Kaeng Krachan indigenous communities raise concerns over rights issues ahead of world heritage nomination

Members of the indigenous Karen communities living near the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex have raised concerns over unresolved community rights issues ahead of the Thai government’s 4th nomination of the forest for world heritage status in 2021.

Members of the communities holding a traditional ceremony to inform the spirits that the event is being held

On 16 December 2020, an event was held at the hot spring centre in Nong Ya Plong District, Phetchaburi, where members of the indigenous Karen communities living in the areas surrounding the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex came to speak about unresolved community rights issues, including issues of land rights, citizenship, and loss of their traditional way of life.

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex covers 482,225 hectares of forest in Phetchaburi, Ratchaburi, and Prachuap Kiri Khan, and includes four conservation areas in Thailand’s western region: the Kaeng Krachan National Park, the Kui Buri National Park, the Chaloem Phrakiat Thai Prachan National Park, and the Maenam Pachi Wildlife Sanctuary. 

The forest complex area also includes several villages, both in the conservation zone and in the nearby area, which contain over 5000 households. Ban Tha Salao village in Nong Ya Plong District, near the Kaeng Krachan National Park, is one of these. Many of its community members have faced and are still facing legal prosecution as the authorities claim they have encroached on forest land.

Wansao Phungam, one of the villagers, said she has been affected by the National Council for Peace and Order’s forest reclamation policy. In August 2018, she was arrested for encroaching on national park land, even though she insisted that she inherited her plot of land from her parents and that she is not encroaching.

She said that other plots of land around hers have a Certificate of Utilization, but her parents had never obtained the document, as they have 7 children and her father was sick, so her mother was not able to travel into town to get the certificate. She also said that the other owners have not faced legal prosecution.

The court of first instance sentenced Wansao to 3 years and 8 months in prison and a fine of over 2 million baht. She filed an appeal, and the Appeal Court dismissed the case. She is still waiting to see whether park officials will take the case to the Supreme Court.

Wansao Phungam

Wansao said that she and her community have gone to many government agencies, but no one has paid attention to their complaint. She said that they have gone to parliament to file a petition, but they were dismissed and forced out of the premises.  She said that she would like the authorities to resolve the issues facing the communities before nominating the forest complex as a world heritage site.

“Maybe they think we don’t matter or something, I don’t know. I don’t understand,” Wansao said, “but I think it’s too much of a violation of our rights and discriminating against us and our ethnic group. Whatever happens, I am still happy to be Karen, but they can’t discriminate against us. They can’t come and violate our rights. We have rights just like everyone else. We are Thai too.”

Wijitra from the Ban Huai Sarika community said that most of the land in her community has now been seized as people face legal charges, and they are not able to make a living on the land. The requirement that they have to constantly use a plot of land also means that they are not able to grow crops according to their rotational farming tradition. Because of this situation, she would like the authorities to arrange for them to hold the right to the land together as a community.

A sign at the event says "indigenous communities have been here before the national park. Arresting people is not the solution to the problem."

Pongsak Tonnamphet from the Bang Kloi village said that his community once had a secure life, but they are now living in poverty, and lack land on which to make a living. He said that each time the authorities went to conduct a survey, their land got smaller and smaller, and he asked how his community will be able to continue to live and farm on this land. 

He said that the community does not object to the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex being declared a world heritage site, but he has heard about the protected cultural zone declared at the Phu Men community in Uthai Thani, and hopes they could do the same at Chai Phaen Din, a village deeper in the Kaeng Krachan forest from where the Bang Kloi community has been evicted.

A representative from the Karen Network for Culture and Environment, Tanaosri region, along with members of the Karen indigenous communities living in the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex area read out a statement following the panel, which stated that there has been no sincere and fair effort to resolve the land rights issues faced by the communities. Not only that, they are also being denied civil rights and are facing racial discrimination, with many community members still unable to get Thai citizenship and denied access to basic welfare, while community rights defenders face harassment and legal prosecution. The statement also mentioned the case of community rights defender Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, who disappeared in 2014 and whose bones were found in May 2019, in which no progress has been made. Legislation also led to violations of human rights and the destruction of the indigenous way of life.

The statement called for the network and the communities to be able to participate in the process of resolving issues, and said that, as community rights issues have not been resolved but instead made worse, they would like to object to the Thai government’s nomination of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex as a world heritage site.

Community members from the Bang Kloi Village also issued an open letter the World Heritage Committee saying that, after they were evicted from their ancestral land at Chai Phaen Din, deep in the Kaeng Krachan forest, they still face health issues, poverty, livelihoods issues, and land rights issues.  

The letter stated that, in 1996, when the director of the Kaeng Krachan National Park had them relocated to Pong Luk village, 7 rai (around 2.76 acres) of land was promised to each family. However, the promise was not kept, and the land was not fertile, so the villagers moved back to their original land.

In May 2011, park officers forcibly evicted the villagers from their land and burned around 100 houses and rice barns, once again forcing them out of their land. In 2012, Ko-i Meemi, the community’s spiritual leader who later passed away in October 2018 at the age of 107, along with 6 other community members then filed a complaint with the Administrative Court against the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment for malfeasance. In 2018, the Supreme Administrative Court ordered the two agencies to pay compensation to the community members.

However, the letter said, the community has still not been allocated land, forcing people out of their community as they have to go find work in cities to support their families. The situation is also made worse after the Covid-19 pandemic caused many people to lose their jobs. Meanwhile, Billy, who was from Bang Kloi and a community rights defender, became a victim of enforced disappearance and even though the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) found crucial evidence, no progress has been made in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Read more about Billy's disappearance: 

The letter stated that, while the community does not object to the Thai government’s nomination of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex as a world heritage site, they would like the decision-making process to be transparent and based on facts. On 6 November 2020, the Thai authorities invited diplomats from 8 state members of the World Heritage Committee to visit Kaeng Krachan, but even though community representatives were invited to observe the visit, they were not able to contribute information. Moreover, the visit was mainly conducted in English, in which most community members cannot communicate.

The community called on the authorities to resolve land rights issues before the world heritage nomination. In addition, they would like to be able to continue their tradition of rotational farming, and to be allowed to return to Chai Phaen Din. They also asked that their rights as an indigenous community whose way of life is tied to the forest be respected.

Park official representatives, including the Director of the Maenam Pachi Wildlife Sanctuary and the Assistant Director of the Thai Prachan National Park, were at the event but declined to join the discussion as the topic being discussed is at policy level and is beyond the scope of their responsibility.

Community members gathering on the stage before the statement was read.

The Thai government previously nominated the Kang Krachan Forest Complex as a natural world heritage site three times: in 2015, 2016, and 2019. All three times, the World Heritage Committee referred the nomination back to the Thai government in order to allow it to resolve the rights and livelihoods concerns relating to the Karen communities in the area and to reach a consensus of support for the nomination. At the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee in 2019, the Committee also encourages the Thai government to “work in partnership” with Myanmar “on future biological connectivity and collaborative efforts on conservation between the nominated property and the proposed protected area in Myanmar.”

The 44th session of the World Heritage Committee was previously scheduled for 29 June - 9 July 2020, but was postponed to June – July 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and is to take place at Fuzhou, China. The Thai government will once again be nominating the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex as a world heritage site during this session.