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Swiss tsunami aid project faces delays

Swiss-funded reconstruction work is in the hands of the local people. DEZA

A Swiss project to rebuild homes on an island off the coast of Thailand following last year’s tsunami has been delayed amid legal wrangling over the use of land.

Switzerland is currently negotiating with the Thai authorities about the right to build houses on parts of the island.

During a tour of tsunami-hit countries in January, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey unveiled plans to invest millions of francs in the rebuilding of three Thai villages on two remote islands.

Reconstruction work on the island of Koh Kho Khao, 150km north of the popular beach resort of Phuket, is well underway.

But rebuilding efforts have proved more difficult on nearby Koh Phra Thong after Swiss development-aid officials ran into unexpected difficulties.

While debris left by the tsunami has been cleared away and a school has been rebuilt, a number of the island residents do not have the necessary legal documentation entitling them to build homes.

“Things are a bit delicate on Koh Phra Thong,” admits Andreas Stauffer of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Ongoing moves by the Thai government to designate the island, which is rich in biodiversity, as a national park have further complicated reconstruction efforts.

Delicate negotiations

Stauffer has enlisted the support of the Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN) to help negotiate with the authorities and ensure that the local environment does not suffer as a result of any future building work.

“A major issue which needs attention here is land tenure, as a large number of people lack proper land rights,” said the IUCN.

“[We also want to] ensure that post-tsunami relief efforts… will not further deteriorate the environment.”

Much of the building work has been put on hold as the IUCN, SDC and relevant Thai government ministries thrash out a plan for the long-term sustainability of the island.

“Together with the IUCN we are putting together a master plan which will define which places can be used and which places should be preserved for their natural resources,” Stauffer told swissinfo from his office in the Thai capital, Bangkok.

He denies that the delay is a setback for Swiss aid efforts on the island and rejects any suggestion that Switzerland rushed to help without considering the logistical and bureaucratic problems involved.

“We are helping where we can… but we are not going to do any [building work] which we may regret later because the [legal] situation is not clear.

“The situation is very complicated and this is why things are taking a bit more time. But we think it is better to have all the necessary permits and a long-term strategy in place before we go ahead with building homes which we might otherwise have to [tear down].”

Slow progress

Part of the SFr6 million ($5 million) earmarked for the project cannot be spent on building work until agreement is reached with the Thai authorities.

But Stauffer says progress has already been made in rebuilding shattered lives.

Local craftsmen have constructed fishing boats to replace those destroyed in the tsunami. Investment has also been made in nets and other equipment used by fishermen living on the islands.

“We have made progress and I am not at all frustrated [by the delays in building work],” said Stauffer.

“We have to accept that we are guests in this country, and at the end of the day it is not up to us to decide what should [and should not] be done. Our role is in a way to find common ground between the needs of the population and the possibilities offered to them by the government.”

The SDC says it has not come under any pressure from island residents to speed up the process of reconstruction.

“On the contrary, we are warmly received wherever we go on the islands. One group of fishermen, for example, came up with the idea of putting the Thai and Swiss flags together with the SDC logo on the front of their boat.

“This was nothing to do with us, they just decided to do it. And I think that’s because they can see that while we may not be the quickest [aid agency] on earth, we are fulfilling our promises.”

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Switzerland has pledged more than SFr6 million ($5 million) to help rebuild three communities on two islands off the coast of Thailand.
Two of the three communities were completely destroyed in last December’s tsunami.
More than 100 families are currently living in tents or in temporary accommodation on the mainland.
The Swiss government is also funding extensive tsunami-relief projects in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR