For some time community forestry was one of the darlings of NGO and academic activists in Thailand. Lately it seems to have receded from the agenda somewhat as their attentions have been diverted by Thaksin and his populist policies. There is some irony in this shift. Activists have long argued that farmers are capable resource managers and that their longstanding skills in relation to land, forest and water management should be respected in national legislation. But when Thaksin gave villagers cash (in the form of the village fund and various enterprise promotion schemes) the advocates of farmer capability were appalled. Farmers, it seem, are fine managers of forest but money is another thing altogether. In this rather odd world-view phum panyaa (local wisdom) and cash just don’t mix. Who knows, farmers may even be silly enough to spend some of their money in these foreign-owned shopping malls that are popping up everywhere. Cashed-up farmers joining the middle classes on shopping trips – an outrage! The populists have no shame!

In the past I have been rather critical of the community forest movement in Thailand. I have been disturbed by its preoccupation with rights to forest and its seeming indifference to rights to agricultural land. Here is a paper I published in late 2004 on the process of “arborealisation” underlying the community forest campaign.

Recently I came across an important recent piece of research on community forestry in northern Thailand. It is a thesis written by Minna Hares from sunny Finland. A copy of her thesis is available here (I confess, I found the thesis when I was Googling to see if anyone had actually taken up the term “arborealisation”). I asked Minna what she saw as the key points of her work:

In brief, the main result of the thesis is that all the ethnic groups studied, including the Hmong, were motivated in forest conservation, but land-use changes, particularly an increased area of strictly protected forests and agricultural transformation, have posed a great challenge of adaptation for the uplanders. My argument is that the ethnic heterogeneity of the upland people should not be overemphasised although it is important to take it into consideration when developing ways to adaptive management. More positive incentives, participation and dialogue are needed in promoting collaboration between stakeholders. Anyway, forest conservation seemed to be an interest both of the villagers and the government but the disagreement occurs on how to achieve that goal.

Sounds well worth a read. There is a lot of hyperbole in discussions of community forestry (and I have made some contribution to this). Balanced studies of how various social actors are attempting to negotiate it can be hard to find.