To Defend Ourselves: Common Property Management of Forests in Northern Thailand

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Historically, rural villagers in northern Thailand had a stable coexistence with forest ecosystems due to the intrinsic value attached to forests in Thai culture as well as to customary common property management systems.(1) In the contemporary scene the state management of forests has gradually undermined these customary laws and the authority of traditional institutions.(2) This has created considerable tension between the traditional villagers' view of forests as common property resources, and official government policy. Rural communities dependent on forest resources are fighting for their rights to benefit from forest land they have long considered as their own.

The case of Huey Kaew represents a bottom-up push for reestablishing common property rights. It is also a case where the Royal Forestry Department is attempting to integrate common property rights to forest lands into the framework of national policy. The purpose of this case study in Huey Kaew is to explore the dynamics involved in reestablishing common property rights.

SIGNIFICANCE OF STUDY

The contemporary situation in Thailand suggests that environmental degradation and natural resource allocation will continue to be major sources of conflict between the government and rural communities.(3) The community forest program in Huey Kaew therefore has the potential to provide a model for other forest communities that face such conflict.(4) The successful implementation of the Huey Kaew community forest is a goal of the Royal Forestry Department and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives.(5) If it is successful, this program will provide benefits for both the villagers and the nation. The villagers will secure their ability to satisfy their own needs and the right to protect and manage forest resources, while the government will find a viable alternative to state control for managing Forest Reserve Land.

DESCRIPTION OF HUEY KAEW

The village of Huey Kaew is located in an upper valley floor in the northeast corner of Kaew sub-district in Chiang Mai Province. The upper part of the village is located within a Forest Reserve which contains a watershed covering 3000 rai (480 hectares) that supplies water to 10,000 rai (1,600 ha) of paddy land. The whole village is surrounded by mountain ranges and forests which are primarily secondary growth as a result of logging concessions in the early part of the century. The forest has been classified by the Royal Forestry Department as dry deciduous dipterocarp at the lower elevations and mixed deciduous at the higher elevations. Mixed Deciduous forests have great economic value because many commercial species are abundant. It is the primary habitat of teak (Tectona grandis).(7) The Dry Deciduous Dipterocarp forest has few trees of commercial importance but because trees in these forests are able to coppice freely they assure a continual source of fuelwood and various species of bamboo.(8)

The watershed is the source of four streams, one of which flows through the village of Huey Kaew. This stream supplies sufficient water for cultivation and home consumption throughout the year. Two small traditional irrigation canals draw water to feed rice fields on both sides of the river. Huey Kaew is an oval shaped village surrounded by rice paddy and forest. Most houses are built along the main road. The houses of the wealthier families are generally made of teak with tile roofs, while the houses of the poor are generally made from bamboo materials with roofs made from leaves.

The population of Huey Kaew is 513 people,(9) living in 126 households. Ninety-two of the households are landless.(10) The villagers of Huey Kaew understand the importance of conserving the forest in the watershed in order to maintain the source of water which irrigates their rice fields. Villagers depend on the forest as a source of building materials for their homes, fuelwood, grazing land for domestic animals such as water buffalo and cattle, natural foods, herbs and medicines, and as a hunting ground for small birds, animals and insects. …