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Say no to outside intervention: Indigenous peoples in Thailand call for traditional forest management


Traditional forest management by indigenous peoples has been derailed by disruptions from the outside world in the form of state policies and regulations, modern development, new modes of production and so on, all of which put the way of life of indigenous peoples in jeopardy.

RESPECT US PLEASE: These Akha women want the government to grant land rights to indigenous people and stop exploitive tourism.

Aaeri Tungmuangthong, a Karen from Mae Wang district in Chiang Mai, told of the capital-oriented market mechanisms that have led many tribal people to practice mono-crop culture, something which was rare or nonexistent in the past.

The Karen’s forest management methods are well known among the different indigenous groups, and their culture and traditions are being studied by many academics. The studies reveal the Karen’s ability to live in harmony with the forest.

But Ms Aaeri told about changes which are troubling her people.

”Many of us have left our traditional way of self-sufficiency behind and started growing mono crops because they bring more money. Certainly many of us need cash,” she said, ”especially young people. They want more and more of the material things that are being introduced to them.” She expressed her concern that the younger generation is losing touch with the forest management ways of the Karen people.

”Many are not aware that they are supposed to be custodians of the forest. They don’t know that they don’t own the forest, and some of them start using it without respect for nature,” she said, adding that this attitude is causing worries for elderly people.

Aaeri Tungmuangthong still applies the traditional Karen agricultural system.

”Some of us grow corn instead of rice and vegetables. Corn can be sold to buy rice or mobile phones.

”But my family still grows rice and vegetables for home consumption and a little for sale,” she said, adding that her family also practices cultivation methods that allow the forest to nurture and regenerate itself.

In some cases, local politics has changed the way people live and the traditional respect they have always shown one another.

”Since I became involved in local politics I’ve seen a lot of changes,” said Nasae Yapa, a Lahu woman and former village chief who has won human rights awards.

”Too much outside intervention, and too many local politicians dragging villagers into bad schemes for short-term benefits. Although many of us still worship the spirit of the forest, some of us are now worshipping people who have a lot of money as well,” she said, adding that she campaigns for women to play a more active role in local politics as she believes that women are more likely to respect nature and are afraid of nature’s ”punishment”.

Lau people have been living in the far north of the country for many centuries and have passed on their traditions and nature-related beliefs. Like many other indigenous groups, they believe in the supernatural and in guardians of the forest and nature. Whatever they do is related to worshipping these guardians and exploiting the forest is totally prohibited.

Ms Wipa wishes the government would tackle the problem of land rights for indigenous people.

The Lau people demarcate areas they call Yien, which means watershed, for worshipping.

They teach the younger generation to respect nature and to fear reprisals from nature if the Yien are misused.

”People can collect some wild vegetables from Yien, but we cannot take more than what is necessary for our family, as the forest’s guardians will punish those who exploit it,” said Tan Wittayapa-ngam, a Lau women’s leader from Mae Hong Son province.

The Lau people also set up non-killing zones where animals cannot be hunted.

”The regulations are respected by us as we are the ones who set them,” said Ms Tan.

But in the Lau lands as well there are some developments which do not take traditional forest management into account.

”Some encroach on our forest land and grow mono crops, but we cannot do anything. We don’t know where to complain and our voice would not be heard anyway,” she said.

FEAR FOR THE FUTURE: These young Karen want the government to pay more attention to education for indigenous people.


Indigenous people say the laws supposedly put in place to protect the forest often do great harm (see box). Many members of the Darra-ang or Palung from Pang-daeng village in Chiang Dao district of Chiang Mai have been arrested for forest encroachment over the past few years. They encounter even more troubles than most tribal people as many of them don’t hold Thai citizenship.

As a consequence they move around a lot to avoid the authorities.

”We believe that where there is a forest, there are human beings, there is soil, there is grass and there is water,” said Kham Nainuan, who speaks in reasonable Thai but holds a card identifying her as an alien.

