Kaeng Krachan forest named World Heritage site amidst indigenous rights concerns

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex was named a natural World Heritage site during the World Heritage Committee meeting on 26 July despite ongoing concerns about human rights violations against indigenous communities in the forest area.

Protesters put up a banner saying "World heritage, blood heritage” on the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment sign during a protest on 26 July, then threw red paint onto the sign. (Photo from the Save Bang Kloi Coalition)

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex is one of seven sites added to UNCESCO’s World Heritage List during the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee, after 12 out of 21 committee members voted to accept the nomination.

The World Heritage Committee requires the Thai government to create a mutual understanding on the revised boundaries of the property based on an agreement between Thailand and Myanmar; ensure related conditions of integrity, protection, and management; and ensure consultations with the local community on their livelihood and their active engagement in management of the property.

Thailand must also submit a progress report on the implementation of these recommendations by 1 December 2022.

Protesters gathering at the Government House on 15 February 2021 to demand justice for Bang Kloi community members who returned to their ancestral land at Chai Phaen Din. 

During the session, several committee members, including delegates from Norway, Spain, Brazil, and Guatemala asked to hear the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples before the decision-making process, while the delegate from South Africa asked to hear the Special Rapporteur after the discussion. On the other hand, Ethiopia, Egypt, and China said they wanted to hear the Special Rapporteur after the decision.

Tian Xuejun, chair of the World Heritage Committee, ruled that the majority of committee members wish to hear the Special Rapporteur after the decision, prompting the Norwegian delegate to state that not hearing the Special Rapporteur mean that they are not able to make an informed decision, and, having read the recent press from the UN special human rights procedures regarding Kaeng Krachan, they encourage Thailand to invite the Special Rapporteur to visit Keang Krachan and send the revised nomination for evaluation by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as soon as possible.

The delegate said that it is not possible for them to support nominations where there are unresolved human rights issues, and that it would not be appropriate to form a drafting group or vote on Kaeng Krachan’s nomination and asked that the debate be adjourned until a new nomination is submitted.

When committee members agreed to move forward with the process, the Norwegian delegate said that they cannot support any other outcome but a deferral, and that Norway dissociates itself from the decision and asked that this is reflected in the record of the meeting.

UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples Francisco Calí Tzay also said at the end of the session that he wanted to remind UNESCO and the state members of the World Heritage Committee of their commitment to respect the rights of indigenous peoples and that it is regrettable that no indigenous people have been allowed to take part in the decision-making process which affects their rights and the future of their resources.

He also said that sustainable and human rights-based conservation cannot be carried out when indigenous peoples continued to be “harassed, criminalized, displaced, and their land rights, traditional practices and culture are denied.”

“In accordance with the IUCN recommendation, I am very sorry that your decision was not postponed until the nomination was in compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its own operational guidelines that require the government of Thailand to, inter alia, halt ongoing violations against Karen and ensure accountability for past abuses,” said Tzay, noting that the Thai government is also required to undertake “good faith consultation” with the communities, which is necessary in seeking their free, prior and informed consent and ensure that they are able to participate in future conservation efforts.

Chrissy Grant, chair of the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on World Heritage (IIPFWH) also said at the end of the session that the IIPFWH “strongly object” to the decision to inscribe Kaeng Krachan as a World Heritage site, as it “tramples on the most fundamental principles and purpose of UNESCO, as well as those of the United Nations charter. It also tramples on the dignity and human rights of the indigenous communities in Kaeng Krachan” and said that it was “one of the lowest points in the history” of the World Heritage Convention and of UNESCO.

Grant said that the nomination process was accompanied by “blatant human right abuses which have been strongly denounced by human rights bodies,” and that the decision was not “the result of sound expert judgement” but is a result of “highly public, politicized lobbying and horse trading based on economic interests of committee members.”

“This decision-making culture strongly undermines the credibility of the convention and UNESCO, and the effectiveness of protection strategies,” said Grant.

“We urge the general assembly of state parties to take steps to bring the decision-making of the committee in line with the principles and standards of the United Nations and UNESCO, and human rights based approach and the aim of the World Heritage Convention.”

Posters saying "Do you want to go home? The Bang Kloi people have no home to go back to" scattered on the ground and splattered with red paint during the 26 July protest at the MNRE. (Photo from the Save Bang Kloi Coalition). 

The Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT) released a statement on 27 July following the decision of the World Heritage Committee saying that, while having another World Heritage site in the country brings pride to the Thai people, the NIPT is not able to celebrate Kaeng Krachan’s inscription as the decision-making process did not adhere to UNESCO’s consideration criteria for nominations to the World Heritage List, especially the criteria that the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous and local communities living in a potential World Heritage site must be obtained before the site is nominated, neglecting the rights of the communities who have lived in the area before it was declared a conservation zone and goes against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to which Thailand is a signatory.

The UNDRIP states that indigenous peoples “have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights” and that states should “consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned […] in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”

The decision also ignores recommendations from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, who pointed to human rights violations against indigenous Karen communities in the Kaeng Krachan forest, from forced evacuations and lack of proper remedy to arrest and legal prosecution, as well as the resulting food insecurity.

The NIPT called on the Thai authorities to put sincere effort into resolving community rights issued faced by Kaeng Krachan’s indigenous communities, especially in regards in land rights, and to allow the communities to take part in the decision-making process, which must be in accordance with their traditional way of life. The communities must also be able to participate in the management of the World Heritage site, both in terms of policy and in practice, as the site is also their ancestral and spiritual lands.

