Rules apply to rich and poor
Special interview: Forest Department boss issues stern warning to all
Royal Forest Department director-general Atthaphon Charoenchansa grabbed headlines last week when he led RFD officials to file a formal complaint with police against Ratchaburi's Palang Pracharath MP, Pareena Kraikupt, for illegally occupying its 46-rai land for her poultry farm.
Mr Atthaphon and his officials lodged a complaint with the Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division under the Royal Thai Police.
"I want to build public trust in the department with a clear message that we won't let anyone, especially influential figures, encroach upon forest land. Legal action will be taken against those who have encroached," Mr Atthaphon told the Bangkok Post.
Mr Atthaphon said the land plot covers about 46 rai -- about 41 rai of which was found to have encroached on a reserved forest on the left bank of the Phachi River under the 1964 National Reserved Forests Act, and about 5 rai of protected forest land under the 1941 Forest Act.
He said his officials found no documents were issued for use of the land, which violates the laws.
He said the department has dealt with encroachment of forest land by Ms Pareena with the purpose of clarifying its stance to the public -- that it has a consistent standard to deal with forest encroachment, regardless of whether the occupant is rich or poor.
This practice will be applied to all cases with no exception, he said.
"If we don't have rules to follow, how can the department do its work?" he asked.
"At the same time, people's trust to the department is also important to us.
"We want them to have faith in the department and believe that we are the state agency to protect and preserve the forest for the next generation."
He said the RFD, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, and the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources have launched a scheme to put a stop to forest encroachment, replacing the original plan of "forest reclamation" under the now-dissolved National Council for Peace and Order's Section 44 to deal with the problem.
However, the first stage of the operation seemed to put a focus on the poor, raising the public's doubts.
So, the three departments have shifted their focus to forest and land encroachment by high-profile public figures.
Mr Atthaphon vowed to bring all offenders in land and forest encroachment cases to justice.
However, he said, as in Ms Pareena's case, the department welcomes any disputes concerning any alleged wrongdoer for reasons of fairness and transparency.
"Their land will be taken back to the state if the court finds them guilty of forest encroachment," he said.
Ms Pareena wrote to the RFD, saying she didn't receive fairness and justice from the department and wanted it to re-assess the controversial land.
The department complied with her request and later came up with a confirmed result of 46 rai of forest land encroachment. The request delayed legal action against her for about a week.
For the poor, he said, there is a provincial committee to verify that the alleged offenders invaded forest land because they were living in poverty.
If that was the case, the offenders can seek redress under a scheme for land allocation to the poor.
The government recently allocated about 20 rai for a poor family living in forest land, on the condition they must increase green spaces on their allocated land and have no right to sell the land.
Since the operation began in 2014, he said 850,000 rai had been reclaimed from illegal possession.
Legal complaints have already been received regarding over 50,000 cases, which officials would investigate.
He said only about 1% of culprits were poor people.
He said aerial images have shown that many of the confiscated areas have been rejuvenated, thanks to the department's rehabilitation scheme.
"We are still working on forest encroachment by influential figures.
"We don't care if they are rich or if they are politicians because we have a guideline which ensures all will be applied equally," he said, adding the department has put the main focus in Loei, Phitsanulok and Phetchabun provinces -- known hotspots for illegal forest land occupancy.
He said the department will provide a "New Year's gift" to the poor by allocating about two million rai to the government's land allocation to the poor scheme next year.
He also said that by next year, 100% of lands reserved for the poor in Nan province will be allocated to verified participants under the so-called "Sand Box" project.
Both state and private agencies will work together to ensure land allocation to the poor, with occupational training, landscape management, and an increase in green areas at the centre of the plan to be implemented.