Plea to give Karen a say in Kaeng Krachan forest
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Plea to give Karen a say in Kaeng Krachan forest

special report: Platform for indigenous communities key to keeping World Heritage status, writes Pratch Rujivanarom

Park officers patrol the rice fields of Karen villagers near Bang Kloi Lang, in Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex. Pratch Rujivanarom
Park officers patrol the rice fields of Karen villagers near Bang Kloi Lang, in Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex. Pratch Rujivanarom

Environmental conservation must go hand in hand with the protection of local indigenous communities' rights in Thailand's newly inscribed natural World Heritage site, the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex, experts say.

At an online public seminar "Kaeng Krachan Forest: Creating a Positive Vision for World Heritage Sites", held recently, domestic organisations and international agencies alike said authorities should stop looking at the indigenous Karen people as the enemy and instead see them as a partner in maintaining the site.

On July 26, the World Heritage Committee inscribed most of the 408,940 ha within Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi as a new natural World Heritage site, saying the forest harbours a unique and rich diversity of flora and fauna.

However, the inclusion of Kaeng Krachan Forest as Thailand's third and newest natural World Heritage site was met with concern among local Karen communities. For decades, the park has been an area of conflict between its officers and the native Karen.

Prasert Puguard, a representative of the Bang Kloi Karen community, told the Bangkok Post the villagers do not object to Kaeng Krachan forest being a World Heritage site, but they fear the upgrade of its conservation status will cause greater rights deprivation and prevent them from continuing their traditional livelihoods in the forest.

"We fear the park will enforce even stricter regulations to limit our presence in Kaeng Krachan Forest, which will only intensify the conflict," Mr Prasert said.

"We just want them to allow us to keep our traditional way of life, listen to us, and let us participate in the protection and management of the park as this is also our home."

An officer from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) Bangkok's Culture Unit, Montira Horayangura, said Thailand has proven that Kaeng Krachan Forest is worthy of World Heritage status, but the hard work does not end there.

Ms Montira said Thailand must ensure the integrity of the site by maintaining the richness of its forest ecosystems. Authorities also need to ensure consultation with local communities so the indigenous Karen people can engage in the site's management.

"One of the most important principles is the assurance of community participation and human rights," she said.

Deputy Representative of the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) Regional Office for South-East Asia, Katia Chrizizzi, said the conflict between the park and the Karen has led to human rights violations against Karen in the park.

The authorities should respect the rights of indigenous groups to land and resources, the right to maintain cultural and traditional practices, and the right to engage in community participation.

Surapong Kongchantuk, chairman of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, said the park should learn from the example set by the World Heritage site at Thung Yai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the West.

This protected forestland is also home to indigenous Karen communities, which have shown they can live in harmony with nature.

"Thung Yai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary has a similar background to Kaeng Krachan National Park. Both forests have rich biodiversity and healthy ecosystems that earned them World Heritage status. Both also have Karen living in the forest," Mr Surapong said.

At first officers at Thung Yai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary regarded the Karen villagers suspiciously, he said.

But as they opened their minds and let the Karen keep their traditions and join in the protection and management of the park, they found the locals' traditional wisdom was useful for conserving forest ecosystems. The villagers could also be an extra set of eyes and ears to detect illegal poachers or loggers.

"I hope Kaeng Krachan National Park can learn from this example and adapt it to their area of responsibility, especially when we have the cabinet's decision of Aug 3, 2010, to encourage the restoration of the traditional livelihoods of Karen people as a legislative backup," he said.

Meanwhile, Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning vice secretary-general, Prasert Sirinapaporn, said the government has not ignored the suffering of Karen communities in Kaeng Krachan Forest.

Some 22 state agencies are collaborating with the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) on solving local people's problems, he said.

"The DNP is supporting the people to live in harmony with nature in the forest. We are also encouraging local people to have a more active role in managing local resources and mitigating problems, but we also need some rules and regulations to assure sustainable management of the World Heritage site," Mr Prasert said.

According to the Save Bang Kloi Coalition, the origin of the conflict between Karen people and the park stems from the park's effort to relocate Karen villagers from their ancestral village at Ban Jai Paen Din in 1995, despite their having lived there long before the park was created. Land for displaced villagers was also insufficient.

After they found that the new settlement at Ban Pong Luek was unable to sustain their livelihoods, many defied the relocation order and moved back to their former village, before they were forcibly relocated again by a team led by then national park chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn. This time the park officers burnt down their village along with their belongings.

The hostility between two parties carried on in the following years, as the prominent Karen activist, Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen, was arrested and disappeared while under the custody of Chaiwat in 2014. Both sides engaged in multiple lawsuits against each other.

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