Ministers Discuss Land Deed with Chaiyaphum Protest Villagers

BAW KAEW VILLAGE, CHAIYAPHUM—Officials from the office of the Prime Minister travelled to Baw Kaew protest village yesterday morning to meet with villagers and Forest Industry Organization (FIO) members about their overlapping claims to 1,500 rai of land in Kon San Forest.

Officials from the office of the Prime Minister and members of Forest Industry Organization (FIO) talk to villagers in Baw Kaew.

Officials from the office of the Prime Minister and members of Forest Industry Organization (FIO) talk to villagers in Baw Kaew.

Today marked a small victory in a 33-year uphill battle for Baw Kaew villagers as government officials finally described the potential boundaries of the Community Land Deed that the villagers have long pursued.

Their battle began in 1978 when the state owned FIO declared ownership over 4,401 rai for a eucalyptus plantation known as the Kon San Forest Project. With little warning, the commercial forestry developers ordered the eviction of more than 1,000 inhabitants. Though some remained in their homes, almost all lost the land their families had been farming for generations.

Through decades of disorganized protests, dispersed villagers struggled to make their voices heard. Then, in early 2009, 100 farmers banded together with the Land Reform Network of Thailand (LRNT), an NGO dedicated to helping communities fight for land rights. With the increased leadership and political affiliations of the organization, the farmers could reel in support from across nine different FIO-displaced villages.

That July, with the help of the LRNT, 169 families illegally resettled in Kon San forest and founded the Baw Kaew protest village to call attention to their cause. Since then, they have been petitioning for a Community Land Deed entitling them to share 1,500 rai, a fraction of the total land they had lost. Yesterday’s gathering offered them a glimpse of success.

“I’m pleased with today’s meeting,” said Poon Ponsuwan, a leader of the Baw Kaew community. “We hope to get the land deed within the month.”

However, the villagers may still have a long battle ahead of them. Phaithoon Seerord, the Head of the Working Committee on Community Land Deeds, encouraged the FIO and villagers to resolve their differences, but acknowledged that the timeline for the land deed is still unknown.

“The FIO can be an obstacle because they aren’t giving the land to the farmers. It isn’t possible for us to overrule the FIO, but we can ask them to help by changing their policies,” Phaithoon told reporters.

In order for the Community Land Deed to move forward, the FIO must agree to give up the land. An FIO representative present at the meeting stated that the matter would be discussed with the leaders of the organization and that they would report back to the villagers soon.

Only one day after a month-long land rights rally in Bangkok concluded, Baw Kaew villagers expressed mixed expectations. Many inhabitants were pleased with the ministers’ presence and believed it was a sign of official recognition of their rights.

“This is the first time that people from the government have come here. Before that, the FIO never spoke with us. This is the first signal of hope,” said Nulek, a 48 year-old farmer with three children in school.

Yet others are still hesitant to celebrate. Ang Dechasaroong, 60, said, “I’m happy but I don’t have a lot of confidence. I’m tired of hearing them talk.”