Many tribal hill people lived nomadic lives until very recently.©Erin Leete
In the U.S., this idea is generally not supported by environmental groups. But the Thai bureaucracy is notoriously convoluted and corrupt. Tilleke and Gibbons, a prominent Bangkok business law firm, describes Thailand’s environmental governance situation as a "nightmare." The system suffers under "redundant laws and overlapping responsibilities," and deeper problems lie with monitoring regulatory compliance and prosecuting violators, enforcement that is "greatly reduced" by budgetary constraints.
Sayamol Kaiyoorawong, PER’s director, objects to ministry conclusions that "Karen slash and burning is the cause of forest deterioration, when there is permanent agriculture in the lowlands." To sustain Thailand’s forests and remote villages, PER espouses development of agricultural forestry plots mixed with rotation cultivation around villages, enabling surrounding forestland to be preserved.
PER’s biggest success thus far has been leading a coalition to block an ill-advised dam in the Katchanaburi province. The group backs decentralization of forestry, in part because of its experience with local groups in that venture.
Kaiyoorawong would like to see locals who want to participate be given long-sought authority to manage their own lands. "I think now people in Thailand are interested to participate and manage the forest because they know they have limitations in moving," she says.
Part of this conflict involves the national park system. In many cases, the Thai government placed park boundaries over existing villages, creating present-day illegal living and hunting conflicts. In the south a national park boundary was actually placed over a lumber plantation, Kaiyoorawong says with a grin. There was little inspection of the land. The government "saw green on the satellite maps; they said the park is the green area."
In many cases, the government also never made clear which land is public and which is private. In Phuket province there was one major homicide in 2003, the shooting of a land official who uncovered scams. He discovered that approximately 300 acres sold to Bangkok developers was actually Thai government forestland. His death is under investigation.
The only legal tool at the disposal of advocates is the 1992 Enhancement and Conservation of the National Environmental Quality Act. Thailand’s seminal piece of environmental legislation, the act created environmental reviews with public participation, incentives and standards to mitigate pollution, and included civil and penal penalties for violators. "A modest law," comments Kaiyoorawong. "In tradition, Thai people don’t want to work with the court." Tilleke and Gibbons describe the act as "in its infancy" after 10 years.
Not just the 1992 environmental law, but environmental advocacy in general is in its infancy in Thailand. Yet PER is a group that has stopped devastating projects and has the ear of at least one government agency, the newly launched Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
There are still resources worth protecting in Thailand. Khao Suk is a national park in the south of the country where a flourishing wildlife ecosystem remains. Here the park smells of a healthy mix of decomposition and rebirth. Trails penetrate only a small portion of its vast area. Gibbons jump across the treetops of tall, thick canopies and unmistakable elephant footprints lay across the trail to the river.
Thailand has had 10 coup attempts since 1932. It’s been less than six years since the present constitution was written. As the economy recovers from the deep recession of only a half-decade ago, there is hope that enforcement and sustainable development in a country with much still to protect will unite in a system of forest management.
To that end, the community forestry approach needs central government backing before it can succeed. The solution may be painstaking, but building a bridge between villages and ministries may provide the opportunity for change.