Protecting Thailand’s Forests

Exploring the Village to Ministry Connection

More than a half million hill tribe members, nomadic for centuries, live without regard to modern political boundaries in scattered villages throughout the broadleaf forest mountains of northern Thailand, Myanmar, and the famous Golden Triangle region of South East Asia. Historically, they moved across the mountains methodically by slashing and burning, planting mountain rice, and staying while the soil remained fertile. In recent years the Thai government has told them to stop moving.

In hill tribe country, roads have produced benefits such as access to hospitals and schools, making many villagers want to stay put. Guide Noom Mongkol of the Karen tribe, a teacher’s college graduate who operates a trekking business, still lives in his hill tribe village. Although he fears that tribal hunting has hurt the ecosystem as much as slash and burn agriculture, he believes that "things are getting better" in the region.

Community forestry is catching on in Thailand"s hill country, which has traditionally suffered from deforestation and slash-and-burn farming.© Erin Leete

Thailand’s forests were logged without mercy following World War II, losing nearly 75 percent of their virgin stands. Logging operations cleared roads far into hill tribe territory, roads that today bring produce to market, as well as tourists to the mountains. Today, paved roads and towns bisect once remote hill tribe areas, many of which have become national parks.

The valley floors in northwest Thailand are lined with soybeans and rice paddies. In the dry season, the air grows thick with smoke from burning hillsides. Throughout these steep-walled green hills, government-sponsored consultants now roam between villages, imparting techniques for maintaining healthy soils. Most tribes have never practiced organized composting or fertilizing.

The Project for Ecological Recovery (PER) is a 20-year-old organization whose focus is to become a conduit of information between government and poor, unaffiliated hill tribes, as well as remote Thai villages. PER works on energy, land and fresh water issues in Thailand, monitoring law and policy in Bangkok and lobbying for change.

PER currently is promoting the idea of community forestry. The concept relies on local empowerment as a means for preservation, and is based on the premise that given a hand in managing their land locally, slowly, and with minimal government oversight, villages can better balance ecological and economic needs than bureaucratic agencies.

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.