Junta’s return forest policy stampedes community rights

Environmentalists argue the junta’s forest reclamation policy is prolonging conflict over Thailand’s environment, by failing to balance the protection of Thailand’s forests with the community rights of local dwellers.

Lertsak Khamkongsak, the coordinator of the Eco-Culture Study Group, said tension between forestry officials and local residents will only grow stronger if the government continues to abuse its special powers. The current land law, enacted since 1953, does not promote the rights of local people to protect their community and home forests.

Lertsak was speaking at a seminar on future environmental challenges in the country, held by the Thai Environmental Journalists Society at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center on 14 September 2016.

“This outdated law bans living within forest reserves, which means villagers who reside there are considered to be encroachers,” he said.

In this way, the land law allows authorities to pursue legal action against local villagers, even those who have rooted their lives in such areas for centuries.

Such an interpretation was reflected in the Administrative Court’s recent ruling in favor of park officials who burnt down the houses of indigenous Karen forest dwellers in Kaeng Krachan National Park.

Surachai Throngngam, secretary-general of the EnLaw Foundation, said that the court’s verdict on the Karen village means the forced evictions were legal. This precedent can now be used as a model for forestry officers to carry out their mission to protect natural resources without sensitivity towards community rights or fear of legal action. 

But speakers stressed there need not be tension between environmental and community rights. Panudej Kerdmali, Secretary-General of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, said the government should allow people to live within forests as a means for achieving its goal of covering 40 percent of the country’s territory with forestry.

Instead of pushing people away from their forest homes, authorities should encourage them to manage the area sustainably and reforest the land, Panudej suggested. According to the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, Thailand’s forest area is at 31 per cent. Inhabitants live in some 33 million rai of 41.17 million rai of forest reserves, and some 6 million rai of 61 million rai of protected forest.

Lertsak argued further that conflict between officials and local communities over megaprojects, such as the construction of coal-fired power plants, tends to stir up when the military regime uses its special powers — exercised through orders made by National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

He referred particularly to orders permitting government agencies to start bidding processes for such projects before environmental impact assessment studies have been completed. Orders No. 3/2559 and 4/2559 allow exemptions from city plan laws while Order No. 9/2559 allow certain infrastructure and development projects to be fast-tracked.

Surachai also noted that the organic laws being drafted for the new constitution could harm the environment and natural resources due to the erasure of community rights, which itself indicates a lack of public participation. The expert concluded that conflict over Thailand’s environment will continue as long as the NCPO remains in power. 

Surachai Throngngam, secretary-general of the EnLaw Foundation, speaking at a seminar on future environmental challenges at the BACC, Bangkok, on 14 September 2016