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Thailand’s Indigenous Peoples fight for ‘land of our heart’ (commentary)

An islet in Kaeng Krachan National Park. Image by budak/Flickr.

  • Thailand’s legal frameworks for biodiversity conservation and international climate commitments omit the important role that its Indigenous Peoples play as stewards of the environment.
  • A militarized conservation approach has seen Indigenous communities evicted from their ancestral lands, prosecuted for enacting traditional practices, and even assaulted and killed.
  • At the heart of the problem is lack of legal recognition of Indigenous groups, and therefore a refusal to grant them tenure rights.
  • This article is a commentary and the views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

On Sept. 3, 2019, the remains of Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a Karen environmental and community rights defender who was disappeared in 2014, were found in an oil drum submerged under the Kaeng Krachan dam suspension bridge in Phetchaburi, Thailand. Billy was last seen by his community while being arrested by Kaeng Krachan National Park superintendent Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn and his officers for allegedly collecting wild honey illegally.

Three years before Billy’s disappearance, under the same superintendent’s watch, 98 houses and rice barns were burned in the village of Baan Jai Phaen Din, also in Kaeng Krachan National Park. Charges filed by the community against the former superintendent and the officers were controversially dropped in early 2020. In the meantime, Thai authorities continue to claim the settlement is illegal.

Established in 1981, Kaeng Krachan National Park sits on Thailand’s central border with Myanmar. Before being evicted by the military in 1996, the Karen Indigenous Peoples lived sustainably for centuries inside the park in their original village of Baan Jai Paen Din, meaning “land of our heart.” Ever since the eviction, they have been systematically resettled into the lowlands.

Recently, Karen members began returning to Baan Jai Paen Din in the uplands. As a result, they once again face renewed threats of eviction from the military and the country’s conservation authorities. The ongoing conflict in Kaeng Krachan is perhaps Thailand’s most well-known conflict between Indigenous Peoples and conservation activities — but it’s far from the only one. The Kaeng Krachan conflict is a clear example of deeper issues embedded in Thailand’s legislative system.

The Indigenous Peoples of Thailand, like many across the world, find themselves navigating global climate agendas and national environmental laws that position human rights as antagonistic to achieving biodiversity targets. This misguided notion has resulted in conflicting and outdated forestry laws and an increasingly securitized conservation strategy, which are jeopardizing the possibility of creating solutions that benefit the climate as well as people.

In Thailand, as in other countries, the moral imperative of preserving Earth systems is being used as an avenue for continued rights abuses against already vulnerable and marginalized communities. Rather than recognize the rights of those who have traditionally managed lands, Thai environmental policy favors centralized approaches to conserving “strategic” resources. As biodiversity becomes increasingly scarce, combating biodiversity loss through increasingly militarized means seems to be less about conserving species populations and more about ensuring territorial control. The implications of these militarized approaches are militarized outcomes, conflict, abuse, displacement, disappearances and violence.

A great hornbill in Kaeng Krachan National Park. Image by tontantravel/Flickr.

Indigenous relationship with land

Justifying the displacement of Indigenous Peoples from biodiverse areas for the purpose of conservation is a contradiction. Indigenous Peoples inhabit some of the most biodiverse and intact landscapes on Earth, and their knowledge and associated ways of life are widely recognized as being vital for conserving biodiversity. The acknowledgement of Indigenous knowledge is enshrined within the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. In national contexts, acknowledgement rarely translates to strategies that actually democratize decision-making or devolve leadership to Indigenous knowledge holders. Moreover, this knowledge cannot be treated the same as other knowledge systems. While Indigenous knowledge can be documented and shared, its conservation benefits are inextricably linked to the spaces in which it is enacted. Therefore, the displacement of communities leads to the assimilation of Indigenous ways of life into the wider realms of society, which ultimately results in a breakdown of their knowledge systems.

Highland Indigenous Peoples cannot simply relocate their culture and way of life to the different demands of a valley. When this happens, the loss of knowledge and identity central to locally applied environmental solutions become stories fondly shared by elders rather than strategies collectively enacted by communities to survive in their local environments. This is what the Indigenous Peoples in Thailand are fighting for: the right to continue their way of life in the “land[s] of their heart” that have supported them through generations.

