173rd Meeting – September 1998

 Community Forestry in Northern Thailand

A talk by Karan Aquino

 Your Convenor writes: There was no summary written for this talk at the time, however, this case study which was co-written by Karan and appeared in the publication ‘Communities and Forest Management in Southeast Asia’ covers everything that Karan talked about during the course of the evening.

 Chom Thong District, Northern Thailand

The Thai case study was contributed to this publication by Karan Aquino and Karen Lawrence, with additional materials drawn from the fine work of the Northern Development Foundation in Chiang Mai and TERRA staff (Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance) in Bangkok.


This case study examines events in Chom Thong district in northern Thailand where the need for new protected areas and expanding lowland water requirements has impacted the upland ethnic minority communities. (Note 40) Because of the complexity of the situation, which involves government needs for conservation, increasing lowland water use, and the criminalization of upland communities, this conflict over resource rights found its way to the center of the national debate in the late 1990s. (Note 41) With the assistance of the Northern Development Foundation, the Northern Farmer's Network, and other NGOs, upland communities are organizing to better respond to the challenges they face from lowland agriculturists and conservation groups, such as the Chom Thong Conservation Club and the Dhammamaat Foundation. (Note 42)

History and Context  

Chom Thong district is located in Chiang Mai Province in northern Thailand. The Karen established the village of Ban Klang along the banks of the Mae Klang River 200 years ago. In 1972, Doi Inthanon National Park was demarcated in the uplands above the village which includes Thailand's highest peak, Doi Inthanon. Parts of the park and upper watershed are the home of the Karen, Hmong and other ethnic minority groups. Water from the Mae Klang River, which originates in the upper watersheds of Doi Inthanon, irrigates longan fruit (lamyai) orchards and paddy fields in the lowlands of Chom Thong.

In 1985, in response to accelerating forest depletion in Thailand, the government set a goal to maintain at least 40 percent of the nation's land as natural forest. To achieve this goal, the government extended and strengthened state control over reserve forests and protected areas including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and watershed areas. Communities were not permitted to live in or use and harvest resources in the strictly defined protection zone, Watershed 1A, and were allowed only limited use and harvesting in the buffer zone.

To demarcate the forests, Royal Forestry Department (RFD) officials relied on satellite images, assuming that older secondary forests were uninhabited. Because of this assumption and underlying political considerations, upland communities were not consulted during the process of demarcation. Thai NGOs and university staff organized a series of community-based mapping exercises in the north to demonstrate that many forests corresponded to areas traditionally managed by upland communities. (Note 43) Despite this information, land use planning decisions were communicated to upland residents sometimes years after the plans were already developed.

The government regulations have brought dissension among upland communities, especially in the north, where inhabited forestland has been designated protected or conservation areas, artificially creating "illegal" residents out of many upland communities. While many RFD officers feel it is better to develop management partnerships with forest-dependent communities, other government planners and administrators contend that the only alternative is to remove established upland communities and resettle them in the lowlands.

Resettlement is also an important component in the strategy of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). According to the ADB's program director, Norita-ka Moirta, "Nearly 60 million people are living in forest and hill areas of the six Mekong countries ... we may have to relocate the population of people in mountainous areas and bring them to normal life." (Note 44) Many communities were relocated to areas with limited amounts of marginal farmland, or to areas already settled, resulting in social conflict and sometimes further forest encroachment. While it is unclear which protected areas and watersheds have benefited from resettlement, it is clear that ethnic minority groups have faired poorly.

In the last two decades, businessmen from Bangkok and Chiang Mai have purchased land and orchards in the lowland areas and expanded longan cultivation on land near Chom Thong. Longan orchards have increased more than six times since 1975, an area of about 50 square kilometers. This growth has encouraged a parallel increase in the consumption of water for irrigation. The lack of water has sparked a reevaluation of the district's resource management systems causing a serious rift between the lowland and upland people.

Traditionally, lowland Thai farmers managed their water resources through their water users' organization (muang faai), which operated 15 weirs and three reservoirs in Chom Thong district. But, in 1989 they established the Chom Thong Watershed and Environment Conservation Club, which eventually included the operation of all the weirs in the district. In this conflict, the club has become allied with the Dhammanaat Foundation for Conservation and Rural Development, which was founded by a Buddhist monk, Phra Ajam Pongsak Tejadhammo, the current president.

