Rage over plan to raze Thai national park for farming
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Rage over plan to raze Thai national park for farming

Plan to cut protected land divides public

A map shows Thailand's Thap Lan National Park
A map shows Thailand's Thap Lan National Park

The ongoing public hearings organised by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) over a plan to declare 265,286 rai of land in Thap Lan National Park as no longer being protected forest land -- paving the way for these parts of the park to be used for agricultural purposes -- have sparked heated debate.

While a number of the villagers -- who began occupying parts of the park before the boundary of Thap Lan National Park was declared -- support the separation of the 265,286 rai, many conservationists and other members of the public disagree with the plan, approved by the cabinet on March 14 of last year.

The plan was proposed by the Office of the National Land Policy Board (ONLPB), based on updates to the boundary lines of state land plots that were made after the government decided to consolidate various land-mapping systems used by different state agencies into one system called One Map. The new system was adopted in 2000.

The DNP's hearings began on June 28 and will continue until Friday. The findings from these forums, conducted both onsite and online, will be compiled and submitted to the government's committee on national parks for consideration, said Natural Resources and Environment Minister Phatcharavat Wongsuwan.

History of disputes

The land disputes between villagers occupying Thap Lan forest land and park authorities have continued for more than 40 years, despite the fact these villagers have been formally allowed to live in about 58,000 rai of the park's reserved forest land, said DNP chief Attapol Charoenshunsa.

The national parks committee is expected to reach a conclusion on the matter in about a month's time, said Pol Gen Phatcharavat, adding public opinion will be taken into account. He serves also as chairman of the committee.

Of the 265,286 rai, around 58,000 rai has been occupied by a number of villagers since before it was declared Thap Lan National Park. They will largely benefit from the planned exclusion, he said.

The national park now covers 1.3 million rai of forest land in Nakhon Ratchasima, Prachin Buri and Sa Kaeo provinces.

Those who had only later purchased the land from some of these villagers will not receive the right to make use of the land and will face legal action for forest land encroachment, said Pol Gen Phatcharavat.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, meanwhile, insisted last year's cabinet resolution, now seen as a prelude to the social divisions sown by the plan to exclude the forest land from Thap Lan, will not be scrapped at this point pending further study.

He also sought to reassure those who oppose the plan due to concern the forest land will be exploited for other purposes by wealthy buyers of the plots. Mr Srettha said the law will be strictly enforced to ensure only those who are eligible receive the right to make use of the land.

The public hearings wrapped up last Friday, and the hearing conducted on the DNP's website is due to end this Friday. Mr Attapol said that around 100,000 people will participate in these in total. "I'm glad to see Thai people are so enthusiastic about this issue. I believe what is right and proper will be chosen in the end," he said.

Opposing voices

Panudet Kerdmali, chairman of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, accused the ONLPB of making an illegitimate proposal to turn these plots of forest land in Thap Lan into land for agricultural purposes.

There is no need to turn the 265,286 rai into farming land for poor landless people, he said.

No part of that land is being deforested, which could have justified repurposing it in this way, he said, citing aerial images of Thap Lan.

Any acts which cause the nation's forest land to dwindle in size could be deemed a violation of Section 65 of the constitution and in breach of the government's 20-year national strategic plan, Mr Panudet added.

Last Thursday, most of the 343 villagers who had joined a public hearing in Thap Lan supported the plan to separate the 265,286 rai of land from the park.

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