The 1980s and portions of the 1990s were marked by numerous and important operations to displace populations from Thailand’s legal forests. Although these operations continued since then, the number of people physically displaced apparently diminished greatly since the late 1990s and in particular under Thaksin’s government (see Leblond 2010). The military government born out of the May 2014 coup appears eager to renew tough conservation measures and many observers fear we will witness, again, massive population displacements and other forms of “green grabbing” .
Since the coup, the junta and the military-led government have made important promises: (1) reclaim “most if not all” encroached land within a year (Thai PBS, 2014); (2) increase forest cover from 31.5 % to 40 % by 2024 through reforestation projects; (3) produce a new agricultural and forest zoning system and 4) eradicate corruption (Nanuam, 2014; Nanuam & Wipatayotin, 2014). On the ground, actions have been quick to come, with authorities arresting alleged illegal loggers, investigating murky land title emissions in legal forests (ex: Sririnat Marine National Park), confiscating resorts and cultivated land and evicting villages or hamlets in at least 3 areas.
I see three reasons to believe this departs from previous conservation practices or at least signals an intensification of recent trends. First, although this contradicts the views of many, I would argue that the level of conservation pressure since the early 2000s was overall relatively modest in comparison to previous decades (although still important locally even when it does not involve village relocation; figure 1). This can be shown in regards (1) to the limited creation of new protected areas as compared to the previous decades (figure 2); (2) the limited number of case of village relocation or eviction documented in the news during that period (Leblond 2010 and unpublished data); and (3) the apparent failure or limited success of large-scale conservation schemes proposed since 2000 such as the Queen-related New Forest Village project under Thaksin and the 5-year crackdown plan against encroachers in 190 critical areas announced in 2010 under Abhisit (Ekachai, 2010; Wipatayotin & Charoenpo, 2010; Wongruang, 2005). The current efforts could thus be the first large-scale, nationwide coerced conservation plan to be implemented since the 1990s.
Figure 1: Attempting to confiscate land away from core village areas using barbed wires, Khao Kho National Park, 2007
Photo: Jean-Philippe Leblond
Figure 2: Area under national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, 1960-2013
Source: Royal Forest Department and Department of National Parks forest statistics (various editions)
Notes: Since 2001, most new PAs were created under anti-Thaksin governments, none were created between 2002 and 2006.
Second, in the past most conservation pressure was directed at ‘ordinary’ villagers, with politically-connected and rich investors often let off the hook. However, the current military government is attempting to show a different attitude. They put much efforts in publicizing actions directed towards (apparently) non-poor ‘encroachers’, such as owners of resorts and rubber plantations. This appears in line with a greater attention by forest authorities towards resorts and rubber plantations since 2006 and the discovery of a famous case involving then Prime Minister General Surayud (Wipatayotin & Charoenpo, 2010). While actions regarding these cases have been delayed by lengthy investigations and court procedures, the current government seems willing to act even without court orders, at least in some cases (as were forest authorities in 2010).
It is difficult to determine if the emphasis in media reports on cases involving on rich encroachers truly reflects actions on the ground or if is merely the result of a public relations tactic designed to enhance public support and minimize resistance. It wouldn’t be surprising if officers attempted to misrepresent cases, as they have done in the past. We know relatively little of cases involving ‘ordinary’ villagers. The National Human Rights Council recently received 14 petitions linked to the junta’s conservation efforts (Pongrai, 2014). So far, cases clearly involving village and hamlet eviction documented by activists and like-minded journalists appear limited in number and peculiar in nature. The three cases I could find all involved former evictees or landless farmers who had relatively recently begun to occupy plantations after their leases expired. These cases in Krabi, Buriram and Chaiyaphum had been targeted previously, notably under the Abhisit’s government, and can hardly be seen as representative of the situation of the millions of forest ‘encroachers’, most of which reside in relatively long-established villages and would presumably stand a much better chance to resist eviction.
A third point of departure from previous conservation practices relate to the areas being targeted. Since the cancellation of the Khor Jok Kor program in 1992, coerced conservation pressure generally focused on protected areas or at least upper watershed areas. However, current military actions appear much broader in their scope. Population displacement and land confiscation cases occurred not only in protected areas, but also in areas where coerced conservation actions are generally less frequent such as national forest reserves, agricultural land reform areas and land under the jurisdiction of the military or the Treasury Department. These areas do not appear exclusively concentrated in upper watersheds.
In light of the previous points, I suspect the military do not aim only at stopping deforestation or fostering reforestation, but also (i) at stopping the rubber boom, especially in the North and Northeast (remember that Prayuth sees reducing rubber production and planted area as a key solution to low rubber price) and (ii) at producing ‘order’ in rural areas and public space. Thus, agricultural and forest problems should be solved by a new zoning system, land reform areas are solely for farmers, military areas are for military use, urban sidewalks are for pedestrians (not street vendors) and beaches must be cleared of unauthorized structures for tourists’ enjoyment.
What can we expect for the future? I personally doubt the military will succeed or even attempt to reclaim “most if not all” encroached land in all de jure forests. The number of people involved and the size of the ‘encroached’ area is simply too great for this to be practically, financially and politically feasible.
Perhaps naively, I’m inclined to believe the powers-that-be and strict conservationists within forest authorities and NGOs are aware of these problems and know that such large-scale eviction would likely erode their political legitimacy and lead to widespread resistance. After all, a forest plantation is easier burnt than planted, as even some royal projects have found out. I thus believe more plausible that the military and their allies will strategically choose their targets and their means to minimize resistance.
The 190 critical areas identified in 2010 and areas where conflicts between lowlanders and uplanders are brewing will likely be the main targets. I expect tactics will be inspired by what could be seen in the recent past: (1) block development expenditures in threatened areas to encourage migration; (2) enforce population displacements only against “easy targets”, such as small-sized, geographically and politically isolated villages & use royal projects to legitimize these operations, help displacees and/or silence opposition (ex: Sae Chua 2013; Wangkiat 2014; Nanuam 2012; see also Leblond 2010); (3) in other areas, avoid direct population displacement by confiscating land away from core village areas, notably in exchange for promises of limited land tenure security in core areas; and (4) map each individual plot and enforce a ban on further encroachment using a mix of patrols, remote sensing (including a new tool: drones; MCOT, 2014; Saengdok, 2013), financial rewards offered to those tipping off authorities (denunciators) and of course threats of arrests, climate change lawsuits and eviction.
To make their actions politically more palatable, the military and forest authorities will likely continue to emphasize cases targeting rich absentee encroachers and offer limited land rights to some communities and landless farmers, as they promised last July. Doing so might minimize resistance from portions of the community forest movements who have both supported the military coup and have shown they could be selective in choosing the communities and ‘encroachers’ they defend.
In any case, the military move and its implications notably in terms of human rights and sustainable development will need to be tightly monitored by academics, journalists and activists.
Jean-Philippe Leblond is assistant professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa.
Ekachai, S. (2010). Massive plan to evict poor from forests. Bangkok Post (January 21).
MCOT. (2014). Satellite information to be used in forest conservation. Pattaya Mail (August 6).
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Nanuam, W. (2012). Army general hopes to solve forestry row. Bangkok Post (May 5).
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