Resources in Conflict

The issues in the Chom Thong district have intensified the debate about the relationship between lowland and upland communities. Communities in the lowland, supported by various interest groups, have demanded that upland ethnic minority villagers be resettled in order to place their lands under protection and conservation. On the other side of this debate, the upland people and their supporters maintain that rights of indigenous upland communities to practice sustainable forest management are being usurped and that the decrease in water is being caused by changing weather patterns and growing agricultural pressures in the lowland.

An example of how these divergent views have created serious conflicts among the people of Chom Thong occurred when there was a drastic loss of fruit trees during a severe drought in 1998. The conservation club blamed the upland villagers who they said started many forest fires in order to open new farms. By disturbing the watershed, club leaders claimed the Karen were responsible for diminishing the water flow. When asked about this, upland villagers retorted that businessmen who wanted to build resorts in the national park started the fires. According to Mr. Kerd Panakumnerd, a Hmong community leader:


In February or March, someone sneaked in and burnt the forest somewhere above Khun Lang waterfall. The fire lasted one night and half a day, then we managed to stop it. I don't know who did this. It might be someone with bad intentions. He might want to provoke conflicts between us and the lowlanders. (Note 45)


The Dhammanaat Foundation has focused their efforts in this area by trying to restore the watershed forests, promote agricultural development in the lower valleys, and resettle the upland villagers. They initially saw their role as one of educating the villagers as to the nature of the watershed process and assisting them in creating a more sustainable system for watershed management, but they have become increasingly rigid in establishing fenced-off areas of conservation and restricting access. The first barbed wire fence was put up in 1984 in the uplands near Pa Klauy, becoming a symbol for the values held by the foundation. But, it was the proposal of resettlement that has become the most controversial issue. M.R. Smansnid Svasti, vice president of Dhammanaat is a firm believer that only resettlement can protect the watershed:


People living in these very fragile steep sloped areas will inevitably damage the forest. But they've got to eat. So they've got to chop down tree. Anybody living there will inevitably destroy the forest. No one should live there. (Note 46)


The campaign to resettle the hill people in Pa Klauy and other communities within the watershed started in January 1997 and escalated in May with the conservation club blocking the four access roads to the highlands. With the assistance of other environmental NGOs, the Chom Thong Conservation Club demanded that the government overturn a series of 1997 cabinet resolutions that strengthened the rights of local communities to manage their forests. In June 1998, a new resolution effectively cancelled those previously supportive of the rights of upland communities and returned authority to the RFD (Note 47). Mr. Thao Sae Va, a Hmong leader from Pa Kluay commented:


The road blockade made trouble for people. We are only a minority and we didn't know how to react to this ... Water shortage has always been a key problem that the lowlanders use to attack us ... This year there has been a severe drought because of El Nino. The agriculture in the lowlands requires much water for longan orchards ... they all plant longan which need to be watered even in the dry season, so they consume much water from the rivers. (Note 48)


Mr. Thao Sae Va also noted that the Hmong villages were trying to adapt their behavior to minimize their impact on the watershed. He noted that the Hmong community had reduced its land use by half, with the average household only owning approximately one hectare (5 to 6 rai).


In the past we used a large area of land to grow opium, rice, and corn by rotational farming. We were told that old way of agriculture was not sustainable and that it damaged forest and natural resources. Now we are trying to do mix-cultivation farming planting flowers and trees like plum and peach, which require smaller areas. (Note 49)

The Northern Farmer’s Network

In response to the growing conflict throughout northern Thailand, the Northern Development Foundation (NDF) assisted in the formation of the Kor Gor Nor or Northern Farmer's Network (NFN) which links 107 villages located in 14 sub-watersheds in the upper northern region of Thailand. Many of the villages fall within the proposed or established boundaries of 19 different protected areas. The network strives to promote community forestry and local participation in natural resource management. It also promotes the application of indigenous knowledge to management strategies. The member villages of the NFN are predominantly upland and highland villages of ethnic minority groups, predominantly Karen, Hmong, and Lahu peoples, though other ethnic groups, as well as lowland Thai communities, are starting to join. The network operates in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Lamphun, Lampang, Tak, and Kamphaengphet provinces, with its regional office in Chiang Mai City.

