The Bangkok Post reports that the community forest bill, a long-time rallying cause for activist academics and NGOs in Thailand, has finally been passed:

The long-awaited Community Forest Bill sailed through the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) yesterday by 57-2 votes with one abstention. The passing of the bill, which combines one proposed by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry and one by the civic sector, followed a debate lasting more than seven hours. The bill accepts the legal right of forest communities to preserve and manage forest land surrounding their communities. However, activists expressed disappointment, saying the bill does not actually benefit forest dwellers. Yesterday’s debate concentrated on two contentious articles. Article 25 lays down the qualifications of a community to be eligible to obtain rights to manage and use protected forest, while Article 34 stipulates the rights of the community. The bill limits community rights to original forest dwellers with strict guidelines for the use of protected forest. By limiting eligibility to original dwellers _ those who have lived in the forest for at least 10 years before the bill is promulgated _ the law excludes about 20,000 communities scattered on the rim of protected forests countrywide. Former permanent secretary for natural resources and environment Petipong Pungbun na Ayudhaya said that while local communities should have the right to manage natural resources, the process should go step by step. ”We are going to transfer natural resources management from the state to the people. Isn’t it too fast?” he said during the debate. ”If we want to have it that fast, we have to prepare for negative impacts. In fact, those living on the rim of protected forests can use the forests. There is no need to grant them legal rights.” The bill passed its first reading in the House in 2001, under the first Thaksin Shinawatra administration. But the Senate objected to key provisions. The bill was then delayed after the Senate’s term expired. … Tuenjai Deetes told the assembly that the bill should recognise the rights of people who have ”a good record in keeping the forest”. “Please understand that over 20,000 villages will help protect over 30 million rai of forest,” she said. ”We should not ignore them. If we do, it means the community forest law means nothing to them.” Pirote Polpetch, a community rights activist, expressed his disappointment with the approved bill which, he said, breaches Article 66 of the constitution that recognises community rights in natural resources management. He said activists were considering filing a complaint with the Constitution Court, or collecting over 10,000 signatures to push for the amendment of the law.

As I stated on New Mandala in September last year, I am very skeptical about the alleged benefits of the community forest law. A copy of a paper I wrote on the issue in 2004 can be found here. My key concern is that the community forest bill does nothing about the uncertain status of agricultural land in forest reserve areas. Giving local communities a role in forest protection is all very well, but the much more pressing livelihood and human rights issue is to give them secure tenure over their agricultural land. I don’t have access to the provisions of the bill just passed but I suspect that it will make the situation of many of these farmers even more insecure. Here is an extract from my paper:

But what is the status of agricultural land within the proposed community forest framework? This is a crucially important question given that … there are large areas of agricultural land located within forest reserve areas on which tenure rights are ill defined and uncertain. What will the proposed community forest legislation do to enhance the security of farmers working these ambiguous lands? What sort of land use does the community forest bill seek to endorse and facilitate? Surprisingly, given the fundamental and oft-repeated claim that people and forests can and do co-exist – the basic claim that has underlain the community forest movement – at no point does the proposed legislation state that agriculture is a legitimate activity within community forest boundaries. Indeed Article 34 of the proposed legislation [note that here I am referring to the so-called “people’s version” of the bill] specifically forbids anyone to ‘control land, farm, live in, build, burn, clear, lop, gather or do anything else that would cause destruction to the forest in the community forest area’. In Article 64 this prohibition is backed by a sanction of five years’ imprisonment, or 15 years if the offence takes place in a conservation area of the community forest. The legislation does make provision for ‘zones for use’ but the Thai term used here (kaan chay sooy) usually implies, in discussions of forest management, collection of forest products rather than agricultural activity.

This interpretation would suggest that the proposed community forest legislation would offer no enhanced security for farmers whose agricultural lands lie in the ambiguous zones of forest reserves. The formal status of their fields would not change and the mismatch between formal land classification and actual land use would be unresolved. Despite all the claims about community forest legislation providing a basis for sustainable and secure upland livelihood, the central elements of this livelihood – agriculture and rights to agricultural land – have no clear place within the proposed legislative framework. It is ironic that while official versions of the bill that restrict access to forest products are vigorously condemned as amounting to a denial of the livelihoods of upland villagers (Anon, n.d.) the fact that all versions of the bill are silent about agriculture has passed largely without comment. Indeed, the possibility that community forest legislation may make the tenure of some farmers even more insecure must be considered. Already there is some evidence, anecdotal and other, that owners of upland fields in a number of villages are being ‘encouraged’ to restrict or shift their cultivation in order to maintain the integrity and strategic promotional value of locally declared community forests. … Numerous writers have also reported situations where ‘community forestry’ has been used as a tool to pressure farmers from neighbouring villages out of disputed hinterland areas, and this must be acknowledged as a key part of the ‘tradition’ of community forest management in northern Thailand.

If anyone has further details on the version of the bill which has just been passed, or perspectives on the bill that a different to mine, please make your contribution here.