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Community land titles: an overdue reform needed to end 'encroachment'

Mysterious title deeds for land in a national park in Phuket made the headlines recently. Land and forest authorities were puzzled about how the title deeds were issued for land, which looked very much like part of the national park - located on sloping hills and fronting the sea. Now, some private villas are built there and several sites are under construction. Some land plots are worth over Bt1 billion.

Investigation is underway to find out when and how these "flying title deeds" were issued.

The news sparked curiosity, as incumbent landowners are entirely non-Phuket residents. Channel 3 news presented evidence that they were just final buyers, as if the title land deeds were issued just for them.

Some local villagers, like others nationwide, would also be puzzled. Claiming that for more than 30 years, they and their ancestors lived on a piece of land which is declared by the government as national forest, they have waited for decades for the right to further cultivate the land.

But good news is here, as the National Legislative Assembly says it will review the draft law on community land title deeds. If promulgated, this will legalise the use of land in some areas of conflict within the community. With the land title deeds to be issued to communities, all community members should be entitled to the right to cultivate the land, but they won't be able to sell it. If there is a conflict over land use within the community, the unmanageable land would be confiscated.

If this becomes law, there will be far fewer legal cases on illegal land use.

The fight should have been ended years ago, when the previous junta agreed to the idea. The Abhisit government kicked off the campaign, but there was no law to support the process - only PM's Office regulations empowered the government to do so. Needless to say, there was little success, though the government then planned to allocate 2-million rai to the poor.

There was no progress on this law during the Yingluck government.

Since the project was launched in 2010, fewer than 50 communities have been issued title land deeds.

Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) distinguished fellow Nipon Poapongsakorn was among the advocates of this scheme. In 2012, he was agitated to learn that over 435 people had been charged and 1,000 people prosecuted due to the lack of laws to back their rights.

Then, he said, long-standing land problems - like encroachment on state land and officials taking back land on which people had lived for a long time - remained unresolved. He said there was a lack of government measures to limit large-scale land speculation, while civil service agencies didn't protect people's rights and only used laws to determine land-ownership.

According to the Land Reform Network, more than 400 communities are still waiting for community title deeds. People in these communities lead insecure lives, with some facing threats of being thrown off their land, as they do not have legal ownership documents.

"I believe that land reform will not happen if the government does not have a clear policy about giving people land security and granting community title deeds," Pongthip Samranchit, a member of the Land Reform Network, said. Pongthip asked the government to issue a law to endorse community land title deeds.

In Southeast Asia, Thailand's geographic area is second only to Myanmar, where, over 90 per cent of land is owned by the government. Here, according to Isara News, over 80 per cent is owned by landlords while the majority of Thais remain landless.

The issue has been pending for decades and requires quick action by the NLA, if it truly sees the need for reform. Along with this is the need for a law to raise taxes on unused land.


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