NFN member villages are all heavily dependent on forests for subsistence and for meeting nutritional, health, spiritual and sometimes economic requirements. All NFN members possess forest management committees and promulgate forest use regulations in addition to managing community forest funds through annual household fees. Along with the forest committee, each member village belongs to a cluster of communities sharing the same watershed. Representatives from watershed networks participate in NFN regional meetings held monthly. NFN coordinators rotate the monthly meeting among member villages to better expose one another to specific local issues. The NFN operates through elected executive and working committees.

NFN member communities agree that cooperation with lowland communities is a key to sustaining the upper watersheds, and that a decentralized approach that empowers each village to control its own resources is in order. At the same time, the NFN acknowledges that both highlanders and lowlanders will need to conserve these resources carefully as populations expand.

It is important that people living in each area have their own watershed community forest. Forests in the highland watersheds, that hill people have taken care of, might be able to supply water needed now in both the agricultural areas of the highlands and lowlands. But it certainly cannot keep pace with the ever-increasing demands for water and forest made by the lowlanders. What we need is cooperation between people to protect the forests so there is a mutual benefit in the recovery of forests in both the lowlands and highlands that helps keep all watersheds in balance. (Note 50)

The primary objective of the NFN is to encourage the government to involve local communities and People's Organizations (POs) in natural resource management and in the development of policies and legislation that affect them, particularly in the areas of community forestry and dam construction. The NFN works to build the capacity of local leaders and groups, including women's groups and youth groups. The NFN has a clear role in building alliances among villages, and in supporting local village responses to land and forest issues. The NFN strategy is for villages to exchange experiences and lessons learned and to seek ways of developing more appropriate and sustainable approaches to centralized state resource management policies.

The NFN has increased awareness of government policies in rural areas and begun to work with local communities to map traditional land use areas, now called "community forests" so that protected area boundaries can be renegotiated where they overlap. Traditional land use regimes are documented to help local people communicate with both the government and society at large to demonstrate their capacity and willingness to manage forest resources in a responsible and sustainable manner.

New Production and Management Systems

As members of the NFN, the Karen and Hmong communities in the upper watershed of Chom Thong district, with their support of other NGOs, have tightened rules for forest use. In response to these new management strategies, Mr. Thao Sae Va stated:


We set up regulations and restrictions. The conservation forest has a strict prohibition, whereby its use is not permitted. In the case of the reservation forest, some activities are allowed, but are strictly monitored... Animal hunting is prohibited... Also every villager has responsibility for monitoring and taking care of the forest. (Note 51)


But, concerning the prospect of the Hmong and Karen communities being forced to resettle, Mr. Thao Sae Va commented:


The Chong Thong Conservation Club took us to the resettlement area to have a look. But the land we saw was very infertile ... there was no water supply in that area ... We have long been settled here [since 1939]. We have developed the land, and now our plants have grown. If we had to resettle, we would have to start over again to cultivate and develop the land. It would be very difficult for all of us to survive in that kind of situations. (Note 52)


The villagers in the Mae Kiang watershed are typical of many residents in upland settlements. They have changed their traditional practices, learning new resource management skills, and have responded to local RFD requests to stop shifting cultivation, even though many of these traditional systems work within the regenerative capacity of the forests. Many villagers in the highlands are willing to reforest former fields now left fallow. They are also strengthening their organizations to protect their forests against fire and illegal loggers.

This conflict underscores the tactic of exploiting tensions that influential lowlanders often use to assert their rights to access natural resources. Unfortunately, as this case study demonstrates, they are highly divisive. By demanding the removal of certain upland/highland communities, some environmentalists are eliminating potential allies in the effort to conserve natural environments. Upland communities, especially when given assistance and support, are highly effective forest-fire fighters and protectors of the watershed. Evidence from other countries in similar situations indicates that forest cover quality and the hydrological functioning of watersheds will return if communities are able to mobilize and establish "social fences" to control and restrict access. Reflecting on the increasingly stigmatized identity of his community, Mr. Thao Sae Va concluded:


