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Thailand's Deforestation Solution

By Evan Gershkovich

On June 14, Thailand’s military junta ordered authorities to put an end to deforestation nationwide, taking back protected forest reserves from illegal encroachers. Moving quickly to implement its new powers following the May 22 coup d’état, the military government also promised to increase the country’s forested land from 31.5 percent to 40 percent over the next ten years. They further planned to introduce a new agricultural and forest zoning system and end corruption. 

Thailand’s provincial authorities responded to the order quickly. On June 28, over 1,000 residents in Buriram province were ordered to leave their homes in forest reserve areas. At the time Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director Brad Adams said, “Instead of resolving a land issue through legal means, the military is using its wide-reaching martial law powers to bludgeon human rights protections.”

But the eviction policy has not only affected forest villagers; land has also been taken back from owners of resorts and rubber plantations, as well as from logging companies and an abbot of a monastery. The targets for the reforestation campaign seem to be chosen indiscriminately. 

In Thailand, this kind of state-mandated reforestation campaign is nothing new. The Thai government first attempted to end deforestation in the 1960s by signing into law the National Forest Park Act and the National Forest Reserve Act, which delineated protected forest reserves. But the current iteration of the reforestation campaign is unique in targeting wealthy and politically connected-investors.

In past campaigns, forest conservation efforts were mostly directed at villagers; and although villagers have still been affected this time around, the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has also directed its efforts at individuals, which former governments would have let slide. Three days after the NCPO ordered the campaign in mid-June, a second order was issued, stating that any efforts to take back deforested land must not affect poor and landless villagers already living there. 

Nevertheless, forest villagers have indeed been affected. The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand says it has been consistently receiving appeals from villagers, NGO representatives, and community organizers against eviction orders. Many village-owned rubber trees have been cut down by local authorities who claim, on scant evidence, that the villagers are working for wealthy investors. 

On its face, the reforestation campaign is a good policy. Prime Minister and NCPO Chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, seems to be intent on managing Thailand’s natural resources sustainably. And with deforestation contributing to 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, any effective climate change policy must include a plan to combat forest degradation. Pursuing reforestation plans, moreover, provides added benefits. Scientists say forests have a cooling effect on our climate by storing vast amounts of carbon—the main contributor to global warming—in their trees and soil; they also convert solar energy to water vapor, increasing reflectivity through cloud formation, which affects how much energy enters the planet’s system.  

Yet Thailand’s history of state-managed forestry has not solved the country’s problems. Rampant deforestation has continued since the government first attempted to stop the problem, with forested areas having decreased from over 50 percent of total land area in 1961 to 25 percent in 1998 (with some regeneration occurring over the past 16 years). The Third National Economic and Social Development Plan of 1972—a staple of Thai policy development since the first plan was released in 1961—had also aimed at increasing the country’s forested land area to 40 percent, like Prayuth’s current plan.

Ramping up state-managed forestry does not seem to be the solution to Thailand’s deforestation problem. And, as the policy increases human rights violations, despite the NCPO’s best efforts to clarify the intended targets of the policy, the Thai government should reconsider its means of fighting deforestation. 

One solution would be to put trust in the country’s forest-dependent villagers who not only know the forests best, but depend on them for their livelihoods and thus have the incentive to sustain them. 

This notion, known as community forestry, is actually already in play in Thailand. Over 9,000 villages function as community forests, with the communities taking a legally-recognized leading role in managing the land. Thailand’s Marine and Coastal Resources Department even plans to reclaim possession of at least 300,000 rai of encroached mangrove reserves nationwide over the next five years in line with the NCPO’s campaign, while also securing rights for nearby communities to manage those reserves. 

Countries around the world have found considerable success through community forestry. On July 24, World Resources Institute released a report providing evidence that deforestation has decreased considerably in places where local peoples’ community forestry rights are given strong legal recognition. According to the report, “deforestation rates inside community forests with strong legal recognition and government protection are dramatically lower than in forests outside those areas.” 

In the Bolivian Amazon, deforestation rates were found to be six times lower; in the Brazilian Amazon, 11 times lower; and in Guatemala’s Petén Basin, 20 times lower. Considering that Brazil has reduced deforestation rates in its Amazon region by 70 percent in only nine years, the Thai government might perhaps look to that nation as a model. 

The first step for the Thai government in pursuing this strategy would be to enhance community tenure rights. Over two million people in Thailand are dependent on forests for their livelihood; and although many live illegally on forest reserves, their communities were living on the land prior to the creation of those reserves in the 1960s. Although the Thai government legally recognizes 9,000 community forests, over 1,000 more villages function as community forests without legal recognition, and many more people depend on forests without any management structure in place. 

For community forestry policies to be effective in Thailand, the government must strip away regulations that prevent villagers from managing the land, and recognize community forestry as the primary forest management system on a national level. Currently, the government has inconsistently permitted community forestry practices in some areas, while pushing forth with state managed forestry in others. 

Although the NCPO seems to be well-intentioned in its drive to reclaim forest reserves, the military government should consider a different tact. Working to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change is essential to securing our future livelihoods, but  human rights cannot be violated in the process. That simply negates the purpose of the efforts.

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Evan Gershkovich is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok, follow him at @EvanGershkovich.

[Photo courtesy of redd-monitor.org]

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