Cabinet recognizes rights of forest dwellers


At the same time that the government has been cracking down on businesses and wealthy individuals that encroach on protected forests, the cabinet of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha approved a bill that recognizes the rights of people who actually live in forests, including their right to make use of forest resources.

“When this proposed law comes into effect it will help villagers earn income and eventually extricate them from poverty. The government believed communities can earn 4.26 billion baht ($133 million) from being allowed to collect and sell wild products,” said Natural Resources and Environment Minister Surasak Karnjanarat.

Land rights and the issue of community forests have been contentious ones for decades in Thailand. As the Kingdom both industrialized and dramatically expanded agricultural production, farmers and developers relentlessly cleared more land, shearing away the forest cover. From over 60 percent of the land being forested in 1945, recent estimates by the World Bank put Thailand’s forest cover at roughly 27 percent.

With the encouragement of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who expressed great concern over protecting the Kingdom’s environment and forests, governments and the private sector have been engaged in a reforesting campaign during the past two decades. In the government’s zealousness to protect this precious resource, however, conflicts emerged with people and communities around the nation who have traditionally lived in or at the forest’s edge and rely on its resources to survive and for their modest livelihoods.

Environmentalists and advocates for the communities argued that the forest dwellers often make the best custodians of the forests as they understand the importance of protecting and preserving their environment while taking only what they need from it. In the past, however, some forest dwellers have been arrested and prosecuted for reaping the fruits of the forest as they had been doing for generations.

Meanwhile, others have used their influence to skirt laws and regulations and encroach on forests, building resorts, luxury homes and other businesses without regard for the future.

The government has been trying to rectify both situations: increasingly seizing and destroying those structures when it becomes aware of them and punishing violators, and by passing the community forest bill.

“This bill will make forests akin to a supermarket where villagers can walk in and collect wild products [such as wild mushrooms and ant eggs] for cooking or even selling,” Surasak said.

He added that his ministry would be writing more ordinances to help communities and the authorities work together to manage the forests.