The authorities must also drop all charges of encroachment against members of the Bang Kloi community for returning to their ancestral land to live according to their traditional way of life, and to end harassment against human rights defenders supporting the communities. 

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 rights and livelihoods concerns relating to the Karen communities in the area and to reach a consensus of support for the nomination.

Civil society raises concerned about ongoing human rights violation ahead of session

Members of the Karen indigenous community in the Kaeng Krachan area lighting candles in a traditional ceremony before an event on community rights issues held on 16 December 2020

The decision to inscribe the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex as a World Heritage site came after the IUCN published a report recommending that Kaeng Krachan’s nomination be referred back to the Thai government to allow it to resolve concerns regarding community rights and ensure that the nomination is supported by all affected indigenous peoples and local communities.

UN human rights experts also urged the World Heritage Committee to refer the nomination due to ongoing human rights violations against indigenous Karen communities in the national park, as members of the communities continue to face eviction and arrest for encroachment. They also stated that listing the forest as a World Heritage site would “perpetuate the denial of the Karen’s right to remain on their traditional lands and carry out their traditional livelihood activities based on rotational farming.”

Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recommended that the Thai government postpone the nomination due to unresolved human right issues, such as the dispute over the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community’s right to land.

Civil society also expressed concerns regarding the nomination. The Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF) published a statement on 26 July calling on UNESCO to defer Kaeng Krachan’s nomination until the rights of indigenous communities are protected.

The statement said that the Thai authorities have not consulted the communities or provided information about the World Heritage nomination, and have never recognized their right to land and to living according to their traditions, which led to “adverse” effects on the communities, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, when “villagers have been pushed to the brink of an acute malnutrition and health catastrophe” while the Thai authorities “showed no sign of commitment to resolve the settlement dispute and neglected the Karen communities of Kaeng Krachan.”

The Karen Network for Culture and Environment in Tanao Sri region (KNCE), a network of Karen communities in the Kaeng Krachan Forest area, which covers Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi, and Prachuap Khiri Khan provinces, also wrote an open letter calling for the World Heritage Committee to refer Kaeng Krachan’s nomination until the Thai government shows that they respect the right of the communities to live according to their traditions and create a process allowing the communities to participate in the conservation of the forest.

Protest at Natural Resources Ministry for issues to be resolved before nomination

A protest fixing a sticker saying "ethnic groups are humans too" to the MNRE sign during the 26 July protest (Photo by Kan Sangtong). 

A protest also took place at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) at 10.00 on 26 July to call for the Thai authorities to resolve ongoing community right issues in the Kaeng Krachan forest before nominating the forest for World Heritage status.

The protesters put up a banner saying “World heritage, blood heritage” on the sign in front of the Ministry. Stickers were then fixed to the Ministry sign and gates, which included messages such as “Ethnic groups are humans too,” “How long does it take you to get home?” and “Bang Kloi people have no home to go back to.”

They then threw red paint onto the Ministry sign to symbolize those who died fighting for the rights of Kaeng Krachan’s indigenous communities, such as lawyer and community rights activist Tatkamol Ob-om, who was shot and killed on 10 September 2011, and activist and member of the Bang Kloi Karen community Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen, who disappeared in 2014 and whose bones were found in 2019 in the Kaeng Krachan Dam.

The Kaeng Krachan Dam, where the oil drum containing bone fragments likely to be Billy's was found

During the protest, a man who looked like a plainclothes police officer took pictures and videos of the protesters. One of the protesters noticed him and asked him to delete the pictures out of concern that the pictures would be used in prosecutions, but uniformed police officers stationed in front of the Ministry pulled him inside the gates. He did not delete the pictures.

A representative of the group read out a statement saying that the group does not object to Kaeng Krachan becoming a World Heritage site, but is concerned that the nomination would be a denial of the indigenous communities’ right to live on their ancestral lands. The statement also said that they would like a World Heritage site in which the natural environment is conserved alongside the culture and way of life of the local communities, as well as a clear policy in the treatment of indigenous peoples in the Kaeng Krachan forest which is in accordance with human rights principles.

Two protesters covered in red paint during the protest in front of the Chinese Embassy

Protesters also gathered in front of the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok in the evening as the World Heritage Committee session, which was broadcast live on UNESCO’s YouTube channel, was discussing Kaeng Krachan’s nomination, to show their objection to China’s support for the nomination.

The action is due to an amendment draft published on Sunday (25 July) on the UNESCO website which stated that the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex has been inscribed on the World Heritage List because it “reflects the unique mixture of different zoogeographical realm and floristic provinces,” it is “well protected under relevant legislations,” and that the decision is made “on the understanding that the state party has addressed the issues of the Committee” including consultations with the local communities.  

The document states that the nomination is supported by 9 countries: Russia, China, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Ethiopia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Mali, and Thailand. The document has now been deleted from UNESCO’s website, but has been published by the CrCF on their Facebook page.

The protesters stood in front of the Embassy holding a banner saying "World Heritage, Blood Heritage #SaveBangkloi.” Two protesters wearing the traditional dress of the Karen people were also tied up and had red paint poured on them as they lay down on the ground in a symbolic action to protest against China’s support of the nomination and the ongoing human rights violation against Kaeng Krachan’s indigenous peoples.

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