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The Struggle of Thailand's Hilltribes
The Struggle of Thailand's Forest Peoples To Stay In The Forest
Reply from IMPECT to M. R. Smansanid Svasti
There has been, over the course of the last decades in Thailand, many developments concerning the rights of the tribal peoples found throughout the country, but predominantly in the north. The difficulties faced by the entire country, stemming from bad environmental management, came to rest upon the shoulders of the tribal people as they now inhabit the last remain stretches of forested land. However, is the basic assumption made here valid? The assumtion that the small remaining forested lands must be kept free from human habitation, indeed, that the human occupants must be removed and the wilderness kept in a pristine and isolated state to be used for day excursions by the rich. That this is the most effective conservation strategy that could be adopted? It is easy to demonstrate that this western philosophy of conservation does not apply to Thailand, that far from protecting the valuble and vulnerable natural resources it destroys priceless cultural heritage and removes from the delicate ecosystems the resource management strategies of the people that have protected the forests over centuries.
However what is the right approach to take? The struggle for land rights by the indigenous/tribal people of Thailand's north has been so long and difficult because of this question. It highlights the most controversial aspect of the struggle; on the one hand are people that claim to have preserved the land they occupy since time immemorial and demanding the right to continue to do so and on the other are people who claim to work for the good of the entire Thai community, to be protecting a vital and delicate resource that is essential for the prosperity and health of the nation. How to decide between these two seemingly compatible but polarised views? The secret lies in the obvious, to combine them, to allow those with the knowledge and experience to preserve that which they have been protecting for centuries. Economic development has been a focus of the Thai government since 1961; it is a form of development which stressed the increase of agricultural production for export, removing the traditionally sustainable nature of Thai agriculture. This immediately meant that the land under cultivation in Thailand increased dramatically, adding to the already serious deforestation problems. It is worth noting at this point that the new emphasis on surplus production did not have as great an effect in the areas populated by hilltribes. In Mae Hong Son, where the population of hilltribes is estimated at 80%, the forested cover is significantly greater than in comparable provinces. This environmental damage could not go unchallenged and thus the government did begin to pay attention to the problem. In 1992 the Cabinet declared that all land was to be divided into zones in which the land uses would be controlled. Three classifications were put into place, dividing economic, agricultural and conservation areas. Area allocated to Conservation Area: 88 million rai; to Economic Area: 52 million and to
Agricultural Area: 7 million rai. Within this declaration were the procedures for increasing the area of conservation land, as the 88 million rai target was not complete. These procedures illustrate more clearly than anything else the western image of conservation which has been adopted by the Royal Thai ForestryDepartment. Once land has been classified as conservation land, all communities already in residence must be, if possible, relocated away from the delicate area. Trees planted immediately in all areas of the vacated land.
If immediate relocation is not possible the government takes control of all the land used by the community and strictly controls any activity upon that land. The community should be convinced to leave the land and when this is achieved trees are to be immediately planted. This system of regeneration of land shows the view held by the government on conservation land, ie. that it is pristine forest devoid of all human habitation, a state of existence which is ultimately and obviously unsustainable.
Before moving on to the reaction of the communities to these threats to their lifestyles it is worth taking a look at the reality of land uses through these areas. The conservation area, stated at 88 million rai has actually at most 68 million, as 20 million rai currently have mining concessions granted by the government, the same government which has actually removed land titles from long standing communities within the conservation areas to facilitate the declaration and increase of conservation land. Not only has the government granted mining concessions in the proclaimed delicate ecosystems of conservation class land but in addition the logging, the government sanctioned logging, which took place in Thailand over the last 30 years of increased material prosperity, can be blamed for the devastating environmental damage on Thailand today, damage which culminated with the deadly floods in the south of Thailand in the beginning of the 1990s. This was what had to happen before the government stopped legal logging, what will have to happen to stop the mining? Yet despite the obvious culpability of the government in environmental problems such as this, the campaign has been to place the blame on the shoulders of the tribal peoples in the north. I will examine this campaign in detail later but it is a good indication of the strength of corruption that the fight has become so dirty.
