By Tanasak Phosrikun
Ban Sap Phu Phan, Khon Kaen Province, Thailand, July 26, 2015
Since Thailand’s coup in May 2014, the military regime of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has embarked on a mission to find and evict “encroachers” on national forest that includes national reserve forests (NRFs) and protected areas (PAs).
The NCPO has released the Forestry Master Plan that allows reforestation after the confiscation of land in forest areas from businesses and village people considered living “illegally” in these areas. At present, it is difficult to come up with the exact number of people who would be affected by this plan, but operations are already underway especially in many areas of North and Northeast Thailand.
Local communities in Northeast Thailand or Isaan have been some of the most affected by the plan, especially those living on land adjacent to national parks and other conservation areas as well as those given land tenure under the previous governments’ programs on land reform for agriculture (SorPorKor). In fact, these policies are often the root cause for encroachment by influential people into forests, as politicians often randomly allocated land tenure to rich rather than poor people.
In 2014 alone, there were a number of cases of military crackdowns and eviction of villagers including in: Sam Chai and Kham Muang districts in Kalasin province in August 20141; Ban Kao Bath in Non Dindaeng district, Buriram province2 in September 2014; and Phu Phan district in Sakon Nakhon province in September 2014.3
Phu Phan forest: A long history of land struggles and social movements
The Phu Phan forest area covers the eight northeastern provinces of Mukdahan, Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, Kalasin, Udon Thani, Bung Karn, Nong Khai and Nong Bua Lamphu. In all these areas, there are people living and farming inside these forest areas. Recent evictions have been undertaken in the Phu Phan National Park and Conservation Forest Areas. But in fact, the Phu Phan mountain has a long history of being the site of many land conflicts and social movements.
The news reports of the military’s evictions often portray the NCPO has having good intentions to take back the land from wealthy elites and the villagers who assist them in clearing the land to plant cash crop like rubber trees.4 But a deeper look at the history of the Phu Phan area shows that the ongoing evictions are not always about the simple matter of getting back the land illegally acquired by the rich to give back to the poor.
Below are some brief highlights of the land and forest conflict in the Phu Phan mountain range.
Army project against communists
Long before the emergence of the present-day Thai nation-state, villagers had been living and farming for almost two centuries around the Phu Phan mountain areas since around the 1800s
During the political conflict in Thailand 1957-1987, many people fled from the military regime in Bangkok to seek refuge in the Phu Phan mountain. A number of these people also joined the nascent communist movement in Thailand at that time. The subsequent years found the government using the means of “development” and amnesty to bring these people back into the Thai state and to diminish the influence of communism. In 1972, and in tune with global efforts at forest conservation, the government declared the area as the Phu Phan National Park and made the entire mountain range as state land.
One local land rights leader in the area who wished not to be named said: “If you ask the village elders in the area who are 70-80 years old, you’ll find out that that they have experienced travelling in the military helicopter.” This was because in 1977, the army took them in helicopters from their villages to the military headquarters in Sakon Nakhon to be “trained” by the military, but was really a form of inculcated. The army asked the elders to help them to be the guards walking in front of the road construction engines to build the road called “Yutthasart” or the “strategic road,” which was intended to eradicate communism. This was because many people in these villages at the time joined the communists in Phu Phan forest. The army realized that those in the forests wouldn’t shoot their own fathers if they were involved in building the roads. Then after the roads were built, the army and state authorities told the villagers to clear the forests and grow cash crops such as corn, cassava and upland rice.
1981-1990: The era of forest conservation and eucalyptus
In 1981, the Royal Thai Forestry Department (RFD) began its reforestation projects that promoted eucalyptus plantations ostensibly to “recover degraded forests”. In 1988, the RFD announced the area as a “national conservation forest” or “Pa Sa-nguan Haeng Chart” in Phu Phan District by demarcating large areas on a map without any consultation with the villagers living in the area. Huge numbers of communities who were living and farming in the area, and had also been encouraged by government policies to clear the forests for planting cash crops suddenly found themselves as “illegal encroachers”. The national park was also further expanded in 1982 covering a larger area of the Phu Phan mountain and making illegal several more village settlements.
