Guest contribution by Hannah Cohen and Talia Latch
From the back of a pickup truck parked hastily in the middle of a bumpy road, a young mother laughs scornfully as a National Park officer tells her to be careful.
“That’s a threat. I’m afraid enough as it is. Stop your threatening me,” she spits back.
When the truck stopped at the checkpoint to the entrance of Sai Thong National Park in Chaiyaphum province, Nittaya Muangklang refused to climb down as she hoped to avoid Somsak, the park officer. Many times before the two had argued over the looming eviction of Nittaya’s community from its farming lands.
In Sab Wai village, located on the edge of the park, the 33-year-old cassava farmer is a leading community organizer against the authorities’ push for eviction. Currently, eleven residents are facing charges and possible jail time for trespassing on national park territory after they disobeyed orders to abandon their farmlands.
Nittaya, her sister, her brother, and her mother are also accused of trespassing. She believes that her public opposition has resulted in her family becoming the first in the community to suffer the consequences.
They were supposed to go to the public prosecutor‘s office on 6 September, but the police informed them that the case’s filing has not been completed, leaving the family worried about their future.
Sab Wai village was established about 40 years ago, in the late 1970s, when the lumber industry came to reap profits from state-sanctioned concessions. Now, with 85 households, the cassava-farming community resides in Huai Yae subdistrict, Nong Bua Rawe district of Chaiyaphum province, in the Northeast of Thailand.
In 1992, more than a decade after Sab Wai villagers settled on the land, the Sai Thong National Park was established, covering areas worked on and settled by over 3,000 people from eight communities.
In 2014, under the Forest Master Plan issued by the current military junta – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – all individuals living or farming on lands falling under National Park areas are to be evicted from their lands.
This master plan affects about 8,148 communities around the country, 2,300 of which are in the Northeast, estimates the Isaan branch of the NGO Coordinating Organization for Rural Development (NGO-CORD) in July 2015.
In 2015, Sab Wai villagers were stopped while farming by National Park officers who told them that by signing a document to give away part of their land, they were reserving the right to farm the remainder. But the document was later used as evidence of villagers’ voluntary agreement to vacate and stop farming all of their lands altogether, Nittaya said.
In Sab Wai and other communities in Sai Thong National Park, 77 people have signed the document, many claiming that they have done so involuntarily.
On 3 April of this year, an eviction notice came to eleven of Sab Wai villagers, telling them to remove all their cassava plants by the end of the month, as the lands they were farming were considered protected areas.
Affected residents held three meetings with various government agencies to petition for their help regarding the trespassing accusations placed against them.
Nittaya recalls Deputy Governor of Chaiyaphum province Niphon Samitphan promising to set up a committee to solve the villagers’ problems, and telling her to ignore the orders from the National Park Office.
On 17 May, a representative from the Prime Minister’s Office visited Sab Wai and spoke with the villagers accompanied by the Deputy Governor of Chaiyaphum Province. But the deputy governor denied having told villagers to ignore the orders.
Nittaya and those around her were shocked. “What [the deputy governor] had said gave us the confidence to go back [to work our land],” she says.
“If you do not sign, we’ll come back with an arrest warrant for your son.”
When many refused to sign, armed officers threatened the villagers with prison. When these tactics did not work, they visited and threatened the parents of the landowners. In Nittaya’s case, dozens of uniformed officers visited her 58-year-old mother one early morning, demanding her to sign the agreement. Alone at home, she ended up signing the agreement for her daughters, her son, and herself.
Kaeofa Aphonkaeo is another Sab Wai resident who signed away her child’s land. She recalls, “Three pickup trucks full of officers came to see me, I had to sign… They told me ‘if you don‘t sign, we’ll come back with an arrest warrant for your son.’ I did it because I was afraid for him.”
In interviews, many villagers tell similar stories, and Nittaya and Kaeofa have not been the only ones who received such a visit and signed to protect her child.
“Orders from above”
The 36-year-old National Park officer Somsak (not his real name), who had warned Nittaya earlier in the day, says that he has arrested a few people for hunting flying squirrels and cutting down trees.
Somsak has been employed by the Sai Thong National Park for only a year as a forest patrol officer. He holds a temporary position on a renewable contract, taking the job because there was an opening, but he also says he enjoys working for the park.
When he was ten years old, his own family was driven from their village in the park forest.
“I’m split on this. As someone who’s been through the same thing, I feel sad too if they lose all their farmlands,” Somsak says. “But I cannot ignore orders from above.”
Sai Thong National Park has publicly explained the need for national forest expansion as an issue of conservation, citing the military government’s Forest Master Plan. Officials are concerned that villagers’ farming practices in the forest and farmlands have resulted in deforestation.
Villagers believe that the government’s motivation behind the conservation plan are more about commercial benefits than conservation. The trees planted would be suitable for future logging, not available for the villagers to make use of the forest, villagers claim.
The National Park Office is working with PTT Public Company Limited, also known as the Petroleum Authority of Thailand, in forest expansion efforts. The project for growing of precious woods is named “Reforestation for General Usage.”
Community leaders contradict the publicized need for forest expansion. Many believe the answer to potential degradation is the implementation of more sustainable practices and the growth of fruit trees, rather than precious woods alone.