So what has been the response? How have the people reacted to having their ancestral lands and only known way of life threatened? The clearest result is the startling growth in peoples' organisations, the people have come together in highland organisations, lowland organisations and have combined their voices in networks such as the Northern Farmers Network in order to protest the decisions of the government that were threatening them. The well-known Assembly of the Poor saw huge turn-outs of people determined to present their stories and the truth about the situation in Northern Thailand to the government. This massing of support for the poor of the north saw two main responses; the first was the government meeting with delegates on the 17th and 29th of April, 1997, to draft a Community Forest Law which would give the right of resource management of surrounding forest land back to the villages. These meetings were held in Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's time as Prime Minister and with the subsequent changing of the Cabinet the process was slowed. The second apparent result was a strong reaction by the government and Green NGOs against the peoples' organisations; the government has used the hilltribe communities as scapegoats in a number of problems, allegations that when looked at in detail are hardly credible.
Firstly, however, we should look at the accomplishments of the two meetings, the 17th and 29th of April. The draft law as designed by the Cabinet was debated by both the green NGOs, the peoples organisations' delegates and the government and a solution, acceptable if not welcomed by all resulted. A committee was established to determine the legitimacy of claims to land ownership and it was accepted that if occupancy could be proved to pre-date the 1993 declaration of "conservation land" then land rights would be granted. Another meeting was also held during April, on the 22nd, to which the delegates of the peoples organisations were not invited. It was here in this meeting that the procedures for the land delineation and titling were drawn up. The mapping was to be done by the military using the satellite mapping techniques and the Royal Thai Forestry Department was responsible for the process of delineation. Difficulties emerged in the process of demarcation, the mapping by the military was slipshod at best and in some cases villages did not even appear on the maps drawn up. Many times the agreements reached in these two meetings have been in danger, most recently, as mentioned, because of a smear campaign run by the government and the green NGOs, many established by retired members of the Thai military and the Thai Forestry Department. The alliances between the government and the NGOs of this kind have quadrupled since the rising popularity of the peoples organisations from 4 to 25. This has meant that, because the green NGOs support the view of forests devoid of human habitation, factionalism has appeared in the NGO community.
This factionalism has made the dirty work of blaming the hilltribes for the environmental damage much easier; in the Doi Inthanond area the fires which have recently broken out were immediately considered the work of the Hmong and Karen hilltribes in the area. The ensuing battle to extinguish the fires was attended by thousands of Hmong and Karen people every day and the careful watch to ensure no more fires could get out of control was taken up by these tribes. However, the actions of these people went largely unnoticed in contrast to the similar actions of a smaller group of lowlanders who also aided in fighting the fires. This type of one sided reporting is incredibly damaging to the standing of the hilltribes in the public eye and this standing, this respect, is essential if changes are to be wrought at the policy level.
The incident at Doi Inthanond is not unusual. The well-publicised Salaween logging disaster and more recently the reaction to increasing deforestation in Chiang Dao, Chaing Mai Province are also clear examples of the one sided and intentionally misleading reporting of environmental problems in the north. There has emerged recently, however, a recognition in the public sector of the real nature of these problems. Increasingly people are seeing the "scapegoat" allegations for what they are and support is again on the rise for the peoples' organisations. However, the process of land demarcation and the granting of land titles upon the results of the demarcation, as agreed to in the April meetings last year, is under greater threat now than ever before. On April 21st the government will debate whether to allow the process to continue. It has already been stated and there is a very real possibility that the government will decide against the peoples organisations. It is now that support is needed from the international community. Organisations, NGOs, peoples' organisations and international alliances must now make their voices apparent to the Thai government. The rights of the indigenous/tribal peoples in Thailand's north cannot be ignored any longer and the strength of international opinion is well known.
A Response from Thailand to the World Rainforest Movement article; 'Thailand : The Struggle of Forest People to Remain in The Forest' The WRM is much concerned over the plight of our hiltribes who, they feel,are under threat of 'losing their ancestral lands and their only known way of life". And they are rightly indignant if the facts that they base their opinion on are correct. Unfortunately, these facts were a tissue of unprincipled propaganda. Having been involved for over 12 years in a lowland peoples' initiative in Northern Thailand to restore and conserve their forest and water resources, I am appalled that the international community should be exploited with such misinformation on issues of such grave concern to us all. True reports have been represented as being one-sided. Biased reports exonerating wrongdoers are declared to be true. But worst of all, WRM has been fed with a shameless falsification of historical records, false records of tribal occupation in Northern Thailand and that of forest clearance there.