Sadly, Thai laws and government conservation strategies have failed to recognize these relationships Indigenous Peoples have with their land, a relationship built on the notion that the nature being conserved and the Indigenous Peoples who live within it are both the community. This is, in part, the basis of many conflicts between Indigenous Peoples and their governing institutions across the world. What separates the plight of Indigenous Peoples in one country from another are the different national legislative mechanisms and political will (or lack thereof) to apply or redefine laws which recognize identities and promote the agency and self-determination of community-driven solutions.

Four Karen Indigenous men stand behind a banner reading, “We are one, Indigenous peoples in Asia,” outside the Thai Prime Minister’s office on Feb. 17, as part of the #SaveBangKloi campaign. Image by Phanom Thano/ Indigenous Media Network.

Understanding Thai environmental laws

A country’s laws are intertwined with its history, and for Thailand these laws are embedded in its process of nation building. First, we must recognize that Thailand was never physically colonized by European states. However, due to close business ties with neighboring colonial governments, it adopted many similar land management and natural resource governance regimes.

Nation building also entailed building a Thai identity that was linked to the country’s dominant language and ethnicity, Buddhism, and the monarch. As a result, for most of Thailand’s history, its Indigenous Peoples have long been regarded as non-Thai, even outsiders or illegal migrants. This view has contributed to their systemic exclusion from Thai society all together. Last year, there were about 480,000 registered stateless people in Thailand, most of whom are Indigenous Peoples living in mountainous border areas. About 77,000 Indigenous elders in Thailand lack citizenship.

In the case of Baan Jai Phaen Din, park officials claim Indigenous Peoples to be migrants from Myanmar. This is a tactic used to justify their resettlement to the wider public. This view of Indigenous Peoples as outsiders by mainstream Thai society and within national laws has been a consistent struggle for the Thai Indigenous movement, despite data from a military Ordinance Survey Department showing that the Karen have lived in Baan Jai Phaen Din for more than 100 years.

Kapok bugs in Kaeng Krachan National Park. Image by budak/Flickr.

In 1997, under the late King Rama IX, the hill tribes gained their current definition of Chao Thai Phu Khao (“Thai people who live in the Mountain”) from the government. While this definition finally recognized Indigenous Peoples as “Thai people,” it is a label that fails to acknowledge them as “Indigenous Peoples” in line with definitions in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). As a result, Thailand has still not fully recognized the Indigenous identities (Indigeneity) of the peoples who live within its borders. This lack of recognition or a selective understanding of what it means to be Indigenous is a common challenge across Asia as well as Africa.

Indigenous Peoples are associated with having “historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies” and a “strong link to territories and natural resources.” Using only this part of the definition, it is easy to see how governments in Asia and Africa argue that all of its citizens are Indigenous and equally protected to rights under a country’s constitution. But Indigeneity is a complex construction, linked also to languages, cultural manifestations, ancestral lands, the desire to uphold traditional ways of life, and a collective self-identification as Indigenous. Indigeneity is linked to a different set of relations with the surrounding world, with the land. As reflected in the name of “Baan Jai Phaen Din,” the land is their heart and supports the continuation of their Indigenous culture that they are fighting to preserve.

A farmhouse in Kaeng Krachan. Image by budak/Flickr.

Thai law does not support the relationship Indigenous Peoples have with their lands, consequently ignoring their rights to lands and forests. Even while Thailand has adopted the UNDRIP, it has not created the required laws specific to Indigenous Peoples that support their ways of life. Thailand has also not ratified the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989 (ILO 169). One of the strongest laws supporting Indigenous rights is one within the Ministry of Culture; however it is the very definition and understanding of culture that is called into question in the Indigenous debate. Government officials are happy to promote traditional song, dance and artisanal work — attractive to tourists and transferable to the city and valley — but they are reluctant to enforce the ownership of traditional lands that are the foundation for that culture.

Instead, terms like chao khao, meaning “hill people,” reflect notions of “backwardness” and being environmentally destructive. With climate change, forest fires in the north have become more severe as the dry season becomes drier and longer. Indigenous villagers have been forced to fight fires, amid zero-burn policies that restrict traditional fire management practices, while being simultaneously blamed by the state for causing them. These narratives of supposedly destructive Indigenous practices are used in union with outsider or illegal migrant discourses to justify their eviction to civil society. In Kaeng Krachan, when the Karen returned to Baan Jai Phaen Din and began clearing land for rotational agricultural practices (recognized in 2013 as a national item of intangible cultural heritage), park officials filed charges against the community for “destroying the watershed.” This is simply not true. In fact, felling trees and creating fallow plots for rotational agriculture benefits the soils and biodiversity in the area.

