New law balances forest protection and local communities


Seeking to balance environmental preservation and the rights of local and indigenous people, Thailand has passed a new national parks law that the government says will allow people in over 2,700 communities located in protected forest zones to remain where they are while the government works with them on how to best live in harmony with their surroundings.

The tensions between protecting the Kingdom’s forests and environment and the rights and needs of communities that dwell within or on the edges of forests has been a challenge facing Thai governments for several decades. Rapid industrialization and the expansion of agriculture, while providing a bounty of benefits in terms of reducing poverty and raising peoples’ living standards, has also resulted in significant deforestation and environmental damage.

A law to create national parks and protected areas was passed during the 1960s, and a cabinet resolution in 1998 allowed forest-dwelling communities to remain in place “temporarily” until a more permanent solution for the situation could be developed. The new law is a significant step in that direction.

“We are going to have the new national park law as a key tool to manage the problem. It grants people the right to live in forested areas [but] we need to discuss how they can live in harmony with the [local environment],” said Surasak Kanjanarat, minister of Natural Resources and the Environment.

He noted that since the 1998 cabinet resolution, the number of “forest encroachers” had doubled. At that time, about 1.2 million acres of protected forest had been encroached upon, but today the figure is 2.3 million acres.

The Kingdom was once largely a wilderness, but its forest cover was recorded at just 31.5 percent of its landmass in 2014 when the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha vowed to end deforestation and increase the forest cover to 40 percent in ten years. The government said it would create new zones for forests and agriculture, and end corruption in land titles and ownership. Since then, a number of hotels and resorts have been dismantled for encroaching into protected forests and national parks.

Human rights activists warned, however, that the government’s push to oust and prosecute encroachers could end up evicting legitimate forest communities that have existed for generations. Some officials did, in fact, evict some forest communities, which led to disputes, court cases and complaints to the National Human Rights Commission.

Attitudes towards those communities vary. While some believe that forest dwellers are destroying the environment, others believe that many of these communities understand the forests ecosystems and could serve as the best stewards of their protection.

The new law attempts to bridge this divide by recognizing the positive role of forest dwellers while ensuring that they are using and caring for the environment in responsible and sustainable ways.