How long have tribal peoples been living in the highland forests? Since "time immemorial" as WRM has understood? The Thais, both the Tai Noi, those of us occupying present day Thailand and the Tai Yai of the Shan States and Mae Hong Son, have always settled in the valleys. The Karen and the Lua, our indigenous tribal peoples generally settled in forests mid- catchment, swiddening rotationally and maintaining a healthy forest cover, at least while their populations didn't increase overwhelmingly. Records of the Karen presence go back to the 17th Century; the Lua were present when the Thais migrated into the country 1000 years ago. The mountains were left undisturbed; water and forest resources were plentiful.
Occupation of the high altitude forests first began when opium growing peoples migrated from China in the 1880's (Geddes 1968. Migrants of the Mountains) slashing and burning clearings to grow hill rice, maize and opium which will not grow well at lower altitudes. By 1947 there were around 20,000 opium growing peoples in the hills, but Thailand still had 74% forest cover and any damage to the headwaters of rivers was containable (Royal Thai Forest Dept -RFD records).After the chinese revolution of 1949, three waves of refugee migration swelled the highland population, the largest being in the early 1970s. Registration of the first Hmong settlement on Doi Inthanon was made in. 1970, the rest followed in 1975 (Chomthong District Office).
Records of the other opium growing peoples follow the same pattern, small numbers of migration arriving before 1950, but rapidly swelling their numbers after 1970 (Chaturabhand 1988). Present numbers of traditional opium growing people are in excess of 315,000 (Tribal Research Instititute 1995). Since the Second World War, Thailand has been the only relatively peaceful country surrounded by neighbours at war. Vast numbers of refugees have fled - and are continuing to flee from China, Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. These people are political refugees, not indigenous tribal peoples. The historical record then is that, apart from the Lua and the Karen whose settlements in mid-catchment are not threatening the nations forest and water resources, the large majority of highland settlements were made no longer 30 years ago, most of them much less. This is hardly "time immemoria"; hardly enough time for their lands to be called "ancestral" To quote WRM : (Let us) "allow those with the knowledge and experience to preserve that which they have been protecting for centuries."
In their shifting cultivation the opium-growing peoples use the long cultivation/very long fallow system. "In areas that have been cultivated in this fashion the forest almost never returns within a human lifetime" (Kunstadter 1978, Farmers in the Forest). Cultivation patterns of this kind are more suited to valley farmin, true to the Hmongs origins in the Yangtze and Yellow river basins. They have never developed forest resource management strategies, viewing forest land as free consumable goods. (Kunstader ibid.)
Forest cover in Mae Hong Son province is greater than that of neighbouring provinces because much of its rugged mountain terrain is hard of access and the population therefore much lower. Of this population the latest figures (1996) show that 55% are Tai Yai, 5% Northern Thai and 40% are hilltribes, not the 80% quoted in the article (Mae Hong Son Provincial Records). The office has just reported that more of the forest is being lost, whole hills being converted to cabbage fields by the Hmong. WRM: "The only known way of life (is) threathened."
Roads have been constructed into the highlands and electricity now reaches into formerly remote areas. With this ease of communication, tribal communities naturally wish to share in the conveniences that the new technology they see on TV brings. This means greater market production, their ways of life changing from farming for subsistence to farming for profits. The idea of an innocent ethnic peoples practicing their timeless traditional wisdom is an attractive one. But no group of people can remain isolated and unchanging in our rapidly "developing" society, the younger generation of tribal people are especially eager for change. Farming on a commercial scale rather than for subsistence has inevitably meant greater use of soil and water resources. Ever wider areas of forest have been and are being removed for the growing of cash crops, especially in anticipation of the survey ordered by the Cabinet Decisions of April 1997 giving land rights in protected forests to those who can prove occupation before 1993, such "proof" can be as flimsy as a neighbour's word. There is less harm in forest clearance on this scale if the clearance is in the lowlands. But it is not. It is being done in the upper watershed forests, the fragile and critical areas where the headwaters of our rivers are formed.