Pairote Wongngan, an organizer from Hin Ru village, another affected community in the Sai Thong National Park area, believes that the Royal Forestry Department operates under an incorrect understanding of forests.
“The word ‘forest’ is not limited to any specific tree,” says Pairote, noting that reforestation projects so far have exclusively focused on only a few species of precious woods, for example pha yung (Siamese rosewood) and pra du (Burma padauk).
“A forest is also about how we can live and rely on it. The government can help villagers to grow [trees] for food, sustainability, oxygen. That’s the correct definition of what an ecological system should be,” Pairote argues.
While villagers and National Park officials do not agree on the types of trees and their usage in the reforestation projects, Pairote believes the preservation of the forest will only become an option once villagers are involved.
“The Forest Department cannot control everyone. People from the outside can still come in and get resources from the forest. They can’t stop everyone from breaking the law,” explains Pairote. “That’s why we want to participate, to guarantee everyone follows the law and protects the forest.”
According to a 2015 report by Thailand’s Center of Investigative Journalism (TCIJ), only ten of over 500 cases of trespassing onto forest areas involve outside investors, while the rest are lodged against small-scale farmers and long-term residents of national parks.
Despite a later order from the NCPO stating that the Forest Master Plan should not negatively affect poor forest residents, those facing eviction from Sai Thong National Park are almost all low-income farmers. Many outside investors, however, are being let off the hook, according to villagers.
Sakon Prakit, a 39-year-old Sab Wai villager, claims to have lost some of her officially recognized lands due to National Park authorities’ double standards and flawed land-surveying practices.
Her farmland is located next to that of a National Park officer’s mother-in-law, whose land was approved through the Cabinet Resolution of 1998 under the government of Chuan Leekpai. The woman cut down the forest on her land and planted corn in its place. But she has not been charged, nor has she received an eviction notice, Sakon claims.
In addition, a map of the area provided by park officials delineates a section of Sakon’s family land as belonging to the official’s mother-in-law.
National Park officers depend on aerial photography to survey land use in the park. But this method is flawed, villagers say, because areas designated as farming land might not be used fully for agriculture every year.
When agricultural areas appear to be unused in the aerial photos, the National Park officers often designate these areas as forest, consequently accusing those farming the land of trespassing.
Investors from other provinces continue to tend farmland in the area. The villagers believe none of these outsiders have been threatened or served an eviction notice.
According to Nittaya, park officers repeatedly deny knowledge of outside investors in the area. The Sai Thong National Park Office refused to comment when contacted by The Isaan Record.
According to the 1998 Resolution, investors are identified and defined as those who own more than 100 rai of land. In Sai Thong National Park, the majority of investors own 200-300 rai and only spend a few months at a year in the area, employing locals to watch their land once they have gone, villagers noted.
When asked if she were angry with the outsiders utilizing forest resources and not being served with eviction notices, Nittaya says she is not.
“We are not angry with them [the outsider investors]. It is within their right to own those lands. [But ]we want to be treated by the same standard,” she says.
Sakon and her husband Prasert Prakit has invited community members for an informal discussion into their newly finished single-story home, built with materials bought from decades’ worth of cassava sales to replace their old, termite-eaten wooden house.
Villagers from Sok Takhian, another community located within the National Park, travel more than three hours to join the meeting. Unlike Sab Wai village, where only farmlands are at stake, residents of Sok Takhian are bound to be homeless if the park authorities push for eviction.
The Sok Takhian villagers did not sign any land agreements because of collective memories of similar incidents in the early 1990s, when an earlier military junta attempted to relocate forest residents to government-built urban settlements.
All 70 households left the village in the mountains but one year later 47 of them returned to the area because they could not make a living in the plains. Today, none of them have official land titles, villagers say.
Thongsuk Kaeokratok, a 56-year-old resident of Sok Takhian village, emphasizes the need to work with officials to ensure they may continue to live in their homes. While acknowledging the need for officials and government in this issue, he asks, “We know that the law needs to be upheld. But why are they using the law to oppress us?”
“Three- or four-year-old children, when they see the park rangers, they curse at them behind their backs. They’re afraid. They see them coming with guns like M16 and HK33,” says 24-year-old Lay Kaeokratok, another resident from the area.
Villagers from Sab Wai and Sok Takhian agree that they have to keep fighting the battle against the National Park Office, so that at least the general public can learn about their grievances. If they don’t fight, they will definitely lose, but if they keep fighting, they have a chance at winning, a villager says.
“I see prison,” Prasert says, half-jokingly, when asked about the future of his community. He laughs and then follows, more seriously, with: “I am worried about our children.”
Reflecting back on her encounter with the park officer Somsak earlier in the day, Nittaya wonders why the park authorities have not pressed forward any charges against the alleged investors in the area.
Swinging back and forth in a hammock at his checkpoint at the park entrance, where the sprawling cassava fields meet the conserved forest area, Somsak says:
“I haven’t got any orders on what to do. I have to wait for orders from above.”
Hannah Cohen majors in Environmental Studies and Communication at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Talia Latch studies in Environmental Studies and International Development at Tulane University of Louisiana.