Two agencies diverged in a wood
The stark contrast in moves taken against forest encroachers on opposite sides of a road in Nakhon Ratchasima reflects a nationwide inconsistency in the approaches taken by the national parks and forestry departments in combating the problem
Road 304 slices through Nakhon Ratchasima's Wang Nam Khieo district running north by northeast, forming the unofficial boundary between the Phu Luang national forest reserve to the west and Thap Lan National Park to the east. Charges of forest encroachment are rampant throughout the area, but the fates of those deemed guilty are vastly different depending on which side of the road they lie.
ON THE EDGE: Villagers look at a boundary marker on the edge of Phu Luang national forest reserve in Nakhon Ratchasima’s Wang Nam Khieo district.
In the Thap Lan National Park, National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department chief Damrong Pidech has made headlines following spectacular raids that have taken back more than 1,000 rai of park land so far. Before dawn on July 28 Mr Damrong led around 5,000 forest officials in the demolition of nine luxury resorts which had been ordered razed by the courts for forest encroachment in the park.
In contrast, action against encroachers in the Phu Luang national forest reserve is tied up in red tape, with forestry and Agricultural Land Reform Office officials going back and forth between the police stations and the courts in a vain bid to disperse the encroachers from state land.
Many believe that the way encroachment is handled in Wang Nam Khieo district will set the stage for the issue nationally. "If we can't solve the encroachment problem in Wang Nam Khieo, it can develop into a security issue," said Senate committee on natural resources and environment chairman Surachai Liengboonlertchai.
Land encroachment problems in the district can be traced back to the 1950s, when the Royal Forestry Department granted logging concessions in the Phu Luang forest. Extensive areas of the forest were clear cut, opening the way for land-hungry farmers. The Phu Luang forest reserve was designated in 1973, but by that time a vast area had already been cleared. Around that time Road 304 was constructed heading northeast, opening the way for more settlement and development.
It was not until 1981 that the Wang Nam Khieo forest on the east side of the road was combined with other forest reserves and declared part of the new Thap Lan National Park, the country's second largest.
Both the Phu Luang forest reserve and Thap Lan National Park have numerous disputes with locals who claim that the forest boundaries are unclear, and, moreover, they are often just plain wrong.
In Tambon Thai Samakkee in Wang Nam Khieo district, for instance, there are 11 villages with nearly 7,000 residents, most of whom reside on or farm land designated as part of the national park.
Over the years state officials have tried different tacks to resolve the disputes, but none of them consistently. To complicate matters, the Royal Forestry Department turned over some of the disputed land to the Agricultural Land Reform Office (Alro), which has the intended purpose of supplying arable, idle land to landless farmers. Alro has about 241,000 rai of degraded forest under its control and has managed to distribute about 139,000 rai to about 6,400 registered farmers who each received no more than 50 rai.
There have also been attempts to redraw the contesting boundaries. In 2000, officials from the Parks Department joined with locals to reshape Thap Lan National Park. However, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry did not pursue the effort, and as a result there are two distinct park boundary lines cutting through Tambon Thai Samakkee, one based on the declaration of the national park in 1981, and the other one based on the efforts made in 2000.
The insistence of present park officials to stick with the 1981 marker is a source of frustration and anger for locals who cannot obtain title documents for land some say has been in their families for generations. Instead most hold documents issued by either the Forestry Department or Alro, which grant only the right to use the land, or they hold only land tax documents.
The lack of clear title hasn't stopped many locals from selling land they consider theirs, especially after 2003 when Wang Nam Khieo district began to be heavily promoted as a tourist destination, driving up land prices.
According to statistics from the three departments, there are as many as 418 encroachment cases in Thap Lan National Park, nearly 50 in the Phu Luang forest reserve and around 120 cases in which people may be misusing Alro farmland, while many more are under investigation.
Both the forestry and parks departments have authority to take action against encroachers. Section 22 of the 1961 National Parks Act gives Parks Department officials power to crack down on encroachers in a national park and to remove offending properties. Section 25 of the 1964 National Forest Reserves Act gives the Forestry Department similar authority.
WEST: A WAITING GAME
To the west of Road 304 sit resorts in both the Phu Luang forest reserve and the reformed farmland under the administration of Alro. The Forestry Department began to take action against encroachers in the middle of last year, when in July department chief Suwit Rattanamanee issued an order to set up a special task force to crack down on forest encroachment related to tourism in Nakhon Ratchasima province. At the same time, a committee was charged with drawing up measures to facilitate land use in Wang Nam Khieo. But although 43 resorts have been determined to be encroaching on their land so far, the two agencies have not taken action to forcefully remove them.
Local forestry officials in Wang Nam Khieo refused to answer questions from Spectrum, but off the record some have indicated that Forestry Department staff are waiting for approval from their bosses to enter the encroachment areas and demolish resorts as their counterparts at the Parks Department have done.
According to a report from testimony of concerned officials conducted by the House of Representatives committee on law, justice, and human rights on July 11, 2012, 43 cases of encroachment in the Phu Luang forest reserve are now being investigated by police.
Forestry Department deputy chief Vitoon Jalayananavin said that besides pursuing court cases, the department does have the authority to demolish encroaching properties and take forest reserve land back. The deputy chief said that first, however, provincial authorities must sign an order to post a warning notice on the property, and so far they have refused to do so. Only after the warning has been posted for 30 days can forestry officials use their power to remove the targeted properties.