The baseline of any decision made on the feasibility of forest settlements. must be ecological sustainability. And this depends on forest type, its altitude and the morphological structure of the landscape. In England there is concern, sometimes bordering on panic when there is a 2- month drought. In monsoonal climates, such as that of Northern Thailand, the drought is regularly 7 and sometimes 9 months long. No rain falls during this time. In such situations soils have to be deep and rich enough in humus to hold the rains, controlling its flow so that watercourses continue to run, filled with rain that fell several months ago.
High altitude (over 1000 metres) evergreen forests can produce such soil. In the cooler temperatures of these forests decomposition of organic material is slower, allowing a high build up of organic material in contrast to the lower forests where higher temperatures speed up decomposition. There is little chance for any build up of humus in such conditions and soil remains poor - as in a rainforest. But the soils of our high evergreen forests are deep enough and rich enough to hold the monsoonal rains as they fall, releasing them as perennial streams throughout the year. This is why we advocate that these forests be kept free of human activity. Not so they can be kept in "pristing condition for day excursions of the rich", but so as to ensure the survival of us all. (The issue of environmental survival is simple. But the social circumstances are far more complex than appearances would suggest, not at all a case of rich vs. poor or modern man vs tribal people.) One of our gravest concerns over the Cabinet Decisions of April 1997 is that it is yet another attempt to secure land holdings by real estate developers and land speculators, many of whom are in every government who have already encroached on forest land to build golf courses and tourist resorts) Not all forests need be free of human habitation. Settlements in the lower forests, such as those in mid-catchment made by the Karen and the Lua are perfectly sustainable if they hold to their tradititional management practices. Settlements in Reserve forests where Community forestry will increase the nations forest cover should be encouraged and supported.
But the evergreen headwater forest should be areas of strict conservation as their removal brings about environmental disaster. Heavy rains wash away the soil which quickly silts up dams, reservoirs and rivers. With little soil left to hold the rains, the headwaters dry up, as do subsequently the streams to the valleys. 72 of the 76 provinces of Thailand now suffer regularly from dried up streams due to the destruction of their headwater forests. And in 1996, floods drowned livestock, ruined crops and property in 64 provinces. Every rainy season now, lowland paddies are buried under 2-3 metres of sand. Lamyai orchards keel over under the impact of coffee-coloured water thundering down the mountains. Even in the rainy season, many lowlanders are unable to grow their crops. In the dry season, their watercourses and their wells dry up. Massive siltation has reduced reservoirs to a fraction of their planned capacity.
Villagers queue with buckets to buy water from municipal trucks. In such heat as we have experienced this year, the suffering is unimaginable unless you have suffered similarly yourself. The Northern Farmers Network does not address lowlanders problems, since over 95% of its members are highlanders. The Assembly of the Poor deals with Northeasterners problems. So up to now, the problems of the lowlanders in the North have had no exposure. They have had no voice. But their desperation has forced them to act. A recent protest held by 10.000 lowland farmers to draw attention to their plight drew a startling 40.000 strong support, some people travelling over 90kms to swell the protest. There had been no lobbying. The spontaneous gathering showed that they, too, were victims of the same conditions.
What the WRM was informed of as being "a smear campaign" is simply that after years of being suppressed, the true facts of highland forest destruction are beginning to emerge. But you should not take my word for it. Neither should you take the word of the Northern Farmers Network, or their Bangkok based supporting organisations. Please dont take anybodys word. The only truthful and reliable source of environmental matters is the environment itself. Drive up the rugged mountain roads of Samoeng and Mae Sariang and see the cabbages and carnations, the potatoes and the gerberas stretching across the ridges where once great forests stood. Have the courage to listen only to the shaven hills and believe only the evidence of your own eyes. M.R. Smansnid Svasti.
