Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Freedom at Stake in Forest

Longtime residents of Thai jungle may face eviction as government fights to protect park

Daniel Lovering, Chronicle Foreign Service
Published 4:00 am, Tuesday, November 14, 2000

2000-11-14 04:00:00 PDT Ban Pang Ika, Thailand — Gripping a worn machete in her wrinkled hand, Khao Sopa crouches on the jungle floor and cuts free a fibrous green bamboo shoot from tangled underbrush.

Later, she will strip the shoot of its tough husk, stew it in a tangy curry or ferment it for a future meal. Or she may sell it for 5 cents in this remote northern hamlet of 300 people in Boiluang National Park.

For Sopa, a 59-year-old member of the Karen hill tribe, bamboo shoots and other forest resources such as mushrooms, tropical fruits and medicinal herbs have provided subsistence for years.

But she and several million forest dwellers throughout Thailand are caught in the middle of a political struggle over forest management. The federal government is debating whether to evict Sopa and others from national park lands or to pass historic legislation that could give hill tribes limited use of the land and end a decade-old dispute that has been hotly contested in recent months.

The government would prefer to expel the forest residents to better protect the areas. A focal point of disagreement is the impact of traditional forms of agriculture practiced by hill tribes. Opponents say they often use destructive slash-and-burn farming techniques.

According to Plodprasop Suraswadi, director general of the government’s Royal Forestry Department, 2 million of Thailand’s 62 million inhabitants live in forests; 630,000 of them are considered squatters.

Hill tribe advocates, on the other hand, say these forest dwellers should remain in their habitat, earning a living through sustainable development whereby communities protect and use natural resources efficiently. They argue that the tribes should be taught more environmentally friendly practices such as rotational cultivation. Farmers practicing it also burn land but instead of simply clearing virgin forest, they return to the same plots in seven, nine, and 12-year cycles.

“In Thailand we never think about using the forest,” said Somsak Sukawong, director of the Bangkok-based Regional Community Forestry Training Center. “We have poor or marginalized people who depend on forest products (for survival).”

If Sopa and others are allowed to stay, they will have unique legislation, called the Community Forest Bill, to thank.

There are two competing versions of the bill.

Many environmentalists support the “people’s version,” which was written by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics and signed by thousands of rural villagers earlier this year.

It is Thailand’s first grassroots bill under the 1997 constitution, which promised to decentralize federal power. It would give hill tribes the legal right to use forest resources and consult with government and NGOs about using them in an environmentally sound way.

The constitution reads: “Native people have their own wisdom and culture and have the right to participate in the management of local resources by law.” It also gives citizens the right to submit bills to parliament if they can collect 50,000 signatures on a petition.

“This is the first constitution in the history of Thailand that recognizes the role of people,” said Sukawong. “We have never recognized community rights.”

The government’s version of the Community Forest Bill includes guidelines for tending commercial tree plantations and large-scale reforestation projects. But it does not include a sustainable development program or allow hill tribes to help determine forest management policy or agricultural practices.

Although more than 700 forests in northern Thailand are informally managed by local communities, there is no legal framework to protect hill tribes from eviction. Both versions of the Community Forest Bill would finally provide such framework, but the government draft would permit expulsion if hill tribes refuse to carry out official policy.

It was logging that precipitated the community forest movement.

For more than a century, Thailand was one of the world’s top exporters of coveted teak wood. But in 1989, with a democratic government in power, public opinion turned against the lumber industry after a series of severe mudslides in deforested areas and the public realization that forests were being depleted.

A nationwide ban on logging was then imposed.

If voted into law, the people’s version of the forestry bill could provide an important model for other nations in Asia, where logging and hydroelectric dams have devastated widespread swaths of forest. Some nations have adopted similar legislation but without such a broad reach, environmental activists say.

India’s forestry program focuses on rehabilitating deforested land but does not address the preservation of forests. Nepal gives custodial rights to local people in the Himalayas but ignores those living in the plains, where the biggest trees grow. Philippine forests have been extensively logged, though there is a small community movement in the south.

Inspired by the U.S. national park system, the Royal Forestry Department has demarcated 27 percent of Thailand’s territory into three protected categories: national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and watershed areas. In theory, no one is allowed to establish residence in these areas.

“The (department) has been influenced by places like Yellowstone National Park, where the concept is that nobody can live there,” said Sayamol Kaiyoorawong, deputy director of the Project for Ecological Recovery in Bangkok.

Unlike in the United States, however, people have been living in these “protected areas” for decades.

Hill tribe leaders say the current law is enforced arbitrarily and that they are never sure how long they can stay. Those who are designated for relocation are wooed by government bureaucrats with free building materials, health care, schools and roads. Those who refuse to move can be arrested or fined. Violent confrontations are not uncommon.

In northern Thailand, forest inhabitants are typically villagers of such ethnic hill tribes as the Karen, Hmong and Lahu, who migrated from China, Burma and Laos. Since 1994, 197 Karen families have been removed from Ban Pang Ika and surrounding portions of Boiluang National Park.

Sen. Tuenjai Deetes, one of the most vocal proponents of the people’s version, has argued in the Senate that Western-style national parks are not applicable in Thailand.

“Politicians who think human beings are not part of the forest don’t understand that the forest has a diversity of life,” said Deetes, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1994, awarded by the Goldman Environmental Foundation in San Francisco, for initiating sustainable development programs among four tribal groups in 28 villages.

With general elections set for early January, it is unlikely that the Community Forest Bill will become law before a new administration takes office.

But the people who wrote the legislation and the 50,000 villagers who signed the people’s version are not dropping the issue. Most recently, their supporters have gathered in large demonstrations throughout the country.

“For these people the aim of life is not business,” Deetes said. “It is to have enough food and to live in harmony with nature.”