Ms Kham was arrested and jailed for 49 days in 1998 for forest encroachment. Another 48 villagers have been arrested on the same charge.

Ms Kham wants Darra-ang people to obtain Thai citizenship.

The Darra-ang group say they will no longer move around in the forest, and some of them have lately gained Thai citizenship. The Thai nationality status makes them eligible for government loans, and a new village has been set up.

”Small people like us farm just enough to sustain our family, not for profit.

”Now we have a chance to set up our lives. Moving will lead us to nowhere and our young people will lose the opportunity to be educated,” said Ms Kham. She pointed out that being without land and citizenship presents special problems for the young, who she feared might end up in ”entertainment businesses”.

A number of women interviewed expressed concern that if they are prevented from ac cessing the land and other natural resources it will make it very difficult to pass on their traditions to the younger generation.

”If we cannot commit fully to our traditions, such as worshiping the guardians of the forest or the mountains, this will affect our young. How can they learn and fully appreciate who we are?” said Wipa Srilimpanon, a Lisu women’s leader from Chiang Mai.


Many indigenous groups are among the 2,700 communities the government maintains are living illegally on protected forest or national park land. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, there were 6,711 lawsuits filed in 2007 and 2,625 lawsuits filed from January to April 2008 for forest encroachment, representing a total of 55,027 rai for both years.

MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD: Ms Nasae, far right, wants women to participate more in local politics.

In the North, according to records from the Regional 5 Court of Appeals, in 2007 alone there were 1,144 lawsuits pending in the court for trespassing on forest reserve areas and 103 for national parks.

Participants in a recent meeting of indigenous groups in Chiang Mai called on the government to honour the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as its own policies on communal land rights.

”We don’t want to own the land privately, but we want the communal land rights in which the communities set up their own rules and regulations in using the land and forest,” said Wipa Srilimpanon, a Lisu women’s leader from Chiang Mai, who pointing out that granting individuals land rights will only lead to more forest destruction.

”Some locals are now hired to clear-cut and then the land is sold to outsiders, but communal land rights will allow each community to regulate the land and forest utilisation,” she said.

Indigenous leaders point to the policy of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, declared on Dec 30, 2007, that the government will allocate land for poor farmers and will accelerate issuing land rights for poor farmers and communities on state land and deteriorating forest.

”We want to see if the government can keep its promise,” said Ms Wipa. The Network of the Indigenous Peoples in Thailand has already assessed the readiness of all member communities to implement the communal land rights scheme. There are 114 communities from a number of different indigenous groups that have already been assessed.

Ms Wipa and other indigenous women who have a role in passing on the traditions of forest and land management to the younger generation place high hopes on Mr Abhisit’s commitment to land allocations for poor and indigenous people.

”We are ready, but what about the government?” asked Ms Wipa.

Letter from Indigenous peoples to Thailand

to the Prime Minister

Published: 23/08/2009 at 12:00 AM

Newspaper section: Spectrum

The Network of Indigenous peoples in Thailand has submitted a petition asking PM Abhisit to look into their concerns, listed in this excerpt from the letter.

WE WANT OUR RIGHTS: This Kachin woman is asking for communal land rights for indigenous people.

The Thai government must:

1. Honour the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as other International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

2. Respect and accept cultural diversity and should provide citizenship rights for children that were born on Thai soil.

3. Promote indigenous women’s participation in politics, education and society.

4. Support alternative education for indigenous peoples, such as promoting the use of their mother tongue (this conforms to the UN declaration, article 14, on the right to establish and control their educational systems.)

5. Return the rights in managing natural resources to indigenous people and abolish schemes, projects and policies that would affect their livelihoods and their communities.

6. Support community rights and provide mechanisms that allow people to participate in natural resources management at all levels.

7. Protect and provide land for residence and cultivation for indigenous people.

DON’T BLAME US: Indigenous people have been accused of contributing to global warming.

Source: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/22568/outside-intervention