Reply to M. R. Smansanid Svasti
First, it is false to say that high-altitude forests were first occupied when "opium- growing peoples migrated from China in the 1880s". In fact, Karen and Lua peoples had settled throughout the mountains at varying heights by an earlier date, including above the 1000-meter mark. This is easily validated by the presence of Karen villages at or above that height with recorded histories going back over three hundred years.
While it is true that the population of these areas has increased with subsequent migrations, M. R. Smansanids image of "vast numbers" of refugees fleeing into the country from China, Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Vietnam should be viewed in context. Tribal peoples currently constitute only 1.3 per cent of the total population of Thailand, or fewer than 750,000 people. Of these, almost half are Karen or Lua, acknowledged by M. R. Smansanid herself as being indigenous to Thailand. Thailands migrant populations, moreover, are not all "traditional opium growers". The figure quoted by M. R. Smansanid as 315,000 persons is inaccurate and presumably includes peoples other than the Hmong, Mien, Lahu, Lisu and Akha who have grown opium in the past. For these peoples, a figure of 265,000 would be closer to the truth.
M. R. Smansanits use of the phrase "traditional opium growers" as an inflammatory epithet must also be questioned. Before the Thai government outlawed it in 1970, opium production was indeed for many highlanders a convenient escape from poverty -- and one strongly encouraged by outsiders. Following the ban, however, poppy cultivation declined, partly as a result of the intervention of the many development schemes run in the area by both the Thai government and international development agencies. M. R. Smansanid considers that the first Hmong settlements in the Doi Inthanond area were established in the 1970s. However, anthropological research conducted in 1973 showed that a Hmong village had already been occupying a Chomthong District site for 15 years, and moreover had previously occupied a village site nearby. This places Hmong habitation in the area at least as early as the 1950s.
M. R. Smansanids response also contains a serious mistake concerning the Northern Farmers Network (NFN). The NFNs membership is not 95 per cent hilltribes, as she states. Of the 107 villages in Northern Thailand who are members of NFN, approximately 40 are lowland Thai villages. The rest consist of Lahu, Hmong, Karen, and Lua communities. M. R. Smansanid herself does not see the farming methods of these last two groups as threatening the nation's forest and water resources. Of the 107 villages making up the NFN, in fact, only approximately ten are Lahu or Hmong. Once the nature of the NFN is understood, accordingly, it is difficult to see what foundation there is for the charge that the NFN does not address lowlanders problems. Nor is the Assembly of the Poor merely the representative of Northeasterners, as M. R. Smansanid claims. The Assembly also represents the poor of the North, including its lowlands.
Moreover, the Cabinet Declarations of the 17th and 29th of April 1997 were agreed to not only by the NFN and the Assembly of the Poor, but also by numerous other peoples organizations, with the explicit intention of demonstrating that all the peoples in the north of Thailand -- lowlanders and highlanders, indigenous and migrants -- supported them. Thus the decision to back the handing over the conservation of community forests to the villages within forests was made by all the peoples. Moreover, this decision is in keeping with action proposals by the Inter-governmental Panel on Forest (IPF) relating to national forest and land use programmes.
The panel Encouraged countries to elaborate systems, including private and community forest management systems, for planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating national forest programmes that identify and involve, where appropriate, a broad participation of indigenous people, forest dwellers, forest owners and local communities in meaningful decision-making regarding the management of state forest lands in their proximity, within the context of national laws and legislation . It is in fact only in Chomthong District that these Cabinet Declarations are being contested. However, in a truly democratic society all people must have their say, and therefore it is important to examine carefully the recent protests in Chomthong. These protests, which are directed against the allocation of land rights to hilltribes, are premised on the supposed necessity of relocating peoples from high evergreen forests in Doi Inthanond National Park.
There are two points to note here. First, the policy of forced relocation of peoples from conservation areas has rightly been superseded in Thailand, having in the past turned out to be a dismal failure, as attested to by a government evaluation in 1988. It is also worth remembering that the International Labour Organization Convention 169 concerning indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries recognizes The rights of the peoples concerned to the natural resources pertaining to their lands shall be specially safeguarded. These rights include the right of these peoples to participate in the use, management and conservation of these resources . In addition, Article 7 (c.) of the United Nations Draft Declaration on Human Rights accords to indigenous peoples the right not to be subject to "any population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights" -- including that of living on, and holding title to, their lands. This rights are now recognized by major international conservation organizations e.g. World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) .
