Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Public Land for the People: The Institutional Basis of Community Forestry in Thailand

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Public Land for the People: The Institutional Basis of Community Forestry in Thailand

Article excerpt

Thailand is one of the few countries where communal rights to productive forests have no formal recognition. This does not mean that they are non-existent, however; in reality, we see many examples of communal forest use throughout the country, especially in the northern region. (1) This paradox, and the newly proposed Community Forestry Bill which is supposed to fill in the gap, are the subjects of this article.

The specific issue addressed here is the institutional basis of community forestry in Thailand with a focus on 'public land', which local people can access collectively to support their livelihood. With a majority of people living in the countryside, policies related to land use certainly have a significant impact on quality of life. Yet because state intervention regarding land use has been carried out by various government agencies without much coordination among them, repeated confusion and conflicts have occurred, not only between farmers and the state but also among the agencies themselves. The key agencies include the Royal Forest Department (RFD) and Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO) in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and the Department of Lands under the Ministry of Interior. (2)

It is an interesting coincidence that the promulgation of the new constitution in September 1997, known as the 'democratic constitution', came right after a major economic crisis in July the same year. Popular participation in resource use and management, once considered merely as an instrument for rural development, is now viewed as a central force to help overcome the economic crisis. However, the official recognition of the people's right to participate does not necessarily correspond with the actual practice of resource control. In fact, the new constitution may have increased incidents of land conflict now that people stand a better chance of gaining at least something; the number of reported disputes over land control is increasing, notably with the massive and sustained protests in front of the Parliament by the 'Assembly of the Poor', formed in December 1995. In March 1997, an NGO supporting this demonstration identified 121 sites in the country where potentially violent conflicts between government and farmers were taking place. Among those sites, about 75 per cent involved the use and ownership of land and forests and 12 per cent were related to dam construction. (3)

Many observers of resource developments have come to realise that forest and land issues do not relate merely to the physical environment but are essentially social and political problems. Socio-political problems require socio-political solutions; top-down technical treatment such as reforestation or zoning has so far proven ineffective. Forest plantations, for example, have made little progress and domestic timber is constantly in short supply. (Oddly enough, in 1985 the amount of illegally logged timber confiscated by the court exceeded that of the legally produced product.) (4) The alternative bottom-up approach of strengthening the community's organisational capacity, on the other hand, may also fall short in the face of state power where the competition for land-based resources is concerned. In Phattalung province, for example, villagers intimidated by the extractive activities of outsiders attempted to call the RFD for help, only to find out later that their local forest had been declared a national park. Ironically, the villagers who wanted to protect the forest were the first to be expelled. (5) It is futile to debate whether villagers have the capacity to manage or conserve a forest once they have been deprived of their incentive to do so.

In light of these considerations, it is not enough to seek sustainable forest use with an exclusive focus on the village-level mechanics of collective action, as has been effectively demonstrated by Elinor Ostrom and others. As will be discussed below, all forests are by definition legally under the ownership of the state; the relationship between resources and people must therefore be properly examined in the context of a broader political economy. …

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