Junta’s attempt to ‘return forest’ hurts the poor

    117

    On 24 July, three Pakayaw Karen families were left destitute after their farmland in Mae Ngao National Park in the northern province of Mae Hong Son, which they claimed to use for subsistence farming, was reclaimed by officials from the Royal Forest Department (RFD). Prior to their eviction, these Karen families had been ordered by the RFD to move down from their traditional homes up on the mountains to the river basin only to be evicted again several years later.

    {gallery}thailand{/gallery}

    “We have been living in these hills for hundreds of years; our ancestors moved down from the highlands to cultivate these lands sustainably for generations, so as to obey the Thai authorities’ order, but now some of us have again been left with no land to cultivate for food,” said Tawee Paitaimongkonboon, a Pakayaw Karen village head.

    These Karen families have been growing soybeans, rice, papaya, and bananas, and collecting forest products for a living. One family of 3-5 usually shares a plot of 2-3 acres to cultivate throughout their lives.

    Down in the south, the RFD in early September used tractors to destroy the settlements of poor farmers of Plai Phaya District of Krabi Province in order to reclaim a land plot adjacent to a protected area even though the area had years ago already been turned into a palm oil plantation by capitalists. The landless villagers helplessly watched their homes being crushed.

    Up in the north east, villagers who had been living in Khao Bat community Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary in Buriram Province since the 1960s were forced to sign an agreement drafted by the military, which stated that the signatories will leave their homes to pave the way for forest reclamation. The military told them that they would be relocated to new facilities provided in exchange for relocation, but according to Human Rights Watch, the facilities were far from adequate.

    These are examples of the junta’s attempts to protect Thailand’s green spaces after they assumed power in May. The junta announced Order No. 64/2014 on 14 June to buttress this policy and promised that encroached forests would be reclaimed. The coup makers also announced Order No. 66/2014 on 17 June, which states that poor people should not be affected by their policies. However, many human rights activists and people who are living in community forests still fear that this policy might result in large scale population displacements, especially under the current suppressive political environment under the junta.

    Order No. 66/2014 stipulates that poor people and those who are living in protected areas prior to the announcement of the Order No. 64/2014 will not be affected by the policy, and that the authorities will only apply strict measures to prevent further encroachment into protected areas. However, the reality starkly differs from this rhetoric.

    There are two main responses to the junta’s forest conservation policy issued after the coup. The first response is that the policy is justified because National Parks should be protected from every kind of human interference. The second response, however, opposes the junta’s hard-handed approach to forest protection and holds that people inhabiting the forests should be given an important role in protecting and managing the forests.

    Damrong Pidech, a former chief of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) and current leader of the Thai Forest Land Reclamation Party (TFLRP), has advocated the first such view for many years. He said the junta policy to tighten up land use regulations and nature conservation measures offers an opportunity for Thailand to increase its national park areas after years of encroachment and exploitation.

    “In my days it was not as easy as this; sometimes RFD personnel had to act without orders from the administration, but now all public agencies have to cooperate in this and martial law is still in place, so no search warrants are needed,” said the conservationist, known for his aggressive measures against forest encroachers. “Therefore, strict measures can be applied to people who have encroached on forest land,” said Damrong.

    He urged that the deep forest should remain undisturbed by human activity and that villagers should comply with the current policies on forest protection.

    “Since the 2007 Community Forest Act was passed by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), a parliament appointed by the 2006 coup group, approximately 7000 communities throughout the country have already benefited. They should be satisfied with this and refrain from settling in the deep forest,” said Damrong.

    The 2007 Community Forest Act was the first in Thailand to allow people living in communities whose lands overlap with areas designated as national parks to continue to stay, provided that the areas are managed sustainably by the villagers under RFD monitoring. The movement to pass the Community Forest Bill started in the 1980s. However, when the law was passed, it was not accepted by many land rights activists and villagers from forest communities because it still placed decisions on forest management solely with the RFD.

    When asked to give comments on the livelihoods of the Karen and other minorities which rely on the forest, Damrong said “The Karen who are living in the forest cannot continue with their traditional ways of life forever. Since most of them have opted for Thai citizenship, they should think of the advantages that the forests provide to the majority.”

    Many believe that the Karen communities practise nomadic agriculture, a method of cultivation that extends cultivated areas without restraint, which contributes to a massive loss of forest. However, Karen communities argue that they only practice shifting cultivation, where only limited areas of the forest are sustainably cultivated in cycles of 5-7 years.

    In contrast, the second perspective on what the forests should be and how the resources from the forests should be managed has long been promoted by Rodjaraeg Wattanapanit.

    Rodjaraeg is a well-known land rights activist from the Community Forest Support Group (CFSG) based in northern Chiang Mai province.

    She believes that the communities settled in the forests before and after the forest areas were gazetted as national parks should be given the rights to live in the areas and participate in sustainable forest management.

    “When the authorities look at the green areas on the satellite images, they don’t see that there are people living in the forests and afterwards tend to declare these areas as protected. This is problematic for people who have been settled in the forests because after these areas become protected national parks, the communities in the areas will be evicted,” said Rodjaraeg.

    She added that the land rights problem and land encroachment cannot be separated from each other because in Thailand the distribution of land ownership throughout the nation is concentrated in the hands of the privileged few, while marginalised people are left little land to cultivate for a living.

    “Although the 2007 NLA passed the Community Forest Act to allow people to establish and manage community forest areas, the conditions of this act, such as those that say that settlements need to be older than ten years to stay and that every decision on how to manage the forests has to be approved by state officials, make it nearly impossible for villagers in these communities to participate in the management of these community forests,” added the activist.

    Moreover, Rodjaraeg points out that the attempts to evict people from National Parks do not apply to everyone equally. “There have always been double standards from the Royal Forest Department to evict people from their homes. Capitalists might be allowed to stay while poor villagers are often evicted,” stated the land rights activist.

    This inequality in the application of the laws regarding forest protection has regularly been cited by many forest communities.

    “The Royal Forest Department and the military cooperated with capitalists to try to evict our communities,” said a local activist from the Southern Peasant’s Federation of Thailand (SPFT) in Khlong Sai Pattana community in the southern province of Surat Thani, which the authorities were trying to evict in early October, in an interview with Prachatai on 30 September.

    Thawee, the Pakayaw Karen village head in Mae Hong Son added that the junta does not have credibility because they have not followed their promise to leave some land for the poor.

    “According to Order 66/2557, the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order promised not to evict poor people from the forest, but I have observed from many cases that they seem to only be following Order 64/2557 to reclaim the land” said the village chief.

    No matter which perspective on forest conservation the junta relied on for Order 64/2557, which has now resulted in the eviction of hundreds of households of marginalised people, it is unlikely that this policy will change any time soon under the suppressive political environment of martial law.

    On 13 October, the military stopped a caravan of Lahu villagers who had been affected by Order 64/2557, from travelling to Bangkok to complain to the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), according to Thai Rath.

    Earlier on 16 August, fifty military officers and two members of the local mafia intimidated villagers of the embattled Khlong Sai Pattana community of Surat Thani, searched the houses of eight SPFT activists and gave orders to the villagers to leave the area in seven days.

    Perhaps the major obstacle to solving the problem today is summarized by Rodjaraeg’s words: “At least under a civilian government, people affected by this sort of policy could stage protests against the government and the Royal Forest Department. But now this can’t be done under military rule because no one wants to stage a rally in front of the guns,” said the active promoter of land rights.

    Source: Prachatai English