Forest policy off track

Forest policy off track

Natural Resources and Environment Ministry deputy permanent secretary Supoj Towichakchaikul has described his ministry's mission to expand forest areas as an uphill task. He is right about this.He blamed the difficulties on a lack of resources and personnel, local resistance, and a lack of inter-agency co-ordination. This is where Mr Supoj went wrong.

There is a more simple reason why his ministry is fighting a losing battle against deforestation -- its forest policy is on the wrong track.

The ministry sees itself as sole owner of the forests with absolute authority to manage them as it sees fit. It sees the locals who are long-time forest dwellers as its enemies to be evicted. Yet it endorses state policies that aggravate deforestation, be they cash crop plantations on forested mountains, big dam construction, or mining in forest areas. Meanwhile, they can do little or nothing at all to punish rich and powerful encroachers, out of fear of retribution -- or simple greed through corruption. 

Equally questionable is forest authorities' policy to evict the forest poor so investors can enjoy long-term, low-rent privileges to turn "degraded forests" into oil palm and eucalyptus plantations. 

Mr Supoj on Wednesday aired his complaint against what he views as the "too ambitious forest restoration target" set for his ministry by the 12th National Economic and Social Development Plan. 

If the ministry fails, he said, it risks losing an annual budget of 30 billion to 40 billion baht as well as its authority on forest protection, which might be transferred to other state agencies.

Mr Supoj said forests cover 32% of the country's total land mass -- about 102 million rai out of 321 million rai. The development plan requires the ministry to increase forest cover to 40% before 2027. That is about 26 million rai of forest to be reclaimed from encroachment.

Anxiety at the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry is understandable. It is not only feeling the heat to meet the ambitious target set by the national plan. More important is the pressure from the junta. Forest restoration was among its top priorities when it seized power last year.

Since then, forest officials have teamed up with soldiers to evict the forest poor, sparking land rights conflicts again in many parts of the country.

By using force instead of embracing locals to help preserve the forests, the ministry and its forest agencies have not only failed in their mission, but they have aggravated landlessness, poverty and social problems. 

It does not have to be this way. But change must start with how forest authorities envisage the forests.

Now, forests are envisaged as pristine wildernesses that must be free of inhabitants. This view is inconsistent with the reality on the ground because tropical forests have long been the home of indigenous tribes and farmers. 

Such a belief has led to draconian laws that treat forest people as criminals. It also strengthens central control to keep forests safe from "illegal encroachers".

Experiences worldwide support participatory forest management as the most effective way to safeguard forests. It had also been institutionalised in previous charters following decades of struggles by grassroots movements.

Yet forest authorities insist on ignoring it because they deeply believe people and forests cannot co-exist. More important, allowing people a say erodes their central control.

Higher forest restoration targets -- and threats for failure -- are not enough to protect national forests. Unless officials change their mindset, amend draconian forest laws, and adopt an inclusive forest conservation policy, increasing forest areas will remain an uphill task.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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