26 March 2012

Global Warming Charges in Isaan

While staying with forest communities in Phechaban province, I came to realize that Thailand is facing an epidemic of governmental land grabbing. By establishing national parks, forest preserves, and wildlife sanctuaries, the government has empowered itself to seize property owned by communities who own, live in, and rely on these areas. On the surface it appears the government has good intentions: preserving forest ecosystems, protecting wildlife, and maintaining a space for visitors to enjoy the natural beauty of the country. A much closer look reveals that, despite its persecution of villagers’ longstanding practices, the Thai government has objectives beyond and even contrary to saving the environment.

One of the most ridiculous aspects of this land issue between the villagers and the government was the issue of global warming. While this is normally something that I associate with the use of fossil fuels and the faults of big business, this is far from the case in Thailand. The Thai government claims these people’s land as their own, convicts them for trespassing on that land, and then charges them for global warming! Using an arbitrary (and fairly unscientific process) the government calculates how much a villager, just in tending to the land, contributes to the increase in temperature not just of their isolated area, but globally. Villagers are then slapped with a hefty fine, one which most of them cannot afford to pay. Clearly the ridiculousness of this scenario does not need to be explained, but it is heightened in numerous ways.

First, the government does not charge industries or scooter riding urbanites with causing global warming. Some of these villages don’t even have electricity. Second, the government itself contributes to environmental degradation, and by their own standards creates global warming. Particularly concerning is the state’s current promulgation of eucalyptus for the country’s pulp industry, much of which is grown on land taken from villagers. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Thailand has an estimated 300,000 hectares of eucalyptus plantations. Much of this is owned by the Forest Industrial Organization (FIO) .

One of the village leaders we met, Den recalls soldiers forcing him to slash and burn his cornfield, then forcing other villagers to plant eucalyptus for the FIO. Villagers in Baw Kaew were forcefully evicted in order to make room for an FIO eucalyptus plantation, but after over 30 years have moved back in as a protest village. Both villages have seen the literally draining effects the tree has had on the land. Before the plantations, villagers would grow food in between trees. Now, however, the soil has been depleted and the thirsty trees have absorbed much of the ground water. Kok Yao used to have a community pond for fishing and to provide water to the village but it now sits empty, sucked up into the trees. The water supply has been so heavily reduced that plans have been put into motion to create a new dam within areas of the village, preserve, and sanctuary, a plan which calls the government’s push for “conservation” into question. Other projects, such as highway expansion, resorts, and golf courses within state-owned forests further suggest a false conservationist intent.

Third, these communities live off the land and so are actually very concerned with preserving it. Though technically part of Phu Pha Daeng sanctuary, the village of Huay Ra Huong decided to declare their own community forest in 2005 on 1,500 rais of land. The forest has been “ordained,” by monks who have wrapped most of the trees in yellow cloth to prevent them from being cut down. They have also established a fire protection zone to make sure fires are well contained. The community has been working to replant the area with native species, and while it doesn’t practice agriculture within the forest it does have an area designated for gathering naturally grown food and herbs–the “community kitchen,” as one of the village leaders fondly calls it. In order to ensure the protection of this community forest, village leaders have drafted a set of rules and regulations for its use. Not only does this ensure that the forest remains preserved, but it is also an effort to show government offices the community’s intention to respect the land. “Villagers are already preserving the forest, you don’t need to send in officers,” said one of the men who uses the community forest.

Other communities have also employed formal rules to maintain forestland. For example, in Kok Yao villagers are barred from using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Instead they make their own compost and have to switch out crops to replenish the soil. “We have our community trying to preserve the forest because we want the forest to be there for our family,” said Mr. Jan Puan Rung See, the head of the Community Land Title Committee of Tuang Lui Lai village. Many forest communities are trying to secure community land titles (CLT) with help from NGOs like the Isaan Land Reform Network. CLTs are State-recognized segments of land that are owned and regulated by the communities that live on them. Such an arrangement empowers communities to equally and sustainably utilize their land while also preventing land from being bought off by industry. Unfortunately, of the 451 CLT applications submitted to the Prime Minister’s CLT Committee, only 55 have been approved, and of those only 2 have actually been formally recognized. Neither of those two were in a forest.