1991-2004: Social movement against the “Khor Jor Kor”
In 1991, the government initiated the Khor Jor Kor or the “land distribution project for the poor living in degraded forest areas”. The project embarked on a series of forced evictions of “illegal settlements” in forest reserves, leaving thousands of communities homeless or stranded far from their farms. This project happened soon after a military coup. Finally, mass protests by villagers who marched to Bangkok forced the government to stop the project. But there was still no respite for many.
One village leader in Phu Phan district said: “Even after we won the fight against Kor Jor Kor, we came back home but the RFD still did not allow us to get in the villages thus some of us have to struggle with the RFD to get in to our village and take back our agricultural lands”.
After 1992, village communities in Phu Phan allied with the land rights movement that was being taken up by a broad-based coalition of farmers, activists and academics called the “Assembly of the Poor”. This grassroots movement aimed to build village networks and put pressure on the government to find a solution to the land-forest issues including proposing that the government of then-premier Chuan Leekpai demarcate farmlands and give land tenure to villagers. But the land tenure proposals failed to be taken up by the government.
2001 onwards: Cash crops expansion and more conflict
Despite the lack of land tenure, many villagers are still farming the land. In 2001, the then-government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra promoted rubber plantations that was then widely taken up by many farmers, some of whom had previous experience as hired labour in rubber farms.
But in 2010, the price of rubber increased making villagers clear more land to plant rubber trees. At the same time, many national and local politicians saw an opportunity to begin huge rubber plantations in the Phu Phan forest areas. For example in Phu Phan district, one local politician owns about 3,000 rai of rubber plantation land.
In 2004, the Thaksin Government further promoted the expansion of rubber plantations aiming at a targeted area of 1 million rai. Villagers once again expanded their rubber farms despite the absence of land tenure but by paying “local maintenance tax”.
By 2012, illegal encroachment had spread beyond the areas of the conservation forest on many hills in the area. After the military coup on 22 May 2014, all cases of forest land encroachment came under the military’s mandate. At present, the army together with the district authorities and the RFD have posted several notice boards to announce the eviction of encroachers in the area.
In September 2014, the police passed on the village encroachment cases to the provincial prosecuting attorney. The villagers have tried various means to stop the confiscation of their lands. They sent letters to several organizations and independent bodies to help existing rubber tree farmers to claim their rights on the plantation land. The villagers also went to complain to the Damrongtham Centre at the district office to postpone the land evictions.
Local perspectives on the forced evictions
One of families affected by the encroachment cases is Samai and her husband from Waritchaphum district who bought land in Phu Phan district to plant rubber trees. On 15th August 2014, the RFD and the military came to the rubber plantation and ordered her to leave on her own, otherwise they will use force to seize their property.
All the people living in the small hut in the farm fled their home in fear. The authorities then broke through the door and confiscated the rubber tapping knife, cups, motorbike, and food items, including two boxes of milk for her grandson. Samai is now living again on the farm, but is scared the authorities may come back and evict her again.
“This land and rubber trees are all from my money that I earned when I went to work in the rubber plantation in South Thailand. If I lose this land, how could I live? My family depends on the income from this farm. We have no other land to plant rice,” Samai said.
Somkid’s Old House
Somkid Khamson is 68 years old from Muang Sakon Nakhon district. In 2002, he built a wooden hut to live with his family. On 22 August 2014, whilst he was sick in hospital, the authorities came to clear the area of rubber trees where Somkid’s house is located. The district governor told the army and RFD staff to seize the hut and property of Somkid saying that the house was built to sell illegal logs because it used illegal wood.
When Somkid returned to his home, he did not have a home to live in. The provincial governor gave him 12,000 Baht and a sack of rice as compensation for losing his house and built a new hut for him near the village headman’s house.
Evictions not applied to all
During the evictions so far, many villagers were summoned to report to the authorities but it has only been rarely that any of the businessmen or politicians involved in the rubber farms have been asked to report.
One person working on land rights issues in Phu Phan said: “I wonder why the RFD and district authorities don’t summon the businessmen and politicians who are the real forest encroachers and have large areas of land. They summon only the villagers who usually farm small areas on average about 7-10 rais.”