Govt needs to face reality over forest preservation
Mention “Bang Kajao”, a green area next to Samut Prakan’s Phra Pradaeng District, and what springs to mind? Some may think of an area that is the “lung” for Bangkok or a popular bicycle route that brings cyclists to a traditional orchard landscape.
But for forest conservationists and local residents, Bang Kajao refers to a patch of land, stretching over 12,000 rai, that is testimony to the nation’s failed forest management policy.
Back in 1985, the government designated Bang Kajao as an urban forest area. With that vision, it came up with a plan to buy about 9,000 rai of land covering, six tambons, namely Bang Kajao, Bang Yor, Bang Narm Phueng, Bang Krasorb, Bang Kor Bua and Song Kanong, and turn it into urban forest. But due to local opposition, the state could buy only 1,200 rai (10% of the planned purchase) from land owners.
The Bang Kajao land acquisition failure reflects the poor attitude and practice of the state agencies tasked with extending forest areas. Under their plans, no one is allowed to reside on the designated forest land. They will give compensation or buy the plots if the owners possess land title deeds, but otherwise, eviction will be the name of the game. It is the same as how authorities deal with traditional forest dwellers who have lived in these locations for decades.
Legality aside, the valid question is what happens to the designated forest area after local people are moved out and how the state takes care of the forest afterwards? Not so impressive in the case of the Bang Kajao community.
“[After the acquisition] authorities put banners here and there warning people not to enter the national forest reserve,” said Prempree Trairat, a Bang Kajao local.
After 20 years, the once leafy orchard areas, interspersed with canals, have turned into degraded forest land. Parts of the deserted area are littered with rubbish. Canals are clogged and strewn with debris because the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) — which is assigned to protect forests — lacks resources to take care of the land. “In the old days, orchard growers would dredge canals regularly and take good care of the forest,” Ms Prempree said. Worse, some locals who are willing to help preserve the forest are not allowed as that would be defined as forest trespassing which is prohibited.
The experience of the Bang Kajao community is similar to what has happened to forest dwellers affected by the forest policy to increase forest coverage to 40% of the total land mass through forest eviction.
A large number of villagers have been booted out even though they had no role in illegal logging. In fact, many had helped take care of the forest.
But even after a logging ban and continuing policies to expand forest areas, forest land continues to dwindle. The problems of poaching and land clearing for real-estate development and large-scale mono-cultivation have intensified.
Another key factor for forest loss is state policy — dam construction and development projects in national parks, land expropriation for special economic zones. A proposal for mining concessions in protected forest areas is another threat.
Prayong Doklamyai, an activist advocating for landless farmers, blames state policy. “The state only thinks of reclaiming forest land but fails to make reclaimed land serve the society and environment,” he said.
There are 10 million villagers living in national forests who face possible eviction.
“It is impossible to separate forests from forest dwellers. How can society and the economic sector handle the huge numbers of evicted villagers? The authorities are moving people out without any idea how and if these villagers will survive and make a living,” says Warangkana Rattanarat, Thailand programme officer at The Centre for People and Forests (RECOFTC), a regional conservation community forest advocacy group.
The policy that bars villagers from the forest is “not a wise tactic”, she said. Farming is an important part of the national economy.
With good management, villagers can help protect forest land and recreate revenue from forest conservation.
Indeed, there are many projects that shows forest dwellers can be good forest guardians. The Joint Management of Protected Areas (JoMPA) implemented by the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation in the protected western complex forest is a prime example. The villagers at tambon Ban Mae Tah, Chiang Mai’s Mae Oon district, are also proof that villagers can be forest guardians if their ancestral rights are guaranteed.
The question is what should be the role of forest land in the future. Is it possible to have stand-alone forests, separate from communities? Indeed, there is more than one way to protect forests and let people make a living from them. Some economists suggest that forest will be more valuable in terms of financial value.
There are many community forests where members earn a living from small-scale farming or eco-tourism as in the case of Bang Kajao community. There are a few projects in the northern province of Nan where community villagers are planting forests in order to sell as carbon credits — a mechanism to combat the threat of climate change — in the future.
It is about time the state confronts the reality that conservation policies that separate people from the forests do not only fail but backfire environmentally. Without changing attitude by looking at local villagers as potential forest guardians, the renewed audacious plan by the government to boost forest cover by 26 million rai to meet the 40% target will fail again, like it has done over the past 30 years.
Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.
Editorial pages editor
Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.