It is clear that the Thai government is using global warming as an excuse to kick villagers out of their land to use it for their own means, and it is unfortunate that they are going to such lengths to do so. Unfortunately the Thai political system is very centralized, and politicians have a lot of power. Fortunately, the new Prime Minister has set aside 7 billion baht (almost $250 million) for community land bank and CLT promotion. There is also a Community Land Title Bill that is coming up for a vote. If it is passed, the CLT will be formally made into law rather than just be a project. Formalized CLTs will help stop this global warming nonsense and actually help fight global warming by keeping land in the hands of self-sufficient communities rather than letting it slip to the government and/or industry.

Alex Acuña

Occidental College


Anna Myhr, CIEE-SL student said...

The lengths some people in power will go in order to maintain power and get what they want will never cease to amaze me. I found your comparisons between the governments use of the land and the villagers use of the land to be really impactful. Especially when you mentioned how the village used to have a small pond that has literally been sucked dry by the trees planted by the government. Is there anything you can do to help the villagers regain their land, while you are still in the country or when you return to the United States? Also, you mentioned that Buddhist monks wrapped trees in yellow cloth to prevent them being cut down, how does wrapping trees in cloth prevent the trees being cut down? Is it just a signal of defiance, or how exactly does the yellow cloth help? On a different note, even though the money is being set aside to create a Community Land Title Bill, and Community Land Bank, how will the creation of those two governmental organizations help the villagers? It seems like the government makes excuses anyway, would the passing of the bill help that? This was a very interesting look at how governments can be backwards, and spin issues to work for their benefit.

Kenyon College said...

We must ask ourselves, why does the government oppress the farmers of Isaan in this way? While Isaan people are regularly oppressed because of their race, particularly called out for being Laos-Thai, as opposed to just Thai, it would at first make sense that the government, too, was taking advantage of Isaan people because of their race. However, according to Mr. Pramote, the head of the Isaan Land Reform Network, the government oppresses Isaan people because of their lower class. Racial tension in Thailand is definitely a prominent issue, particularly in defining what it means to be Thai in terms of religiousness and skin color. However, in the battle for land rights, class plays a much bigger role in the discrimination because the issue is an economic one, as it seems the government is trying to push people towards development in unfair, unclear, and sneaky ways. We must ask ourselves who exactly this "development" will be benefiting, the people themselves or the government?

Anaise Williams said...

I have trouble understanding how the ability for the government to charge villagers with this clause is permitted. Clearly some reform needs to take place surrounding the issue of land in Isaan. During one of the exchanges, we were informed that the government is not only charging villagers with global warming but also forging signatures, or at least has in one case. A villager told us about how he was arrested and signed a form at the police station simply signifying that he was there, and the station took that signature and stapled it to a page that said something along the lines of ‘I am guilty of illegally utilizing resources from the national reservation.’ I was appalled that this was not addressed to a further extent. While law reform is admirable, I believe efforts to give Isaan people rights, recognition, respect, and a voice need to happen first for sustainable reform.

hannah said...

When I first heard from these villages about the global warming charges they had received, it came as an enormous shock. I had never heard of anyone being charged with global warming before, and here were villagers in rural Thailand being blamed for a global wide problem. As an American, I felt that it was I instead who should be charged; I, who consume far more than the rest of the world on average as one who lives in a ‘developed’ nation. It got me wondering about who should be charged for global warming. Was this a viable way to help stop it? Could we charge individuals with global warming, or companies, or entire nations? No international body at this moment has that kind of power to charge entire nations, but it would make an interesting statement. I once saw a table breaking down who was to blame for global warming based on past and present consumption, energy usage, etc. It seems to me that certain places are more to blame for global warming. Should we make a statement and ‘charge’ them too?