Environmental conservation and indigenous rights continue to be in conflict at Kaeng Krachan, as Karen communities battle to secure ancestral land rights and officials strive for world heritage status.
The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex is a lush woodland on the border between Thailand and Myanmar in central Thailand in both Phetchaburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan provinces. It’s a regional biodiversity treasure home to endless animal and plant species.
But year after year, the forest remains stuck just a step away from becoming a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site – a location globally recognised as an area of outstanding ecological importance. Most recently, in 2019, the 43rd UNESCO committee postponed Kaeng Krachan’s consideration for world heritage status, citing the need to resolve issues related to the Karen community.
According to Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri, chairman of the region-wide Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact group, repeated referrals of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex for world heritage status have served to bring to light problems previously cast into the shadows.
Kittisak said that land rights is the most pressing problem that must be resolved before the area receives world heritage status.
Since the designation of the forest area as a national park in 1981, there has been recurring conflict between the Karen indigenous group and state authorities surrounding traditional livelihoods in the forest and land rights.
The latest battleground is the upper Bang Kloi village (sometimes referred to as Bang Kloy or Banggloy) with villagers proposing that the National park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department allocate 2.4 hectares to each family for farming.
Thirty-six ethnic-Karen families have demanded they be given access to conduct unlimited shifting cultivation over 5,400 rai of land in Bang Kloi
However the government is trying to relocate them to the lower Bang Kloi village, with negotiations on going as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha saying his administration won’t use force against ethnic Karen villagers living in the National Park as past governments did.
This Karen tribe has been living in Bang Kloi long before the area was declared a national park in 1981. There have been many attempts to relocate them, citing the need to preserve the watershed forest. Those who agreed to move claim that they have not received help from the government as promised, resulting in some of them moving back.
Their livelihood depends on the forest, especially the practice of shifting cultivation – rotating land for agriculture, cultivating one area before moving on to the next, giving the soil time to replenish. Although long inhabitants of the forest, this sentiment is not reflected in the legislation, with the community’s right to their traditional land not recognised from a legal perspective.
On 22nd February a protest at the Pathumwan intersection in Bangkok, called for the government to withdraw security forces from the Bang Kloi area. The Minister of Natural Resources and Environment agreed to the demand and promised no further intimidation.
Instead, this government will take care of those living in Bang Kloi by ensuring they have proper jobs and a place to live, he said. The promise was made after local groups in Phetchaburi threatened to hold a rally outside Government House if the government fails to take decisive action against Karen villagers whom they said were destroying the forest.
“We are not going to let anyone destroy Kaeng Krachan’s forests anymore. If the PM refuses to take action against the villagers, Phetchaburi residents will have no choice but to demand negotiations with the prime minister,” said Sumol Sutaviriyawat, president of an environmental conservation club in Phetchaburi. She was among several local activists who petitioned Gen Prayut on 23rd February.
Violations of the National Parks Act (2019), including deforestation and land encroachment in Kaeng Krachan National Park, have continued, she said. “A recent ruling by the Administrative Court also clearly states that no one is allowed to return to the forest where they used to live,” she said, referring to the return of about 70 villagers to their homes in the national park, from where they were forcefully evicted out of by park authorities in 2011.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon echoed Gen Prayut’s stance, saying authorities won’t use force against Bang Kloi villagers and will try to resolve the conflict through dialogue.
Yutthaphon Ankinandana, an adviser to Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa, meanwhile, revealed that the operation called “Phet Watershed Forest Protection”, which kicked off on 22nd February to negotiate the relocation of the Bang Kloi villagers, went smoothly.
Thirteen villagers voluntarily left the forest after peaceful negotiations, while the rest chose to remaine, said Mr Yutthaphon. The operation, in which two helicopters were used to survey the area, was jointly carried out by Kaeng Krachan National Park, Border Patrol Police and military officials, he said.
Representatives of the Bang Kloi community say they will submit a petition to the Human Rights, Justice and Law commission at parliament, seeking a probe into the operation, which the officials claim is to protect the watershed forest. They will also demand that the Natural Resources and Environment minister, the director-general of the National park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department and relevant officials “explain themselves” over the operation which, they say, has violated villager’s rights.