Being a hill tribe member is the same as being a criminal, although the crimes committed were encouraged by the government. But even criminals can change and become good people, only if society gives them the chance. We Hmong people are now preserving our forests, regenerating those areas denuded by the opium and the cash crops. We only ask you to give us a chance to prove that we can take care of our forests. (Note 53)


Ethnic minority communities located in the Mae Klang watershed, both within Doi Inthanon National Park and on its periphery, have formed the Watershed Forest Committee under the broader framework of the Northern Farmer's Network. The Watershed Forest Committee is made up of two member representatives from each of the 11 participating villages. Each village also maintains a forest committee with 5 to 7 members. Village activities include monitoring forest use, surveying, and fire fighting. In recent years, the committee has formulated a number of rules for member communities. These include:

·         Do not expand agricultural area, especially into forest areas.

·         Do not sell land to outsiders.

·         Do not cut trees to sell to outsiders.

·         During the burning season, maintain a fire line at all times.

·         All community members must participate in fire control activities.

These rules reflect the growing concerns of upland ethnic minorities over tenure security, threats to the environment, and their increasing commitment to sustainably manage the resources upon which they depend.

There is increasing pressure on the Thai government to ratify a Community Forest Bill that effectively grants all members of the community the legal right to participate in the management of both conservation and non-conservation forest. At the moment, the government still retains the authority to resettle people if it decides that an area should be classified as "natural habitat." According to Professor Anan Kanchanapan of Chiang Mai University, what is needed is a policy that does not engender conflict between communities but stresses a form of participatory management that includes both lowland and upland people. He believes that academies can assist policy makers and government officials by providing them with well-researched information about the value and purpose of upland management strategies and how watershed policies can incorporate them. He writes:


The Politics of conservation is a complex discourse that involves vested interests on one side, and the interests of some of the people of the hills on the other Academics are trying to get all the politics into the open so that people will understand what is going on. (Note 54)

Lessons Learned

Ethnic minority communities in the Mae Klang watershed are experiencing increasing pressure from lowland Thai communities that are competing with them for land and water resources. They also feel threatened by the government whose policies and programs restrict the use of Class 1A Watershed, expand protected areas, and restrict tree cutting, the use of fire, and opium growing. At the same time, upland and highland communities are demonstrating a number of positive adaptive responses, including making greater efforts to conserve and protect forestlands, and respond to the management goals of government and lowland communities. This case yields a number of important lessons.

·        Forest-dependent communities are very aware of the social and environmental pressures that they face and they are willing to take action to respond to strengthen their tenure security by banning timber sales, banning the clearing of forest for new agricultural land, and strictly controlling the use of fire.

·        Upland villagers in northern Thailand are concerned that they will lose control over their resources to land speculators and that they are attempting to protect their cultural community through prohibitions on land sales to outsiders.

·        Better coordination among watershed communities facilitated through networks and federations can accelerate learning regarding ways to stabilize natural resources and reduce conflict with neighbors. Efforts to deal with outside stakeholders through facilitated dialogue have allowed new modes of dispute resolution to evolve.

·        Watershed organizations can provide useful mechanisms to coordinate use and protection activities. Federations can allow for better regional exchange and representation with local government.

·        NGOs and university-based scientists can contribute to facilitating communication among forest-dependent communities and government agencies.

·        The absence of a clear national policy framework supportive of community forest management has made it difficult to resolve fundamental questions regarding the role of residents in managing the natural environment in which they live and subsist. Without enabling national policies, stakeholder dialogues and participatory management initiatives are limited to localized areas and pilot projects, constraining devolution and decentralization processes that could allow more effective systems of forest management to emerge. Thailand teaches us that much can be done in developing CFM initiatives without a formal national policy, but that it is also difficult to move forward with national management transitions without clear policies and a strong political commitment for their implementation.

Northern Development Foundation, Thailand

In the early 1980s, senior NGO leaders arranged a series of workshops and field trips in order to bring together rural development workers in the north of Thailand. The exchange of experience and knowledge proved so valuable that the Northern Development Workers Association (NDWA) was formed to enable the ongoing exchange of information and collaboration between northern NGOs. NDWA began to publish a journal, "Message of the North," to assist in information dissemination.