In protected areas, a saga of violence and injustice

Thailand’s protected areas cover 19% of its national territory and are home to 1.1 million people. All trees, unless planted on private property, belong to the king of Thailand, and so do the lands on which they grow. This centralized control is reflected in the management of these protected areas, 80% of which constitute “strict nature reserves” and “national parks” under the IUCN’s definitions, managed by either government or government-delegated organizations. This leaves Indigenous Peoples with no ownership or managerial rights.

Enforcing this managerial regime has caused violence. On May 2, 2020, Luan Yeepa, 55, a Lisu member who was collecting fallen branches for firewood at the edge of his arable plot in Chiang Mai province, was assaulted by eight uniformed Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary patrol officers. It was not an isolated case. In neighboring Pha Daeng National Park, the Lisu villages of Rin Loung, Tung Din Dam and Pha Bong Namg, to name a few, have had parcels of agricultural lands seized and crops destroyed by the park due to a forest reclamation policy aimed at increasing forest cover to 40% of the country’s terrestrial area. This policy, pushed by the junta-led government that took power in 2014, is at the core of Thailand’s international climate commitments.

A yellow-throated marten in Kaeng Krachan. Image by Rushen/Flickr.

The forest reclamation policy criminalizes Indigenous Peoples for using their customary lands and enacting their traditional practices. Between 2014 and 2019, Indigenous and local people were sent to court in a record 29,350 cases involving 136,576 hectares (337,487 acres) of farmlands being “reclaimed” by national parks. In 2019, 2,851 people were charged with encroaching into protected areas and 17,341.6 hectares (42,852 acres) of their farmlands were appropriated. By June 2020, a further 1,830 cases against Indigenous and local peoples were recorded. A summary of these cases was presented to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) by the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand.

What does the future hold for Thailand’s Indigenous Peoples?

Thailand’s forest reclamation policy is also connected to a string of amendments to environmental laws. One is the National Park Act B.E. 2562 (2019) amendment, aimed at resolving long-standing conflicts between communities and the state. As part of the amendment, 600,000 hectares (1.48 million acres) of non-forested lands were surveyed, and communities inhabiting these lands are now waiting to be granted 20-year use concessions from the government. Lands not recognized will be formularized as belonging to the government for the ostensible purpose of reforestation.

While this seems like a positive development, research shows that a further 1.6 million hectares (4 million acres) of Indigenous and local community lands lack legal recognition, almost three times those surveyed in official figures. These concessions do not translate to ownership nor do they secure tenure. The national park amendment also increases the fines, restrictions and penalties for using forested areas. Under the policy, conflicts will undoubtedly continue, if not get worse all together. As the international community promotes climate financing, a lack of tenure rights may lead to continued evictions to secure control of important carbon sinks.

An Asian forest tortoise in Kaeng Krachan. Image by Rushen/Flickr.

For several years, Thai authorities have attempted to get Kaeng Krachan National Park recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, the committee has yet to add the park to the list, citing a lack of participation from local communities. But the government continues its attempts without amending its relations with the Karen community. In light of this, it is critical for the international community to create binding commitments for governments to recognize land rights and self-determination of communities as central to achieving their environmental commitments.

A recent study by the Rights and Resources Initiative showed that between 1.65 billion to 1.87 billion Indigenous and local peoples live in important biodiverse areas that require urgent conservation attention. In Thailand alone, these biodiverse spaces are home to 42 million people. As the future of the Karen conflict remains uncertain, what is certain is that if conservation strategies do not recognize local peoples’ rights to govern their lands, any efforts to prevent biodiversity loss will fail.

Pirawan Wongnithisathaporn is a Pgakenyaw Karen Indigenous person from Chiang Mai province, Thailand. She works in the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact’s Environmental program integrating Indigenous knowledge and the rights of environmental defenders into climate change and biodiversity frameworks within the CBD and other international platforms.

Thomas Worsdell is a consultant for the Rights and Resources Initiative. His work focuses on the intersections between Indigenous Peoples’, local communities’ and Afro-Descendants’ rights with biodiversity conservation and environmental policy.

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