Second, the Chomthong protests have recently taken a particularly nasty turn which is far from conducive to democratic discussion. On 22 March, for example, lowlanders attacked the monastery in Baan Khun Klang, one of five Hmong villages in the disputed area, destroying a pavilion which sheltered Buddha images, removing two statues, and returning to the lowlands with them. A monk present at the monastery attested that he saw eight Forest Department officials assigned to Doi Inthanond National Park taking part in the destruction, along with 100 others. For such steps to be taken in a Buddhist country such as Thailand, where monks are accorded much respect, is a frightening sign of the hostility and prejudice which have been inculcated in certain groups of lowlanders during this dispute.
The 22 March incident was followed by a demonstration of lowland people at Chiang Mai University on 21 April which saw the burning of the effigies of two faculty members who support the Chomthong hilltribes. Such incidents scarcely need comment, but it must be emphasized that it is the sincere hope of the highlanders in the Chomthong district that acts of violence against them and their supporters stop. Recent lowlanders demonstrations which closed the road leading to highland villages are also of concern, since they prevented highlanders from attending meetings intended to settle this dispute. The most serious charge of those opposing settlements of people in Doi Inthanond National Park is that the environmental damage in the area is the result of the cultivation practices of the hilltribes in the area. Now it is undeniable that commercial mono-cropping practices adopted by Hmong communities as a result of opium reduction programs backed by the government and international development agencies have been detrimental to the environment. The point, however, is to approach this problem in a peaceful way, and one which addresses the roots of the difficulty.
Hilltribes themselves have consistently been at the forefront of this effort. The Hmong themselves, for example, established the Hmong Environment Protection Network in 1989, a network which has received very little help from the government. With the help of the Royal Project, they have been developing and testing more sustainable alternatives to commercial mono cropping for many years. The King of Thailand himself holds that the solution to the agricultural problems of the Hmong can be found in situ, and recent developments support this view. In the Hmong village Khun Sar, for instance, the transition from commercial mono-cropping to wet-rice agriculture was "made without any incentives or pressure from external agencies". Karen communities have also continually adapted to change, altering their rotational farming system to incorporate agro- forestry and increasing their reliance on paddy fields where possible. This, it should be noted, is the result of the desire of the Karen to adapt to the governments image of effective conservation tactics, general misinformation has led to a misunderstanding of the conservation and environmental protection inherent in the rotational farming system as practices by the Karen. M. R. Smansanid Svasti is thus incorrect to suggest that we have attempted to purvey the image of "innocent ethnic peoples practicing their timeless traditions". On the contrary, we stress the fact that the agricultural practices of the hilltribes have undergone many changes and will continue to do so.
The traditional protection that the tribal highlanders have given their fields and surrounding forest from fire has been extended in recent years. They have constructed and maintained fire breaks around all areas where cultivation takes place. In Chomthong district, they have also built a network of fire protection lines which ring sensitive forested areas. In addition, they make great efforts to extinguish fires, including those which encroach on their areas from surrounding zones. Hilltribe fire fighting efforts in Doi Inthanond National Park have proven particularly important during this years dry season, which has seen a number of fires spreading from hunting fires and customary seasonal fires set by lowlanders to aid in gathering forest products such as mushrooms. One reason the Parks fire load this year has been especially heavy, evidence suggests, is small-scale arson on the part of disgruntled seasonal forestry workers in the Parks pine plantations, who have been angered at the inability of the Forest Department to pay them due to budget cuts. Whatever the causes of the blazes, however, highland villagers from the area fought the fires every day for weeks in their hundreds, with many ultimately having to visit hospital for treatment for minor burns and severe smoke inhalation.
