The real enemy of our forests
Kanya Pankiti's rubber smallholding in Trang's Ratsada district in the Khao Bantad mountain region is not an ordinary one.
Hers is not the typical commercial plantation promoted by authorities where rows of rubber trees stand neatly side by side without any undergrowth, thanks to chemical herbicides.
Kanya's rubber orchard looks like a small jungle. The rubber trees are thriving together with all sorts of local fruit trees, bamboo bushes, herbs and other forest food plants such as the sataw, luk niang, and pak liang southern delicacies.
It's an ecologically-friendly rubber agroforest which has sustained both the green cover and the locals' livelihoods for generations. It's also the way of life for thousands of families in the Khao Bantad mountain region.
Yet the government wants to wipe it out.
An army of 1,500 fully armed forest guards are now ready for the big raze. Backed by a 50 million baht budget approved by the Yingluck Shinawatra government in May, the plan is to dismantle forest communities by destroying their rubber smallholdings in national parks one by one.
The Khao Bantad communities are among the 2,700 forest communities targeted nationwide. If the crackdown goes as planned, more than a million farm families will be violently uprooted. Gone will be their valuable knowledge of local biodiversity and its uses in medicine which could very well serve as the future of the Thai economy _ if officialdom knows how to respect local experiences and knowledge, that is.
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
"We're blamed for causing natural disasters, but landslides and flash floods are nearly unheard of in our areas," argues Kanya, a mother of two whose struggles against state injustice have turned her into a grassroots activist.
"We're blamed for encroaching on national parks, but the fact is we've been living here for generations before the zoning of national parks. Go and look at our old rubber trees. Some take two people to embrace them.
"We're also blamed for violating the law. But the constitution says old communities in the forests like ours have the right to stay and co-manage our local resources.
"We're accused of destroying the environment. In fact, we have strict community rules to protect the rain-catchment areas and waterways, to stop using farm chemicals because of their toxic residues, and to limit the use of woods under community committee supervision."
Human settlements are common in tropical forests. Yet the government has outlawed them, thus triggering a nationwide land rights conflict that goes back several decades.
The grassroots movement got a major win when the 1997 charter endorsed community rights to stay and co-manage local resources. Yet the forest authorities refuse to respect them, and the crackdowns continue.
The movement made another step forward when the previous government agreed to give community land title deeds to old forest communities to protect them from forced eviction. Kanya's village is one of them.
Yet, the crackdowns continue.
Last year, Prime Minister Yingluck promised land reform and a push for the villagers' community rights in her policy statement. Yet, she still approved a budget of 50 million baht to crack down on forest communities.
The war cry by the forest authorities to protect nature is farcical. If conservation is the goal, why allow tree plantation investors to clear massive areas of secondary forests to grow cash crop trees such as eucalyptus and oil palm?
Why allow big dams and mining in pristine forests and turn a blind eye to big-time land encroachers to hit small farmers who practise agroforestry?
Why allow the state rubber agency to promote land-clearing and the heavy use of toxic farm chemicals in forest areas?
And why hand-pick one land speculator to punish for a media show while ignoring another?
No, the enemies of the forests are not small people. It's the Royal Forestry Department's own logging officials and its hold on central power.
It's the state policies to promote cash crops for export money, the powerful mafia network, and rife corruption in officialdom.
"Admit it. The government cannot protect the forests without people's participation and help," Kanya says.
"We're doing exactly that. Why destroy us?"
Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor, Bangkok Post.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.