CHIANG RAI – While forest authorities have failed miserably to protect land from big money and corruption, they have made indigenous forest dwellers the scapegoats of deforestation, despite the fact that these people have been living on this land for generations.
More than 350,000 Hill Tribe People are living along the western Thai-Myanmar border from Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son up North to the western provinces of Ratchaburi and Phetchaburi. The majority of them are ethnic Karen who settled in the mountainous forests long before the areas were demarcated as national parks.
Their simple lifestyles and age-old traditional knowledge about how to live in harmony with their natural surroundings explain why their forests remain relatively healthy and why they have been declared protected areas.
The Karen rotational farm system, or shifting cultivation, for example, allows old plots to regenerate before the Karen return to till the land again in a cycle that can last between three to 10 years. The fallow period allows the forest to remain generally healthy.
Yet, forest authorities have lambasted this farming system as environmentally destructive “slash-and-burn” land clearing.
They also revile ethnic Karen as enemies of the forest, labeling them “illegal aliens”.
Forest officials’ deep prejudice against the Karen people resurfaced last week with the mysterious disappearance of prominent Karen activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, 31, from Kaeng Krachan National Park on April 17.
He was last seen being captured by the park’s chief Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn for allegedly possessing a wild honeycomb and six bottles of wild honey. Witnesses claim the grassroots activist was released from police custody.
Mr Chaiwat, who often called the Karen “aliens”, has been sued by Mr Porlajee and his villagers in Ban Bangkloy for his leading role in destroying and burning the houses and property of more than 20 Karen families living in the park.
Mr Chaiwat often describes the Karen as illegal immigrants and forest encroachers, even though their ancestors had been living in the area for over a hundred years before the declaration of the Kaeng Krachan National Park in 1980. Many of them also have Thai nationality.
He blames the Karen for applying slash-and-burn farming inside the park, but many studies have shown that the Karen’s shifting cultivation is both ecological and sustainable.
Amid public attention over the disappearance of Mr Porlajee, Mr Chaiwat took a group of journalists on helicopters last Thursday for a bird’s eye view of “forest encroachment”.
To city people’s eyes, there is no difference between a plot under shifting cultivation and slash-and-burn farming. The report does not take into consideration the Karen way of life, and will most likely deepen prejudice against ethnic hill peoples and even mislead many to think the Karen of Baan Bangkloy deserve to be punished.
Deep prejudice against indigenous peoples has been long cultivated in Thai society, resulting in widespread violations of their human rights.
When I was at junior high school, a social studies class taught me that hilltribe people, including the Karen, are destroyers of forests due to their slash-and-burn techniques. I remember this incorrect information was included in a multiple choice test at the end of the semester.
This prejudice allows forest authorities to centralize their power in natural resources management with no local participation.
The monopoly of state power — and its inefficiency — has encouraged illegal logging, wild animal smuggling and unlawful construction projects in our forests because local communities have no chance to counter them or monitor the authorities’ performance.
The local people who oppose these illicit activities often put their lives at risk. Mr Porlajee is one of them.
His disappearance is just the tip of the iceberg.
His community’s struggle to protect their homes in Kaeng Krachan National Park is just one example of the hardship which local communities suffer due to autocratic forest management. The Karen hill people are among millions living in forests facing violent evictions. Being forest dwellers, however, they are the weakest targets.
The indigenous peoples are protected by Thai laws. But, in reality, their rights are routinely violated.
In 1966, Thailand signed and ratified the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to respect the rights of individuals. The move led to endorsement of community rights in the 1997 Constitution. This right is also reinforced in the 2007 Constitution, which states that local communities have the right to conserve and restore their customs, traditional knowledge, arts, and ways of life.
As individuals, they also have the right to participate, in conjunction with the state and communities, in the conservation, preservation and exploitation of natural resources in sustainable ways.
The law also endorses the right of a community to sue state agencies, state enterprises and local government organisations.
On Aug 3, 2010, the cabinet issued a resolution to restore the Karen way of life in a bid to solve decades of human rights problems caused by misunderstanding of Karen culture.
The resolution includes the revoking of forest zones that overlap with Karen communities and public dissemination of correct information on Karen culture, such as shifting-cultivation farming. These mandates remain unenforced.
Last year, Karen people in the mountainous Mae Jaem district of Chiang Mai staged a protest against the Yingluck government’s plan to build a 2.3-billion-baht dam on the Mae Jaem River which will flood parts of the forests and many Karen villages.
The dam scheme is just one of many examples of the government’s top-down policy that does not respect communities’ constitutional rights.
Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck actually announced at the beginning of her term that she would implement a land tenure management programme to solve land rights conflicts between authorities and the people living in forest preserve areas. The pledge remains mere words.
In another case, officials have evicted hundreds of Karen people from Phu Toei National Park in Suphan Buri. The park territory was declared in 1987. But there’s evidence that Suthorn Phu, Thailand’s best-known poet born in 1786, mentioned Karen people living in Suphan Buri in his work. This proves Karen people have been settled in this area for more than 200 years.
Despite the evidence, the government has allowed private tree farms and the construction of livestock buildings over the Karen community and parts of the forest.
The authorities must change their attitude towards indigenous peoples and stop the use of double standards. They must respect the constitution and allow locals the right to live and protect their homes; their forests.
Fostering collaboration with locals is the most effective way to protect forests. If authorities continue to use force, turn a blind eye to corrupt officials and allow a guardian of forest dwellers’ rights to disappear without a trace, then I do not believe that forest authorities can protect our dwindling forests, and I’m not the only one. – Paritta Wangkiat