Sakon Nakhon Provincial Court has handed jail terms to four villagers accused of encroachment and is putting 29 others on trial on the same charge.
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), the Provincial Court of Sakon Nakhon in Thailand’s Northeast, in January sentenced four villagers from Ban Chat Rabiap community in Phu Phan District to prison for encroaching on protected areas.
The court sentenced three of the four to four years in jail and another villager to two years. The jail terms, however, were halved since the four pleaded guilty.
The four were among 33 embattled villagers of Ban Chat Rabiap community who were indicted in October 2014 for encroaching on Pa Dong Cham Phu Phan and Pa Dong Kachoe national reserve forests.
The court has scheduled witness hearings for the remaining suspects between April and August 2015.
The two national reserve forests were designated as protected areas in 1987. In 2012, the village chief of the community collected the names of villagers who wanted to claim land rights from the Royal Forest Department over the some of the occupied land.
However four months after June 2014, when the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) issued Order No. 64/2014, which states that encroachers into protected areas and poachers of illegal forest goods face severe legal action, the villagers were indicted, TLHR reported.
One of the elderly villagers now facing trial told TLHR that her family settled in the area and had used it as farmland since 1977, 10 years before the area was declared protected.
TLHR added that of the four who were already sentenced to imprisonment, one married couple sentenced to two years in jail were indicted for encroaching on 25 rai (0.04 sq.km.) of the protected area although they only occupied 4 rai (0.0064 sq.km.) of the land. Four other suspects were indicted for encroaching on larger plots than they initially occupied.
Moreover, six other defendants accused of land encroachment did not occupy any protected area as indicted, TLHR reported.
According to the NGO Coordinating Committee on Development (NGO-COD) of the Northeast, since last year, 103 small-scale farmers have already been accused of encroaching on protected areas and almost 1,800 in the Northeast have now been prohibited from using their farmland and are about to receive court summons for alleged encroachment.
NGO-COD added that if this trend is allowed to continue, approximately 1.2 million people who are living on land that overlaps protected areas could be affected.