After decades of violent forest evictions, the Forest Department has announced it is making a U-turn to embrace the forest dwellers as partners in forest conservation. If you think this is too good to be true, you're absolutely correct.
Chongklai Worapongsathorn, deputy director-general of the Forest Department, recently admitted his agency alone cannot protect the forests and needs local support to prevent further encroachment. So his agency is sponsoring the Community Forest Bill which, when passed into law, will increase the forest cover and end long conflicts between the poor who live in such areas and forest officials.
Will that ever happen? Absolutely not.
Sorry to be a killjoy. Our country most certainly needs a legal mechanism to respect people's participation in forest management. But top-down laws written by centralised state forest agencies to serve their interest won't do the trick. On the contrary, the persecution of forest dwellers will get worse. So will deforestation.
Let me explain why.
First, some background. The Community Forest Bill was initiated by those who live in forests for land security. Many families lived there for generations before the areas were demarcated as state-owned forest reserves and protected forests, yet they are now being punished for encroaching on the land and are subject to eviction and imprisonment.
Violent forest evictions have given rise to a nationwide grassroots movement calling for the right for these people to stay in the forests given their proven record in terms of forest conservation and ecological farming. But forest authorities see this as a challenge to their power.
Thanks to the so-called 1997 People's Charter and the democratic atmosphere of the time, the forest dwellers sponsored their community forest bill in 1999. Forest authorities fiercely opposed it for fear of losing central control. Their argument, however, focused on community forests in watershed forests.
If allowed, environmentally sensitive areas would be destroyed, they insisted, dismissing the fact that the areas where the forest dwellers reside remain healthy because of their cultural conservation practices. Meanwhile, much forest land has been destroyed by roads and mono cash crop plantations promoted by the government and agro-businesses.
The people-sponsored community forest bill was never passed due to frequent disruptions of electoral politics and forestry mandarins' heavy lobbying with lawmakers; most subscribed to the mainstream stereotypes of forest dwellers as slash-and-burn forest destroyers.
Meanwhile, the Forest Department hijacked the forest dwellers' idea by setting up its own community forests. But these do not respect local peoples' right to co-manage natural resources as a part of decentralisation. Instead, they force compliance with top-down rules and regulations mapped out by the centralised Forest Department.
When the people's community forest bill hit a brick wall, the movement shifted to communal land rights in forest land in exchange for ecological farming and forest conservation. This was endorsed by the Democrat-led government, reluctantly adopted by the Pheu Thai government, and -- again -- fiercely opposed by the forestry mandarins.
Clearly the Forest Department wants to end the perceived challenge once and for all. Like other state agencies, it knows it can use the power of military rule to push for controversial laws and projects that would otherwise be difficult under electoral politics. Hence its top-down community forest bill, which preempts locals having any real say in forest management and land rights. It comprehensively weakens the forest dwellers' movement.
The community forest bill will most likely sail through the junta-installed parliament that is dominated by bureaucrats.
Under this proposed law, community forests are allowed only in forest reserves under strict rules and regulations. The forest dwellers and their community forests, however, are prohibited from setting up in protected forests such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Since most core members of the grassroots community forest and land rights movement live in in protected forests, they are therefore subject to eviction, arrest and even imprisonment.
With a new law to cement its power, the forestry bureaucracy, now stronger than ever under military rule, has no reason to respect the agreement on a communal land ownership system from previous administrations.
"The ban on public assembly and the climate of fear from widespread persecution have made it really difficult for people to rally against this law," said Prayong Doklamyai, a veteran land rights activist from Pmove, a nationwide network of forest communities.
Ironically, he said, many healthy community forests in the reserves will be unable to continue. The Forest Department is required to give "good forests" to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation to be reclassified as national parks which, despite the realities on the ground, prohibits human settlements.
"All of which means the forest dwellers who have been protected these forests for generations will be chased out," said Mr Prayong.
So what is happening now and what do the forest dwellers want?
"We're now suffering greatly from these forest crackdowns," said Preeda Panmuang, a mother of two from the Southern Farmers Federation.
Since the junta's "Reclaiming the Forest" campaigns, forest officials are joining forces with soldiers to violently evict forest dwellers in various parts of the country. Interestingly, many of them are in the land rights and community forest movement.
In the past three years, 119 women from the movement have been arrested pending court cases, according to Protection International.
"I don't understand why the government isn't respecting our contracts with previous governments, why the forest officials are evicting us when we have proved we are forest protectors, why they cut down our trees when they're part of the forest, why they do nothing with the investors who refuse to leave their plantations even though the land leases have long expired," Ms Preeda said.
Large tracts of forest reserves have been leased out cheaply to oil palm and rubber plantations at 20 baht per rai. After two decades, it is estimated the leases covering over 200,000 rai in the southern provinces alone have expired.
"Why can't they allow the forest poor to lease forest land, too, now the earlier forest land leases have expired?" asked Ms Preeda.
"We're willing to pay and grow a mixed variety of trees to rehabilitate the plantations and turn them into forests. Isn't that what the government wants -- more forests?"
The solution to landlessness and deforestation is easy, she said.
"Lease out the land to the poor in return for forest rehabilitation through mixed farming. It's beyond me why the government refuses to help the poor while it's allowing mining investors to wreak havoc in good forests."
Under the new mining law, mining is allowed in all parts of the country including watershed forests. Long resisted under elected governments, this environmentally destructive law was recently passed during military rule, ironically without any resistance from forest agencies.
Will the violent evictions intensify? Most definitely, not only from the stricter forest laws but also the forest authorities' zeal to show the military government they can succeed at its forest reclaiming campaign.
Will deforestation get worse? Consider this: Examples abound showing how, when the poor are robbed of land security and trapped in poverty, they are forced to serve the agro giants' plantations in the highlands to earn quick money to survive.
The draconian, top-down forest laws and the junta's support for forest crackdowns are at the root of these problems. Given the government's reluctance to contain agro giants' plantations, we can answer for ourselves the question of whether deforestation will worsen or not.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post
(Photo by Seksan Rojjanametakun)