Forest locals need a voice

Forest locals need a voice

In an apparent move to prove that a military regime can do what civilian governments could not, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has announced that it will increase the country's forest cover from 33.4% to 40% during its tenure.

This should not come as a surprise. After the 1991 putsch, coup leader Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon also had the same plan. Deforestation has always been defined as a national security threat and forest encroachers as national security enemies. When civilian governments lack the political will to stop deforestation, the military wants to show it is different.

Here's one glitch. Both the army and civilian governments subscribe to the forest authorities' definition of forest as wilderness free of inhabitants. But tropical forests have always been home to indigenous highlanders and farm communities.

Here, more than 10 million people live in forests. Since these people have been turned into illegal encroachers by laws written by the Forest Department, forced eviction has been adopted as the primary measure to preserve the land.

Gen Suchinda declared the military's grand scheme to evict 250,000 farm families in the Northeast so the Forest Department could go ahead with its reforestation programmes. The scheme was known under the Thai acronym Khor Jor Gor.

Here's another glitch. Reforestation under the Forest Department's definition is not regeneration of natural forest, but commercial tree farms. Forest officials wanted the military to evict villagers so they could lease out the land to tree farm investors. And the military did it for them.

The result was a grassroots uprising. The scheme ended when then prime minister Anand Panyarachun intervened with a promise to end the violent evictions.

Given this bitter Khor Jor Gor experience, the military must clarify how it is going to expand national forest cover without following the Forest Department's policy of forced eviction, which has triggered fierce land rights conflicts nationwide.

So far, the NCPO has given little detail except that the plans will be carried out lightning fast, within three months, and will draw up new zones to expand forest cover from the current 33.3% to 40% of the country. But this is more than enough to give the locals sleepless nights.

The forest authorities' style of drawing forest areas on maps without consulting the locals is one of the main reasons behind land rights conflicts between the state and local communities. The military would be wise not to repeat the same mistake.

After Gen Suchinda's bloody political exit, there have been several policy solutions to solve land rights conflicts resulting from decades of negotiations between grassroots movements and successive governments. Community rights to manage local resources have been enshrined in charters.

Calls for community land ownership in exchange for forest conservation have been accepted by both Democrat and Pheu Thai governments. Yet, the forest authorities have refused to implement this to preserve their central power over forest management.

Since the junta's declaration of its plans to fight encroachers in June, forest officials have intensified a crackdown on forest communities that are calling for change in forest management. The NCPO's grand reforestation plan may lead to an even bigger scale of forced evictions.

Forest conservation is impossible without the support of locals. This requires strengthening their sense of ownership. The NCPO's policy to empower the bureaucracy and toe the line of the forest authorities does not bode well both for forest health and the regime's stability. The junta should learn from Gen Suchinda's past mistakes.

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