Locals bewildered as fertile forests carved up

Locals bewildered as fertile forests carved up

Land reform office criticised for assigning protected land to 'outsiders'

A herd of gaurs from Khao Yai National Park’s Khao Phaeng Ma Non-Hunting Area is seen coming out of the forest to forage for food in January. (Photo: Prasit Tangprasert)
A herd of gaurs from Khao Yai National Park’s Khao Phaeng Ma Non-Hunting Area is seen coming out of the forest to forage for food in January. (Photo: Prasit Tangprasert)

Kittisak Prompinij, a community leader in Ban Heo Pla Kang, Nakhon Ratchasima's Pak Chong district, said he was puzzled why a group of non-residents could be allocated fertile forest area from Khao Yai National Park under the Sor Por Kor 4-01 land reform scheme, when locals had missed out for years.

The community is near a buffer zone of the park. While many locals have applied for land documents without success for decades, the Agricultural Land Reform Office (Alro) somehow issued the documents to people who do not even live in his village.

"The names on Alro's list are not residents who live in this area at all," he said.

He said Alro announced twice last year that a select number of people would be given Sor Por Kor rights but it didn't say where the plots covering a total of 145 rai of land were located. It was sad to later learn that the land was inside the national park, he said.

The revelation sparked a recent row between Alro and the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) regarding the policy aimed at upgrading Sor Por Kor land -- formerly non-transferrable plots allocated to landless farmers as title deeds.

"We have lived here for more than 50 years but none of us were on Alro's list to receive Sor Por Kor rights. The land is fertile and inside the park, so how can it be allocated for land reform?" he said.

National Park Office director Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn said that out of a total of 2,933 rai of land in Pak Chong district that Alro earmarked for Sor Por Kor 4-01 certificates, about 972 rai were divided into 42 plots for those who are not farmers. He found Sor Por Kor markers and removed them as he was certain the land belonged to the park.

The dispute over land at Khao Yai National Park reflects a long-standing problem of inefficient forest area management and misconduct by authorities, he said.

According to Mr Chaiwat, the land dispute is not unique to Khao Yai National Park but has also occurred at many other national parks nationwide. He estimated that about 203,000 rai of parkland had been encroached on and transformed into Alro agricultural reform land.

'Protect the forests'

All 142 parks are owned by the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, whose duty is to protect the forest, while Alro under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives has a mission to designate land for farmers as part of its agricultural land reform mission.

According to the DNP, the country faces a crisis in protecting and preserving its green forest. Figures from the Department of Royal Forest show the country, on average, loses 757,384 rai of forest a year.

"The government declared Thailand must have 40% of its land in forest cover but today we have only 28%. The country needs 12% more to maintain the natural balance and absorb carbon emissions but we cannot find any more forest," said Mr Chaiwat.

Chaiwat: 'We cannot find more forest today'

"It is even worse when Alro wants to convert forest area into farmlands and offer land documents to people who are not real farmers," he said, adding that after five years, the land plots can change hands and be sold, and the value will skyrocket.

For example, one rai of land around Khao Yai is valued at about 30 million baht today. It could reach 450 million baht in the next five years, he said.

When Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thamanat Prompow pledged to preserve forest buffer zones within national parks across the country to reduce the problem of land disputes between the state agencies, it was a welcome solution, he said.

"We still need to see the formal announcement. We will give Alro 30 days to revoke Sor Por Kor land documents and remove markers from the forest.

"After that, I will sue every Alro provincial chief if we find the agency has not followed the minister's policy," he said.

Lack of accurate data

Kwanchai: 'National park needs a buffer zone'

Kwanchai Duagsathaporn, a lecturer at the Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University, said the Khao Yai case shows state agencies do not have clear data on state-owned land with proper land use conditions based on different landscape environments.

The government's policy to increase the forest area to 40%, including 25% of protected forest and 15% economic forest, is challenging, he said. To achieve the target, the government needs to increase forestland by about 30-40 million rai.

However, the forest area is declining due to factors including encroachment, irrigation and mining. Based on his study from 2010–2019, the Department of Royal Forest allocated about 2 million rai for community use, one-fourth of which was for people to live in.

"Improper land allocation from the forest will present a problem for locals because they are at risk of land loss if in the future the land becomes a forest complex.

"More importantly, Khao Yai National Park is a World Heritage site and a buffer zone is needed under Unesco's regulations. Alro must consider the issue seriously," he said.

He added that Alro should be concerned about international regulations that ban imports of farm products that destroy forests, such as the European Union Deforestation Regulation which was introduced in June last year.

He said many countries in the EU and Japan require forest certification for farm products to ensure those products, such as soybean, rubber, palm oil or cattle, do not involve deforestation.

He stressed that Alro should review its role in forest land management and focus on how to improve the quality of land plots already given to people, instead of pursuing a policy to issue Sor more Por Kor 4-01 documents in forest zones.

"There is enough land for all if there is good management. Alro should withdraw land rights to non-eligible landowners and give them to eligible farmers.

"It should respect the Department of Royal Forest's 1995 protocol which says the office must return fertile forest zone to the department," he added.

'Land bank' idea

Jatuporn: 'All parties should be involved in granting rights'

Jatuporn Buruspat, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said the Khao Yai case is an important case study in solving overlapping forest areas.

All stakeholders had agreed that Alro should no longer issue land certificates in forest buffer zones, he said.

Any decision to grant farmland rights must be made with the participation of various authorities, especially the DNP, to avoid further conflicts, he said.

The overlapping forest zone can be managed under the concept of a green buffer zone or community forest under the Department of Royal Forest's law, he said.

Prayong: Warns of exploitation by 'opportunists'

Meanwhile, Prayong Doklamyai, adviser to the P-Move grassroots movement, said the forest has become a target for opportunists who ultimately want to possess forest land rights.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives' policy to upgrade Sor Por Kor 4-01 certificates to agricultural land titles and allow owners to sell them after five years leads to higher demand for Sor Por Kor land, he said. This will lead to more forest loss in the future, he said.

He said Alro should focus more on giving community land rights, instead of providing land rights for individuals.

He said P-Move has put strong efforts into promoting community land titles because they can be a sustainable way to deal with forest land conflicts.

"This is the only way to sustainably protect and preserve the land. P-Move has worked hard for better land management so everyone can have land rights under the concept of a land bank. The bank will be a tool to distribute land to poor farmers and reduce inequality," he said.

P-Move and its allies have also been asking the government to collect more taxes on idle land as the group believes higher taxes will encourage owners to sell their land to the land bank. The bank can then lease the land at low interest to farmers who want to make a living there.

Duangmanee Laovakul, a lecturer at the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University, said the majority of forestland is still being held by a group of "upper-level" people and the situation today is not too different from when she studied the matter in 1994.

Back then, she discovered politicians and businesspeople owned most plots of land. They owned 326 times more land than farmers, she said.

She said a land bank can help reduce the gap and create more chances for people to occupy land. However, it is unlikely to be established soon due to difficulties in financial regulations. "In future, we might need a permanent institute for land management to deal with land disputes in a more sustainable way," she said.

Duangmanee: 'Land bank idea faces financial rules'

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