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Forestry Dept, the root cause of great misery

The very same week the Abhisit government promised that the progressive property tax would take effect next year, a group of 200 landless villagers in Chaiyaphum province moved into a state-owned eucalyptus plantation to reclaim the land that was once theirs.

Their plight started 30 years ago, when the Forestry Industry Organisation (FIO) took over the villagers' farmland in Tambon Thung Phra in Chaiyaphum's Khon San district, and turned it into a eucalyptus plantation. Even though many villagers had legal land ownership papers, they were still arrested and sent to jail when they tried to farm their old plots. And those who had agreed to join the FIO's so-called forest village programme eventually became landless because they did not receive any farmland in compensation as promised.

After years of seeking justice, the National Human Rights Commission ruled in 2007 that the FIO plantation wrongfully took over the farmers' land, which must be returned to the owners. But the FIO has refused to budge. The Chaiyaphum villagers' predicament epitomises the plight of millions of villagers across the country whose farmlands overlap with the state's demarcation of national forests. Their struggle is also representative of the suffering the poor must endure when forestry authorities want to increase forest cover and make quick money at the same time by taking over the poor's farmlands, renting it out cheaply to tree farm investors, and duping the whole country by calling these commercial tree farms ''forests''.

Can the progressive property tax law proposed by the Abhisit administration come to their rescue? Not likely. To start with, this new land tax law deals only with private ownership - aimed at discouraging speculators from holding on to idle land - hoping the law will eventually lead to more equitable land ownership. But when it comes to land rights problems, the private land owners are not the villagers' main enemy. The government is. True, the speculators' greed and collusion with corrupt officials have stolen countless commons from local communities. But this pales in comparison with the magnitude of the problems villagers face with state agencies, particularly the Forestry Department.

According to research conducted in 2005 by the National Human Rights Commission, there were some 700 heated land conflicts across the country. About 35% of these resulted from the Forestry Department's policy to increase the number of national parks _ a plan which not only eats into the villagers' land but also outlaws them as illegal forest encroachers.

When combined with the villagers' problems with state-supported commercial tree farms (7%), the military (5%), the Treasury Department (2%), and slum evictions primarily involving state agencies (13%), the government as the country's biggest landlord is indeed the villagers' major threat.

Notably, the villagers' trouble with land speculators makes up only 6%.

The new property tax may well help slow down the problem of land speculation, but it cannot tackle landlessness when government agencies keep chasing the poor off their farms to serve investors.

The demand from landless farmers' movement is quite simple: When the plantation concessions expire or when corrupt land deals are revoked, free up the land and distribute it to the landless farmers, who will pay the government the same rent.

The Abhisit government is sympathetic to this proposal, but there is fierce resistance on the ground. Plantation investors do not want to lose huge profits from cheap land, and the officials _ we all know why _ are more willing to sing to their tune. That is why the Chaiyaphum villagers had to move into the eucalyptus plantations and stay put. This act of desperation will certainly not be the last for us to see. For when the government cannot, or will not, right a wrong, then people have no recourse but to take matters into their own hands.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor (Outlook), Bangkok Post.



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