ABOUT 4.25 MILLION land occupation documents, or Sor Khor 1, used as a proof for the issuance of land-deed documents have not yet been stamped and approved by the Lands Department’s clearance system, the department revealed recently.
The enormous backlog has shocked some members of the committee expediting forest reforms under the National Reform Steering Assembly, as they have realised just one such a document could enable the “grab” of an enormous area of forest if abused. The risk of this became evident in recent cases including the high-profile one involving former land official Thawatchai Anukul.
Thawatchai had allegedly illegally issued land deeds for more than 1,000 plots of state land in Phuket, before being found dead while in the custody of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) last month. The committee has flagged the issue as part of its six immediate recommendations to forest reform.
“You have to realise that to issue a land deed, you need to use Sor Khor 1 to start with,” said Khwanchai Duangsathaporn, the committee’s spokesperson. “So, we need to put it under proper control.”
Sor Khor 1 and land document management has been pinpointed as a critical cause of deforestation. This is because it generally involves extended or entirely false claims on land ownership and the grabbing of state land or forest. The processes are often known as “swollen Sor Khor 1” or “flying Sor Khor 1”.
Since Thailand issued land ownership documents to private entities following the land law in 1954, landowners were required to report their land occupation to land officials and they would receive a Sor Khor 1 form in return, which would be used to issue permanent land deeds later on.
In 2008, the government tried to put them in order and end the mess by requiring people possessing Sor Khor 1 to turn them into land deeds within two years, or they must request a court order to do so afterwards. But, there are still 4.25 million stuck in the process, causing a huge official headache.
Dr Khwanchai, also head of the Forestry Management Department at Kasetsart University’s Forestry Faculty, said the committee has to address the issue at a policy and legislation level by proposing some legal and policy changes.
Firstly, the land law must be amended to pave the way for other agencies to get involved at the request of a court, rather than the Lands Department alone. And to make such a request, the Sor Khor 1 owners must prove that they not only possess the land, but also use it.
Secondly, there should be a new Cabinet resolution instructing the department to make copies of the 4.25 million Sor Khor 1 documents for verification. And, new provincial land committees should be set up to check and verify the Sor Khor 1 deeds already converted into land deeds and kept at provincial land offices nationwide.
Khwanchai said the committee wishes to focus only on the plots close to state land, especially forest areas, because they are prone to encroachment via the process. So far, the committee has also requested for those already converted to land deeds be verified. That number is not yet known, he said.
“If we have corrupt officials, even only a few, how many forest areas could be lost as a result of false claims by only one Sor Khor 1 document? Now we know that we have 4.25 million of them to handle, and no idea of how many with claims that overlap with state land or our forests,” he said.
To strengthen the measures, legal enactment has been proposed for concerned forest laws to seize assets gained by such fraudulent acts. A new sub-panel directly investigating natural resources cases under the National Anti-Corruption Commission has also been suggested.
The panel has also looked into the loophole for changes in forest area monitoring and proposed the use of real-time data fed by Geo-Informatic and Space Development Technology Agency or GISTDA. Those responsible, from chiefs of concerned department to governors, who fail to acknowledge the data quickly could face penalties, the committee has also suggested.
Besides this issue, the committee has also addressed massive plantation of single crops in forest areas. The committee has found that around half of the areas growing corn at present are located in forest, from three million to six-million rai.
Periods of time have been proposed for corn imports, along with a change of crops being grown in problematic areas to reduce impacts. Farmers, meanwhile, would also be encouraged to grow corn and other crops on lowland farms during the dry-season to replace second rice cropping, Dr Khwanchai said.
And a new forest management policy committtee is desperately needed, he added.