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Who is Responsible for Confiscating Akha Lands?

May 10, 2008
There is a long history of Thai prejudice toward hill tribes, but that does not necessarily explain everything about why the hill tribes have been removed from their lands in and around forests. As Chris Lang, Larry Lohmann, Chupinit Kesmanee, Reiner Buergin and many others have pointed out, there have been some powerful interests who have been wanting access to Thai forest lands for a long time. The British actually started Thailand's Royal Forestry Department and exported much of the Thai forest early on, setting a precedent. And for decades now, foreign advisors from many countries have been pushing their way in to grab what forest land is left and turn it into profitable tree plantations.

Jaakko Poyry (now known just as Poyry) is a company from Finland that seems to have shaped the modern pulp and paper industry in southeast Asia more than almost any other force except maybe the Asian Development Bank itself. Pulp and paper industry consultants like Poyry essentially advise governments to confiscate the poor farmers' subsistence agriculture lands so that tree plantations can be planted for export and for great profit that will never trickle down to the original land users. Companies such as Advance Agro in Thailand are central to these operations. Under such schemes, pine and eucalyptus plantations have proliferated all over Thailand. And there has recently been acceleration of the rate of growth of oil palm plantation acreage (measured in millions of rai and hectares) as the demand for biofuels has grown.

Now jatropha plantations are being planted as oil sources for biodiesel, on what used to be hill tribe food-growing lands. This is clearly a bad idea not only because of all that has become clear to everyone recently about biofuels generally raising food prices by reducing land available for food crops, but because the very land that is being "reforested" with biofuel trees used to be land that provided for the food needs of these people, and right now it is not certain whether the new biofuel "cash crop" will even bring in any income to the people effected by such biofuel development projects. At any rate rice prices are going so high the Thais are calling in the military to protect stored rice. This raises an urgent question; how are the people who have been dispossessed by the plantations going to acquire even basic staple foods? We don't know.

As for why there would be a push to plant fuel crops on food land: there are still biofuel quotas in place in Thailand of course. So oil palm is being propagated rapidly all over the place and there are calls for more jatropha to be planted. Which means there are plantations for "oil" companies (petroleum companies wanting fuel ingredients as well as food companies wanting edible oils as ingredients), and there are plantations for "pulp and paper" companies, each traditionally doing their major land grabs independently. But because of relatively recent developments these two kinds of companies have interests that are converging. Besides the pressure to plant trees coming from industries given incentives to plant more as "carbon offsets," we fear there will be even more pressure leading to evictions due to corporate desires to plant more oil plantations, for "trees-as-fuel" enterprises such as Weyerhaeuser-Chevron's "Catchlight", for General Motors, for ArborGen and others. There will be more pressure than ever to push villagers off of food lands.

Weyerhaeuser just reported they are having rough times financially, and they may close mills in the pacific northwest of the US. What might that mean for the areas surrounding and connected to the new highway from Thailand to China through northern Laos where there are huge land concessions being given to the Chinese and others? Might these be profitable new ventures for Weyerhaeuser?

There is a man named Horst Weyerhaeuser who classified certain hill tribes' swidden agriculture as "unsustainable" and helped make maps that gave the Thai Royal Development Projects a pretext to evict hill tribes from the lands they customarily used. Horst Weyerhaeuser is a fan of getting high-yield jatropha started in China. He does "studies," he does not necessarily always make "recommendations." But policy makers and development project planners certainly use his reports. Plodprasop Suraswadi, the "forests without people" Royal Forestry Dept head who was directly responsible for evicting thousands of people from subsistence lands, has worked closely with Horst Weyerhaeuser through the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) and David E. Thomas in Chiang Mai.

While there certainly is a general prejudice on the part of many Thais toward hill tribes, the responsibility for the profoundly unfair and brutal treatment of the hill tribes can often be traced to individuals who can be named, and also to the agencies and projects that they direct.

The World Agroforestry Center is just one of many organizations which has worked with the Royal Development Projects (RDPs). Using donations from many different companies and individuals (and even the US government), the RDPs, through the Chaipattana foundation started by the king of Thailand, have made arbitrarily confiscating land and relocating ethnic minority villagers commonplace. In the cases of Hooh Yoh and Pah Nmm Akha villages, the man primarily responsible for the confiscations of the land for pine and jatropha plantations seems to be Mechai Viravaidya.

Mechai Viravaidya is a name many people are familiar with. He's famous for his promotion of family planning in Thailand. Condoms are named after him there. He's been a senator as well as a director or board member of many Thai ministries and companies. Besides having planted Akha rice lands over with pine, he and his Population and Development Association (PDA) provided the 26,000 jatropha seedlings or saplings that were planted on lands that hill tribes previously used for their subsistence needs. "Plant a Tree Today" is the organization that helped do the planting of the jatropha, while the Khom Loy project was the group that welcomed the trees on behalf of the villages (six reported so far) that have had them planted on their land. Mechai's Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) and his PDA had signs up claiming credit for the new pine plantations and "development projects" that had been imposed all over Akha rice lands.

Now this is all very bewildering. Mechai runs the palm oil company Lam Soon. The PTT itself has also just started a Palm Oil outfit called Thai Oleo. Remember biodiesel, often made from palm oil, has been mandated to be a percentage (10% last time we checked) of the Thai diesel fuel supply, but not nearly enough plantations are already in place to provide that much oil. Mechai is also involved with Mobil Oil Thailand, and also with Chrysler (a promoter of biodiesel), according to his curriculum vitae. It is probably safe to assume that Mechai's companies would be the major exporters of Thai biodiesel once the industry grows more. We do not know what sort of role Mechai plays at all his other companies. But whether he's a CEO or "just a board member," he has tremendous influence. His humanitarian projects with the PDA seem to be saturated with conflicts of interest. He encourages for-profit companies to help "develop" villages and agricultural lands, and it is hard for us to believe that all people involved are to be trusted to do what is best for the villages.

We believe Mechai stands to gain personally in many ways from the development vision he promotes. And he may plow all profits back into his humanitarian projects as he says he does, but that does not mean that the commercial enterprises he works with are not profit-maximizing enterprises with all their attendant "externalizing of costs" and temptations to take advantage of poor villagers. Even if Mechai were as pure and well-intentioned as he presents himself, not everyone working with these enterprises is going to be a saint like Mechai. But his projects have already been total disasters for the Akha, and by no means do we consider him a saint.

We are finding out more every day about the people responsible for stealing land and starving thousands in northern Thailand, and we will soon see them held accountable for what they have done.

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