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Forest dwellers get raw deal

Two lawsuits on forest encroachment made headlines late last month. One involved a powerful family charged with encroaching over 6,200 rai of national forest. The other was a landless peasant charged with encroaching on 10 rai of forest land. The legal outcomes highlighted yet again the gross disparity, legal double standards and injustice involved in such cases.

In 2018, a famous vineyard and resort hotel on the rolling mountains in Loei’s Phu Rua and Dan Sai districts were hit with forest encroachment charges. The property belonged to the Karnasuta, one of Thailand’s richest families.

The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) asked prosecutors to charge the defendants and take them to court. Last month, the attorney-general said no to the DSI request. The public was stunned.

Two weeks later, the Supreme Court sentenced Sangduen Tinyod, 55, a poor villager in Lampang’s Ngao district to one year in prison for growing rubber trees in forest land. Although the jail term was suspended, the poor farmer must still pay a fine of 450,000 baht for damaging the forest.

While the Phu Rua forest encroachment in Loei involved rich outsiders, Ms Sangduen is a poor villager. Her family had lived on that plot of land before it was declared part of the national forest. Recognising her tenure, the Forest Department had even allowed her to stay and encouraged her to grow rubber trees there.

That changed when the military junta declared the “Reclaiming the Forest” policy to win popular support after the coup in 2014. Ms Sangduen was forced to cut down her rubber trees, then taken to court.

She was not alone. According to P-Move, a land rights movement, about 46,000 forest dwellers have been arrested under the junta’s scheme. National forests are home to more than 10 million people, many of whom were living there before the areas became protected forests. Yet they were treated as forest encroachers subject to eviction, arrest and imprisonment. The indigenous forest dwellers are not spared. They are treated as criminals in their own ancestral lands.

Tapo Ngamying is one of them. The old man is a spiritual leader of an indigenous Karen forest community of Ban Pa Phak village in Suphan Buri ‘s Dan Chang district. The village dates back to the reign of King Rama VI, yet all ethnic Karens there became outlawed when the forest agencies marked their ancestral home as part of a national forest.

Grandpa Tapo was tilling his two-rai plot of land with an old hoe for his subsistence way of life when he was arrested although he was practising a sustainable farm rotation system which has won international recognition for preserving forest health and diversity. On the heels of Ms Sangduen’s verdict, Grandpa Tapo received a suspended jail sentence and a court order to pay 67,000 baht for damaging the national forest. Losing their lands and having no money to pay the fines, both are now in deep distress.

The stream of lawsuits against the forest poor is endless. Earlier this month, prosecutors in Phetchaburi province charged two Karen teenagers for encroaching on the Kaeng Krachan National Park. They were in legal trouble because they had followed their parents to return to their ancestral land deep in the jungle.

The charge was part of the state’s heavy-handed eviction which started when former park chief Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn led his team to torch and burn the indigenous forest dwellers’ homes.

When the Kaeng Krachan Karen’s spiritual leader, Ko-ee Mimee, took Mr Chaiwat to court, his nephew Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen disappeared mysteriously. After many years of investigation, the DSI charged Mr Chaiwat with abduction and murder. Yet the bosses at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife remain protective of the controversial official.

Apart from the harsh forest laws that do not respect community and ancestral land rights, the forest poor also suffer from legal double standards. While the rich can acquire land titles and use forest resources, the indigenous peoples and local communities face severe punishment.

The government’s forest conservation policy is mere rhetoric. Despite environmental destruction, the government continues to grant mining concessions in rainforests.

The Irrigation Department also pushes for huge dams and water diversion projects which will destroy the rainforests and local communities. Meanwhile, forest authorities keep expanding protected forests and national parks into forest communities amid intensifying forest evictions.

According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPPC), indigenous peoples and forest communities are key to curbing global warming because they are effective forest guardians.

To save the planet and humankind, governments must recognise their land rights and support their ecological farming. Indigenous peoples and forest communities are not criminals but in fact saviours of the forests.

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