By the late '80s, given the direction of forest policy and resultant problems in the field, including the growing number of communities under threat of resettlement, NDWA and other NGOs in the north began concerted efforts to support and strengthen emerging community organizations. One such group that was established was the Kor Gor Noror The Northern Development Foundation (NDF), which was founded to link communities by using watershed as an organizing unit. This framework allowed communities to collaborate in defining mutually acceptable directions for conservation and development within the context of the shared watershed. To consolidate its role as a support center for NGOs and Pos working to enhance the forest tenure and security of upland communities, the NDWA was formally registered as the NDF in 1996.

The NDF provides a variety of services to its members and collaborates with other support institutions. With the assistance of the Regional Community Forestry Training Centre (RECOFTC), the NDF forms partners with local communities to conduct counter mapping activities in five major watersheds, including the Wang, Chaem, Khan, Kok and the Upper Ping. The NDF also provides focused leadership development training, The organizational approach of the NDF is highly flexible, allowing it to build alliances with other NGOs and POs. In this manner the NDF is able to extend its information dissemination and support services to those communities not included in the NFN.

Over the last ten years, the NDF has joined with other NGOs and networks to develop the Community Forestry Bill and to lobby the government to ratify it. In April 1997, a series of cabinet resolutions provided NFN communities with time to prove they were living in the forestlands prior to their being designated as protected areas. While these agreements were effectively cancelled in June 1998, the NDF, together with other NGOs and networks, is challenging the legal validity of using old conservation laws that are in conflict with the 1997 Constitution. These new strategies will continue to put pressure on the government to respond to the demands for social justice and equity for upland and highland villagers.



40) For further information on the CFM policy debate in Thailand see an excellent series of articles in the Bangkok Post and The Nation, from January 4 1997 to February 18, 1998. Writers for the Bangkok Post: Subin Khuenkaew, and Cheewin Sattha. Writers for The Nation: Preecha Saardsorn, Kamol Sukin, Pennapa Hongthong, Nittayaporn Muangmit and Sorrayuth Suthassanachinda. See also a report by Peter Hoare, Mr Yangyon Sricharoen, Banharn Silapech entitled "Future Directions in Conununity Forestry Development in the Upper Nan River Basin in North Thailand, "in Community Forestry at a Crossroads: Reflections and Future Directions in the Development of Community Forestry (Bangkok, Thailand: RECOFTC, July 1997).

41) The term "upland" is used to refer to communities and villagers located on the mid and upper slopes from about 400-800 meters, and on the ridges in the highlands above 700 meters.

42) Contributed by Kingkom Narintarakut na Ayutthaya, Karan Aquino and Wirote Dulyasophon. For further information see Pinkaew Laungaramsri "Reconstructing Nature: Community Forest Movement and its Challenges to Forest Management in Thailand," in Community Forestry at a Crossroads: Reflections and Future Directions in the Development of Community Forestry (Bangkok, Thailand: RECOFTC, July 1997).

43) Chusak Wittayapak, "Political Ecology of the Expansion of Protected Areas in Northern Thailand" presented at the 6th International Conference on Thai Studies, Chiang Mai, Thailand, October 1996.

44) Andrew Nette, "Hill Tribes Still Target of Bank's Conservation Plan," in The Nation, June 6, 1998.

45) "Conflict or Resolution? People and forests in northern Thailand," in Watershed: People's Forum on Ecology, Vol. 4, No. 1, July-October 1998, p. 23.

46) Ibid. p. 12.

47) Pinkaew Laungaramsri, "Reconstructing Nature: Community Forest Movement and its Challenges to Forest Management in Thailand," in Community Forestry at a Crossroads: Reflections and Future Directions in the Development of Community Forestry (Bangkok, Thailand: RECOFTC, July 1997).

48) Ibid. p. 13.

49) Ibid. p. 14.

50) From a personal interview with Jorni Odechao, first Northern Farmer's Network Chairman

51) Nette, p. 14.

52) Ibid. p. 16.

53) From a personal interview in May 1997 with Yee Laowang, Pa Phai Village

54) Interview with Anan Kanchanapan of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Chiang Mai University, in Watershed: People's Forum on Ecology, Vol. 4, No. 1, July-October 1998, pp. 26-28