Forest blitz hurts poorest


    When the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) announced its crackdown on forest encroachment last month, it made clear the operations must not affect the landless or villagers living in the forests before the June 14 announcement. 

    What is happening on the ground is the exact opposite of the policy mandate, however.

    Like any tropical forests in Asia, many forest areas in Thailand have been inhabited for generations. Many of the inhabitants have developed sustainable ways of life and farming methods. The ethnic Karen farm rotation system and the southerners’ agro-forestry are just two examples.

    It is estimated that national forests contain more than five million households.

    The determination of forest agencies to evict these forest dwellers has created fierce land rights conflicts nationwide. The law is on their side. All forest laws are written by forest authorities to outlaw human settlements and empower forest officials’ desire to own and manage forests.

    Past governments have accepted community rights for forest dwellers and community land ownership to legalise those forest settlements which existed before the areas were demarcated as national reserves in exchange for forest conservation.

    But the Ministry of National Resources and Environment and its forest agencies refused to accept this policy.

    With the full backing of the junta, they have begun forced forest evictions with a vengeance.

    Not only have they not followed the policy to focus only on rich landlords, they have also hired local soldiers to carry out the evictions for them.

    A case in point is the violent forced evictions at Ban Kao Bart in Buri Ram’s Non Dindaeng district.

    During the communist insurgency in the 70s, these villagers were promised lands to till for settling in “red zones”. When peace came, the forest officials kicked them out because they wanted to lease the land to eucalyptus plantation investors for cheap fees of 10 baht per rai. With the leases came environmental degradation brought on by monoculture plantation and the use of farm chemicals.

    When the 30-year-long leases expired, the villagers returned and wanted to lease the lands themselves, but forest authorities want to renew the plantation contracts, so soldiers were called in to evict the landless.

    Villagers in the mountainous North and the South are facing the same eviction harassment. The targeted villages are leaders in the community land ownership movement, which forestry authorities want to dismantle.

    Nirun Pitakwatchara, national human rights commissioner, told national park officials this week that their actions violate villagers’ rights, which the junta already promised to observe in its mission statement.

    But park officials remain evasive.

    The military must put a stop to this.

    Forest encroachment is, indeed, a serious problem. But land speculators cannot encroach without the help of corrupt officials. Piecemeal evictions of individual landlords alone cannot tackle encroachment problems if corrupt officials are not punished.

    For the landless and forest dwellers, community land ownership in exchange for sustainable farming and forest conservation is an answer, as long as forestry agencies can stop holding on to power.

    The forestry agencies are not alone. Other state bureaucracies are also exploiting military power to strengthen old central control. If this continues, the May 22 coup will betray the spirit of reform by shoring up crumbling officialdom when what the country really needs is decentralisation.