Understanding Law and State Policy on Land and Forestry in Thailand prior NCPO orders _ English version

Law and State Policy on Land and Forestry in Thailand _ English version

Some of the important Laws that affect the rights of the indigenous people are: Picture2 Picture1

1.Forest Act, 1941

The Forest Act is primarily concerned with the regulation of logging operations. As per Section 4 of this Act, a forest is defined as any land which had not been acquired by any person under the land code. Section 4 also defines forest product – as all products that naturally originated or were found in forests such as timber, plants, bird nests, honey, stones, charcoal etc. The Act regulates the logging of timber as well as collection of natural forests products by a system of licensing and payment of royalty. Under chapter 5 of the Act people can only use that forest land which was notified as ‘agricultural area’ by the authorities. Any person found to be in illegal possession of non-transformed and restricted timber is liable to imprisonment for up to 5 years or fine of 50,000 baht or both. Any person found to be in illegal possession of restricted forest produce is liable to imprisonment up to one year or fine of 10,000 bath or both. The Act also provides for seizure of any product made illegally out of restricted forest produce.

Thus in effect, through this law, the State assumed control over all land and natural resources. Land could either be privately owned or State owned. It also converted resources that have been gifted by nature, to ‘commodity’ the usage of which could be regulated by the State. The State completely ignored the rights of those people who had been living in these forests for generations, and whose life and livelihood was intricately linked with the resources that were available from the forests. Since such people did not have any title deed – occupation of land termed by them was illegal and they were also prohibited from making use of the forest produce.

The Act did not completely prohibit use of forest resources. Licenses could be obtained from the State for logging and collection of forest produce. However indigenous people did not have the organizational capacity to compete with commercial enterprises in obtaining such licenses. Moreover many of the indigenous groups were not even recognized as citizens of Thailand, so they did not have any legal status to even apply for a license.

2. National Park Act, 1961

The Minister of Agriculture is responsible for the execution of the Act. Under the Act, if the government finds that certain natural features of a land area should be maintained and preserved for the benefit of public education and pleasure, it may declare such land to ‘National Park’ land by a Royal Decree. A map showing the boundary lines of the determined area has to be annexed to such Royal Decree. The National Park land will also be surrounded by appropriate sign posts marking out its boundary.

To protect and maintain the National Park, the Act prohibits different kinds of activities within the national park area. Such activities include possession of land within the Park, engaging in slash and burn agricultural practices, collecting natural forest produce or taking in cattle within the park. It also prohibits any actions that may endanger wildlife, deteriorate or alter the natural resource. Any activity for benefit can be only carried out if a written permission has been obtained from the appropriate authority.

A person found to be violating the provisions of the Act can be evicted from the National Park. If the authorities find that any change has been made to the National Park, they may order the offender to remove such changes and restore the Park to its earlier condition. Also the offender is responsible for any expenses incurred by the authorities in restoring the condition of the Park.

A person found guilty of occupying National Park Land can be punished with imprisonment upto five years or a fine upto 20,000 baht or both. A person found guilty of collecting forest produce or allowing cattles to enter the national park can be punished with imprisonment up to one month and fine up to 1000 baht or both.

3. National Reserved Forest Act, 1964

Under this Act, definition of forest included mountains, rivers, canals, waterway, island, sea-shore – land that has not been acquired by anyone. The objective of the Act is preservation of forests, rather than regulating trade in forest products. The Ministry of National Resources and Environment has the authority to declare any forest to be a ‘national reserved forest’ under the Act, by issuing a regulation to that effect. Such regulation has to be accompanied by a map identifying the boundary of such national reserved forest. The copy of the regulation and the map has to be notified in an appropriate public place in the related districts. Also the boundary of such reserved forest has to marked out by appropriate signposts.

Under section 12: A person can claim rights over land in a national reserved forest area by making an application before the appropriate authority within 90 days from the ministerial regulation. If a request is not made within that period, then such person is deemed to have renounced his or her right or benefit.

Under section 13: the National Reserved Forest Committee is authorized to make necessary investigation into petitions filed under section 12. If the authorities find that the rights of the person have been affected, an appropriate compensation shall be paid to such person. Under section 16, a person can also apply for permission to live in the Reserved Forest Area, though granting of such permission depends on the procedures and conditions specified by the Director General and approved by the Minister. If any part of the forest area is found to have deteriorated, then permission can be given to continue living or utilizing such deteriorated forest area.

Chapter II of the Act prohibits any kind of activity within the Reserved Forest Area such as cultivation, logging or collection of forest produce. A person may do logging or collect forest produce after obtaining a license from the authorities.

This Act further erodes away the rights of indigenous people to their lands and resources. First it offers only monetary compensation for taking away their land resources. Money cannot compensate for the loss of security of life and livelihood which is offered by land and forest resources. The indigenous people have no other skills other than that of farming and when that is taken away from them, it becomes very difficult for them to earn a living for themselves.

The other problems associated with the Act is that many times villagers do not have any information that the area that they are living in has been declared as a National Reserved Forest, until it is too late. Usually the maps attached to such Declaration are very difficult to read and understand. As a result many villagers are not able to claim any rights.

The Act also assumes a formal equality of the indigenous people with the rest of the society, as it gives everybody a right to apply for licenses to use forest resources. However, first, many of the indigenous people have still not obtained citizenship status. Even if they have Thai citizenship it is not easy for them to comply with all the necessary requirements for applying for a license. Even if they do manage to submit their application, they have a very low chance of getting a license since the authorities have very strong biases against them.

4.  Wide-life Animal Preservation and Protection Act, 1992

 Chapter Six of the Act, gives authority to the Minister of Agriculture to declare any area to be a ‘Wild Animal Reserved Area’ to ensure the preservation of wild animals. This act which has often drawn comments that the life of animals is more valuable than that of indigenous people, lays down that down that no person can live or do any activity that is declared to be wild animal reserved area.

5. Cabinet Resolution 30th June 1998

This Cabinet Resolution gave some recognition to the rights of the people living in forests. As per this Cabinet Resolution, a person could reclaim his / her land by a two step process.

First, persons wanting to reclaim land have to prove that they had been living in the area before the Declaration proclaiming such area to be reserved or protected area was issued.

If a person can prove ownership or occupation as above, then the piece of land reclaimed has to pass through some tests such as

  1. The degree of the slope of land is not more than 30 degrees
  2. The land is not in an area that is deemed ‘sensitive’ by the forest department – such as: it is not home to any endangered species of wild life, or it does not have any natural features such as waterfalls, caves or springs.

In cases where the piece of land claimed by the person fails to pass these criteria, such person would be given alternative piece of land.

6. Royal Projects

Under these different projects, forest areas have been claimed for the purpose of reforestation and preservation. After claiming of land by these projects, some land is given to the villagers for housing purposes. Under these projects different kinds of farming activities are carried out. However these projects are dependent on the government for their budgets. So activity under these projects, and consequently benefit received by the local people are dependent on budget allocated by the government to these projects.