Given this sort of dedication to forest protection, it is ironic that this years forest fires have actually been blamed on hilltribes. This scapegoating has taken place in the face of the clearest evidence that highland agriculture is not the cause. The areas worst affected by burning, for example, have slopes of over 70 degrees or are otherwise rocky and unsuitable for cultivation by any of the methods used by the hilltribes in the area. No conceivable reason exists to explain why hilltribes would have set such fires. Relocation of hilltribes from the area, far from protecting its forests, would result in the loss of the fire protection and firefighting services which highlanders currently provide free of charge to the government.
Mountain communities have also helped shoulder the burden of protecting forests against illegal logging. People found logging are fined by hilltribe communities, with the support of the Forest Department. In the event that highlanders are themselves implicated in forest damage, every assistance is given by the villagers to solve the problems. In Mae Hong Son, where forest cover is still high, many leaders of highland communities have lost their lives trying to stop illegal logging. Here too, the patient and painstaking attempts of various hilltribe groups continually to seek new ways of protecting and nurturing forests is in marked contrast to the violent approach to environmental problem- solving evident in Chomthong during the past few months.
We believe that continual and open-minded inquiry into the deeper roots of environmental degradation in Northern Thailand is crucial to a peaceful and democratic resolution to the current controversy. Here it is important to examine carefully the claim that water shortages plaguing the lowlands are always due to loss of forest cover due to agriculture on the higher slopes. Experiments show, for example, that Imperata cylindrica grass growing in fallow areas of the Karen fields actually retain water better than a full forest cover. Such research suggests that it is the density of the growth on the ground which determines how well water is retained, not the humus beneath.
Environmental damage can in fact be traced to many causes in addition to commercial agriculture. For example, since Highway 1009 was built directly through the Doi Inthanond area in 1972-3, not only small landslides but also "massive movements" of soil have appeared along its path during every rainy season. In addition, the Forest Department has cleared much original forest growth in the Doi Inthanond area to establish pine plantations, whose structure and relative lack of understory are known to have a deleterious effect on water retention capabilities of soils.
Unsustainable agricultural practices in the lowlands also play a part in water shortages. Water usage in the lowlands has more than doubled in recent years. The spread of large plantations of lamyai trees, whose roots are literally submerged in irrigation water, combined with the increasing incidence of double cropping, has increased pressures on water resources. Along the banks of the river that flows down from the mountains in Chomthong, new lines of irrigation pumps have appeared in the last five years. New tourist resorts and golf courses also add dramatically to water demand. Given the abnormally low level of rain that Thailand has been experiencing recently, it is hardly any wonder that the water supply has not been sufficient.
M. R. Smansanid suggests that the Cabinet Declarations of April 1997 should be opposed because they would pave the way for developers and land speculators to gain access to the highlands. It is precisely this that we are trying to prevent. The Declarations of the 17th and the 29th of April were supported by the organizations representative of the peoples of Northern Thailand on the ground that they gave hereditary rights to the land, which cannot be sold or otherwise passed to people other than the direct descendants of the current farmers. Uses of this land, moreover, are legally restricted. However, an additional Declaration on the 22nd of April 1997 does not have the support of the Northern Farmers Network and the Assembly of the Poor because it does leave a loophole which developers could take advantage of. It is the possible effects of this particular declaration on the sensitive areas of the highlands about which all right- thinking Thais should be concerned, and we would ask M. R. Smansanid to join with us in seeking a remedy to this loophole.
In sum, there is no good reason to push for forced relocation of highland villages in Chomthong District. What is needed is for an effective solution to the dispute to be found which is accepted by all groups. This will only be possible with open and honest discussion between all the parties involved. As Nithi Eawsriwong, a Chiangmai University academic, has suggested, a wide-ranging study of the water usage by both highlanders and lowlanders should be conducted this would allow a starting point for the clear factual discussions which are needed, discussions free of the sort of slander and hostility which has unfortunately dogged the footsteps of this dispute. There are serious problems facing the peoples in Chomthong, problems which mirror the environmental problems in all of Thailand. The problems of the highlanders, stemming from the externally imposed development policies, and the problems of the lowlanders, stemming from agricultural changes occurring too quickly for the available resources are reconcilable and it is our fervent hope that the environmental protection essential for the preservation of Thailands invaluable watershed areas can be provided in a manner which will benefit all.
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