Facing Eviction: The Villagers of Sai Thong National Park (feature video)

One thousand people from six communities in Sai Thong National Park in Chaiyaphum province are facing eviction under a state reforestation scheme. Residents are accused of trespassing on government land and officials from the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) consider them “investors.” But community representatives say that villagers are only practicing small-scale agriculture and have settled in the area long before it was declared a National Park in 1992.

A video feature by Aaron Pomerance, Andy Queen, Thron Haley and Charlie Ruiz.

In early April, the 280 residents of Hin Ru village woke up to an eviction notice posted in the center of their community from the Royal Forestry Department (RFD), demanding that they vacate the area by April 30. The RFD and the Department of National Parks declared the villagers trespassers on government land.

Hin Ru is one of six communities in Sai Thong National Park in Chaiyaphum province threatened by eviction. Located on a dirt road, a 40 minute drive into the National Park, these villages have no access to running water or electricity and the nearest hospital is two hours away.

Like many rural forest communities in the Northeast, the residents’ livelihoods depend on farming cassava and foraging in the surrounding forest areas.

The eviction notice is part of the RFD and Department of National Parks’ campaign to reforest Thailand, an initiative the agencies are implementing in collaboration with the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military government that came to power in a coup in 2014.

The NCPO’s Order 64/2014 enables state agencies—notably the RFD—to put an end to deforestation by forcibly removing encroachers from reserved forestlands or national park areas. Under the Forest Master Plan (FMP), the NCPO aims to increase Thailand’s total forest cover from 33% to 40% by 2024.

Government agencies identify large business owners, rather than small-scale farmers, as the source of deforestation. In order to protect poor villagers, the NCPO created Order 66/2014, which states that evictions should not impact low-income groups, or landless people.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), the goal of the FMP is to reclaim approximately 27 million rai of land from businesses and individuals. In April 2016, TLHR reported that the implementation of Order 64 has affected over 30 areas in 14 provinces in Isaan alone. More than 100 villagers have been charged with crimes related to trespassing as investors.

The NGO-Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD) estimates that the government’s forest reclamation policy might displace 2,300 villages in 352 areas.

Residents of the six villages in Sai Thong National Park are campaigning against the eviction order and demand that the government stops implementing the FMP in their area.

Villagers and government officials set up a committee to further investigate the history of the six accused communities. But the members of the current committee are predominantly government officials, leaving only a few representatives for villagers.

On April 30, Hin Ru and the other five villages were not evicted after community representatives negotiated an extension with the Vice Governor of Chaiyaphum Province Ukrit Pungsopha and representatives from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Royal Forest Department.

On May 17, 2016, residents from the six communities met with the Permanent Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister, the Vice Governor of the district, the Head of the National Parks Department and other officials regarding the eviction case and discussed the setting up an equally representative committee

For now, villagers won’t be evicted, but their status hinges on the cooperation of a variety of different government offices and the findings of the newfound committee.

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