Karen return home, but future unsure
The return of indigenous Karen villagers who left their resettlement village for their ancestral homes deep in a forest in Kaeng Krachan National Park epitomises the need for a new approach in tackling the long-standing "man versus forest" problem.
The group of about 70 villagers earlier this month headed to their home in Bang Kloy Bon or Jai Paen Din where they were brutally evicted in what was known as the Tanao Sri operation carried out by park officers in 2011. Now each family has re-occupied their old home and their abandoned farmland. The ethnic Karen say the government's promises that they would be given new farmland have yet to be fulfilled.
Besides, they are anxious about a plan to have the park registered as a Unesco World Heritage site and their uncertain future.
Last November, park officials took members of the World Heritage Committee to inspect the park as part of the registration process. During the trip, they spoke in English, causing language difficulties. Two villagers joined the inspection trip but they did not have a chance to speak.
"We don't know what 'World Heritage' is. But we are afraid once the park gains the status, we will not be allowed to live in the forest," one villager said.
In December, the villagers submitted a petition to Unesco, voicing their concerns over the registration. In the petition, they mentioned the stagnation of the land allocation process, the right to maintain rotational farming, a traditional subsistence agriculture method that is recognised by the state, and a chance to return to their ancestral village that is registered with the Interior Ministry.
The villagers said in the letter to the government they have no objection if the Kaeng Krachan park is to be registered as a heritage site, but the long-standing land problems must be solved. They are right. The state is obliged to recognise the rights of indigenous people and their livelihoods, which are in harmony with nature. The Kaeng Krachan forest remains lush and green. When it was designated as a national park in 1981, that was the start of their grievances.
The government never responded to their letter.
This is the second time the villagers have attempted to go back to their old land after they were evicted. The first attempt in 2011 resulted in a brutal operation. Worse, their hero, Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen who tried to help fellow villagers in their court cases against park officials was a victim of forced disappearance.
The village headman said the villagers had not consulted him about their return. "Had I known, I would have stopped them," he said.
The village headman sympathises with those Karen, who have had a difficult life after being forced to leave Jai Paen Din village.
Without farmland, the Karen have no rice and have to depend on money sent by their children who left the village to work in cities.
The Covid-19 outbreak has deprived their children of jobs and income, and some have had to go back to their families. They had no choice but to return to the ancestral land where they can conduct farming in their traditional way.
There has been much talk among state agencies about land allocation for these Karen. The National Human Rights Commission, for instance, are among those who have spoken out, but little progress has been made. The villagers' attempt to go back to Jai Paen Din suggests the state measures are a failure.
Although no action has been taken against the returnees this time, the park chief has threatened a lawsuit. A petition by rights advocates that the state reconsider the ancestral rights of the villagers, who they regard as indigenous people, in accordance with a ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court in 2018, "fell on deaf ears".
The park should look back at its policy. After all, these are indigenous people who have lived with and protected the forest for generations. Their subsistence farming is not a threat to the forest.
Whether people and forests can co-exist has long been debated in society. It has been proven that conservation practices that focus only on flora and fauna, without taking into account the people -- those who have lived there long before the forest law was enacted -- are doomed to fail.
The government should be more open to a participatory approach, with villagers having a say in conservation, which can ensure that conservation is sustainable.
Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th
Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th