Forest reform proposal merits our full attention
Alarmed by the steep decline in Thailand’s forest cover, reformers have drafted proposals for remedial action. A few weeks ago, the National Reform Steering Assembly’s natural resources sub-panel completed a 250-page proposal, which has been submitted to the NRSA for endorsement.
The document notes that Thai forestland has shrunk dramatically in the last few decades, from 139 million rai in 1973 to 81 million rai in 1998 – an average loss of two million rai per year. In 1998 the government attempted to halt encroachment with a Cabinet resolution to register forest dwellers, but the woodland kept disappearing – albeit at a slowed rate of 250,000 rai per year.
By last year, the country had around 102 million rai of forest left, or around 31 per cent of Thailand’s total landmass. Of this, around 70 million rai are designated protected areas, in the form of national parks or wildlife sanctuaries.
Reformers are aiming to boost forest cover by 40 per cent, or 26 million rai, over the next 20 years, with 25 per cent, or another 10 million rai protected.
The most critical problems are in the protected forest, which has lost up to six million rai to encroachment. That illegal practice has been aided by the 1998 Cabinet resolution’s blurring of the lines when it comes to disputes over overlapping rights between forest dwellers and the state.
The latest proposal notes that forest officials have registered claims on 1.5 million rai of the six million rai, from 167, 650 land users. The result of the land rights verification process for these claims are still unknown.
The problem has grown more complex, since many of the plots in question have been passed from poor forest dwellers to wealthy developers during the process. The result has been a mushrooming of luxury resorts, further impacting the quality of the forest.
So besides aiming to boost forest cover by 40 per cent, the latest forest reform proposal is targeting encroachment by tackling complicated land-use designations in forests and seeking to establish legitimate rights.
The problem with the 1998 Cabinet resolution – the best tool we currently have to protect forested land – is the vague guideline it offers to forest officials: Often, they do manage to verify legitimate rights only to learn that the rightful claimants are living in “ecologically fragile forest”. At this point the guidelines are of little help.
The proposal attempts to tackle this complication with more concrete measures for officials to follow. Besides additional enforcement of the NCPO chief’s orders No 64 and 66, to re-register and verify land rights in forests within a timeframe, the panel also proposed amendments to the dated National Parks and the Wildlife Conservation acts.
The amendments centre on re-zoning forest areas for better management of land uses. For instance, those found living in ecologically fragile zones might have to relocate. The amendments also address seizure of assets plus more severe penalties for owners of encroaching resorts.
The 250-page document is full of detail, from the root causes down to the solutions, which need thorough study to gain understanding. Shortly after it was published, the proposal garnered fierce opposition from some environmentalists, who fear it could deprive the rights of the poor.
As it covers everything from root causes including flawed state policies, to solutions that appear responsive and cohesive, the proposal deserves our thorough study before we pass judgement.
After all, the national forest issue involves us all and thus requires our full participation in helping figure out what is best for Thailand’s ecology, and not a knee-jerk rejection.