Government grants 2.3 million acres to forest communities

To balance safeguarding the environment with the survival of traditional forest dwellers, the cabinet of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha approved a plan last week to give over 2.3 million acres of protected forest land to forest-dwelling communities under collective deeds that cannot be sold or transferred in a move supported by conservationists.

“No one will be asked to leave the forest if his or her criteria matches our requirements. If you are poor and lived in the forest before … you have the right to stay,” said Rawewan Bhuridej, secretary-general of the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning.

As Thailand has industrialized and developed over the past several decades, the expansion of agriculture, towns, and cities was shearing away the country’s forest cover. When governments began to realize the environmental costs of rapid development, it moved to establish protected forests and has also started replanting some forests that had been lost.

Protecting the forests, however, led to occasional conflicts between officials and communities that had been living in the woods for decades if not centuries. Initially, state officials regarded those communities as a threat to the forests and said their presence was illegal. However, as time has gone by a different view has prevailed – that, given the right incentives, those communities are best suited to help manage and protect the forests.

In most cases, the forest can withstand what the people take from it for their survival. The new policy reflects the new prevailing view.  Laws will be revised to reflect the new policy, Rawewan said.

The Office of Natural Resources is undertaking a survey to find out the numbers of forest dwellers and communities. The last government figure was recorded in 1998 at 160,000 people living in the protected areas.

The new policy will exclude, however, communities from living in prime ecological forests, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries because their environments are considered too sensitive for human habitation.

“I am quite happy with the plan. It should be a sustainable way to deal with conflicts between people living in the forest and the state department,” said Sasin Chalermlarp, a prominent conservationist.

The collective title deeds will last for 30 years and require the communities to help safeguard the forests. The deeds cannot be transferred or sold, a rule designed to prevent anyone who is not an actual forest dweller to come into possession of valuable natural resources that belong to everyone.