The rental of forest reserve land by the offending resorts is allowed under the Forest Reserve Act, but this seems unlikely since most are located within conservation zones. Mr Vitoon feels that forestry officials have no choice but to take strong action against the resorts.
Another forestry official said the rate of forest encroachment has been allowed to go on unabated due to complicated procedures required under the law, and recommended amending the law to allow swift action. ''But to make it work, it's also up to officials whether or not they dare to enforce it,'' said the official.
Meanwhile, Arlo must rely strictly on the court system to deal with encroachers. But Alro secretary-general Werachai Narkwiboonwong said the agency has never filed criminal charges against encroachers, only civil ones. There have been nine civil cases concerning resorts on Arlo land so far, said Mr Werachai, one involving a national politician. No land use permission had ever been given to any of the resorts, Mr Werachai said.
He added that since the middle of last year Alro has, with the use of aerial maps bought from the military, managed to detect several sites in Wang Nam Khieo district in which there was an ''unusual'' use of the land. Some of these show large resorts. So far, about 120 suspicious cases have been identified and are subject to ground checks.
Mr Werachai defended Alro's actions on encroachment, saying that although the court cases would take a long time to wrap up, eight years on average, the land will still belong to Alro because the law clearly states that it cannot be sold.
While a case is with the court, Arlo may negotiate with the accused for permission to use the land, but this can only be done if they can prove that their activity is closely related to farming. Mr Werachai said he is confident that with the use of aerial maps and other measures the agency will be able to detect the misuse of land faster and come up with quick solutions.
EAST: ENFORCEMENT CARRIES RISK
On the east side of Road 304, deputy chief of Thap Lan National Park Nuwat Leelapata looked exhausted when meeting with Spectrum shortly after his department's raid on nine resorts in the early morning hours of July 28. The massive operation was met with open hostility from many locals, and a bomb was detonated apparently as a warning to the department.
The stronger measures against encroachers began early last year when new park chief Taywin Meesap came over from nearby Khao Yai National Park. Mr Nuwat said that staff at Thap Lan National Park have no choice but to enforce Section 22 and demolish or remove properties encroaching on the park area, or face disciplinary action themselves.
More than 100 encroachment cases were identified by the park last year, and the number has shot up to 418 so far this year. Mr Nuwat said the Parks Department has three options in taking action against encroachers: file a civil lawsuit, file a criminal lawsuit or force them out of the park using authority given under Section 22 of the National Parks Act. This says national parks chiefs nationwide may order encroachers to demolish or remove their buildings and facilities from national park land themselves, or have it done for them, in which case they will be presented with a bill for the work. It is up to the park chiefs whether they wish to enforce Section 22.
At Thap Lan National Park, officials know all too well that taking such action carries a risk. Some park staff, including the chief and the deputy chief, have received death threats. As well, dissatisfaction with the operation keeps growing among the local population. Mr Taywin said his men are just trying to enforce the law, and the solution to the problem lies with policy makers and the public themselves.
But he added that forest encroachment is occurring rapidly and dealing with it cannot wait on court cases to be resolved, which may take years.
He feels the strong actions taken by the National Parks Department have at least helped slow down the rate of encroachment as they dampen the enthusiasm of potential illegal developers.
''It's a relief measure but it's vital to our work,'' said Mr Taywin. ''If we cannot enforce rules against encroachment in our protected forests, we will lose them all one day.''
LEVELLED: Above and below, remains of buildings after the bulldozers demolished the Ban Thalay Mok resort.
Farmers work the land in Wang Nam Khieo district.
In late February and early March, a team commissioned by the World Heritage Centre visited the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex _ a group of five world heritage list protected areas that includes Thap Lan National Park.
The team noted the encroachment by resorts in the north and northeastern parts of the complex. While they praised the continuing efforts to enforce the law against encroachers, including the removal of illegal structures, it also recommended that Thailand do more to monitor the situation, strengthen relevant laws and their enforcement, and consider creating a long-term tourism management plan. It also strongly recommended addressing the issue at the highest level of government policy.
Meanwhile, Pongthep Malachasingh, president of the Wang Nam Khieo tourism promotion club, defends resort developers there, saying that generally they do not know the land their resorts lie on is within protected zones because the forest has been extensively cleared. Mr Pongthep said he knows of several resort operators who are willing to cooperate with state agencies to solve the problem. They want a quick solution and they want it to be based on reality.
Surachai Liengboonlertchai, chairman of the Senate committee on natural resources and environment, said there may be better ways to manage the problem than strictly enforcing the law.
The encroachment problem in Wang Nam Khieo district is complicated, said the senator, which is partly the result of negligence by the state in managing the area.
He said action taken by concerned officials must be taken carefully and that the different groups of people and areas involved should be considered separately.
Mr Surachai stressed that officials should not immediately enforce stringent measures against local residents who may have lived in the forest long before it was declared a reserve or national park. He suggested that a thorough verification process be carried out to determine ownership of contested properties.
As for newcomers, the concerned officials should consider options such as managing existing resorts within the scope of the law, taking possible impacts on the ecosystem into account.
''At present, sure they are violating the law, but we don't bother to try to manage them either,'' said Mr Surachai.
''We let the problem grow more and more complicated for far too long,'' added Mr Surachai. ''If we only enforce the law it may cause confrontation, to the point that state officials can no longer enforce the laws. The issue really needs a holistic approach.''
About the author
- Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang