The long-awaited Forest Community Bill has finally been approved by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), putting an end to campaigns by environmentalists and villagers - dating back almost three decades - to have more say in the designation of green areas.
Theerapat Prayoonsit, one of those vetting the bill, said the NLA on Friday passed its third reading. The pattern of votes by the assembly members was unknown.
The bill will not become law until it is published in the Royal Gazette within 180 days of the effective date.
The main thrust of the bill is to allow local residents living in the forests to work with the state to manage and use natural resources in a way that sustains the environment.
Mr Theerapat, who is also the deputy chairman of the reform committee on natural resources and the environment, said the cooperation could be in the form of committees or networks. They will be required to register with the Royal Forest Department, he added.
Villagers have to come up with a five-year plan on the utilisation and conservation of the forest in their community and the blueprint is subject to evaluation every five years, according to the draft.
Community forests are defined as the forests outside the conservation areas governed by the state, such as national parks.
The country has some 14,000 community forests encompassing about 9 million rai. There has been no law empowering local residents to make decisions on management of the environment in which they live.
Environmentalists and villagers have pushed for the bill since the government decided to end logging concessions in 1989 to save depleted forest areas. They said people living in the forests should have the right to take care of and manage their local environment.
The first bill was sent to Parliament in 1993, and was followed by other attempts to pass legislation, but they all failed due to the state's unwillingness to delegate responsibility.
Supporters of the bill argued that it could help save the environment. "It is an issue that concerns cooperation, food security, global warming and people's basic rights," Krissada Boonchuay of the Local Development Institute, a non-governmental organisation, told a forum in August last year.
The government approved the draft bill in May last year before it was sent to the lawmaking assembly.
Promoting community forests has become a policy of the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) to woo voters during its election campaign.
Party spokesman Kobsak Pootrakool on Sunday told voters that it was an issue supported by the government -- and that will continue if PPRP wins the election.