but if and only if we can infuse economic structures with democratic and participatory principles. To avert further ecological degradation, to adapt to the affects of changing climate and to ensure sustainable development requires technological leapfrogging, bold policy innovations and a new solidarity across social classes and generations.

It is also critical that new investments prioritise options that will strategically liberate our society from the treadmill of carbon-intensive and fossil-fuel-based systems. While job creation is essential, a meaningful solution to today’s problems lies not in simply restarting the engine of consumption. That approach led to the degradation and depletion of the planet’s resources even as it failed to meet the basic needs of the majority of humanity.

And so, as the government is looking at ways to stimulate the economy, it is critical that such economic interventions are also sustainable for the planet and especially for Thailand’s future.

The Thai government must prioritise and support green investments that will help put Thailand on a low-carbon growth pathway, instead of maintaining and carrying on with investments that propagate climate-changing emissions and aggravate ecological and humanitarian crises.

The role of a sound environment is increasingly valued for reducing disaster risks and protecting livelihoods. Healthy ecosystems provide natural defences to human communities by regulating hazards, while degraded ecosystems can increase exposure and reduce community resilience.

In inaugurating the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Our lives depend on biological diversity. We stand to lose a wide variety of environmental goods and services that we take for granted. The consequences for economies and people will be profound, especially for the world’s poorest people. We need new vision. And new efforts. Business as usual is not an option.”