Take the axe to state's war on forest poor

Take the axe to state's war on forest poor

Leave the poor alone. That was the order from the country's most powerful man when he ordered troops to evict encroachers to save the country's fast-dwindling forests and return happiness to the country.

The military's current forest crackdown is anything but. Just ask 82-year-old Jantra Banghom, a villager of Ban Nong Wang in Sakon Nakhon's Warichapoom district.

On May 15, a group of soldiers and forest officials stormed her 18-rai plot of rubber holdings and destroyed more than 2,000 mature rubber trees. Witnesses said the team hailed shouts of victory with every tree felled.

It hurt the poor badly to watch the merciless assault on what little they have for their daily hand-to-mouth struggles, they told the Isan Land Reform News Centre.

Granny Jantra went to see what happened to her land after the troops had left. Overwhelmed with pain and grief, she collapsed. 

"Without rubber income, how can my grandchildren go to school now?" she asked, sobbing.

The villagers said they tried to explain that Granny Jantra had been living there long before the area was demarcated as part of the Phu Khao Lek National Park. Due to contested land rights, her plot was part of the areas where the owners have been allowed by the Sakhon Nakhon governor to stay while they are working out ownership problems with authorities. 

Their attempt failed. As Granny Jantra's rubber holdings lie in ruins, small farmers with rubber holdings in contested forest lands in other provinces continue to face the axe.

This war against the poor began last month when Gen Dapong Ratanasuwan, Natural Resources and Environment Minister, announced plans to stop forest encroachment by cutting down rubber trees in forest areas.

Though he said the crackdown would focus on rich owners of rubber plantations, the reality on the ground is different. Since the announcement, many poor farmers in various provinces have faced violent crackdowns.

Their bitterness is understandable. The forest cover in Thailand has declined drastically in the past five decades, but most forest destruction was caused by government logging concessions which did not stop until 1989, and successive governments' policies to promote cash crops in frontier lands.

During the communist insurgency, vast tracts of pristine forests also fell prey to the military policy of destroying guerrilla strongholds by building roads and human settlements in forests. More forests have vanished because of big dams and the Forest Department's policy of replacing natural forest with fast-growing tree farms. 

Meanwhile, forest authorities largely turn a blind eye to rich land speculators and illegal logging by people in uniform. 

Amid all this, the poor have been made into scapegoats of forest destruction. Worse, forest authorities are acting on draconian laws that turn forest inhabitants into criminals subject to arrest and imprisonment while declaring all land without proper title deeds national forests under their sole power.

Granny Jantra is just one of about 10 million people who have been turned into criminals in their own land. Sadly, they lack sympathy from city people who have been brainwashed by mainstream education and the media to vilify hill tribes and forest settlers as forest destroyers, letting the real criminals off the hook.

Interestingly, this crackdown against the poor takes place as the government is giving approval to new mining concessions in all areas including sensitive rain-catchment forests, and oil exploration in forested areas. Old mines in forests with clear environmental and health hazards, meanwhile, are still allowed to operate. 

Also intact are oil palm and eucalyptus plantations in national forests which have been rented out cheaply to big-time investors. The same is happening with corn plantations under contract farming on the highlands.

Many forest communities facing the crackdown are fighting for community rights to manage forests and community land ownership, which ultimately leads to decentralisation and less central power for forest authorities.

Is the army being used to destroy forest agencies' enemies?

All this is possible because the army believes that brute force is the answer. It's clear; the military's determination to "reclaim the forests" is set to be the state's biggest war against the poor and landless.

Indeed, I fear for the consequences when millions of poor people feel they are being cornered and have no choice left.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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