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CHAIYAPHUM – The sound of mor lam music, traditional to Northeast Thailand, filled the air last Saturday evening as Khon San villagers and friends gathered to celebrate the second anniversary of the founding of Baw Kaew village.
In the past two years, Baw Kaew villagers have developed their community, seen success in their battle for a legal land lease, and established sustainable agricultural practices, all amidst a eucalyptus plantation owned by the Forest Industry Organization (FIO). The celebration weekend culminated on Sunday in a forum for various NGOs, activists, and politicians to speak to the challenges of addressing land reform disputes.

Baw Kaew was established on July 17th, 2009, 31 years after the state-owned FIO evicted more than 1,000 villagers from 4,401 rai of land to begin the Khon San Forest Project. By the late 1980s, the FIO had cleared the land in order to plant a eucalyptus plantation.

After decades of unsuccessful protests for the right to return to their former land in Khon San, 169 displaced families decided to take a new approach. Aided by the Land Reform Network of Thailand (LRNT), these families illegally resettled in Khon San Forest, founding Baw Kaew as a protest village. Rather than only spend their time in front of government buildings, villagers believed they could also stage their protest directly on the land they used to call home.

Their efforts have been met with both new obstacles and successes. One month after they founded the village, 31 residents were charged with trespassing on state-owned land. By April 2010, the court had ruled that villagers needed to move out.

However, this past fall, Baw Kaew villagers began to see progress. The Working Committee on Community Land Deeds, set up under the Abhisit administration, approved 35 villages to pursue community land deeds, including Baw Kaew. So far, only two communities have been granted deeds, which leaves Baw Kaew and 32 other villages still on the slow path to gaining legal access to the land they currently occupy.

In Sunday’s forum, Prayong Doklamyai of the Northern Development Foundation emphasized the gravity of land rights disputes in forests across Thailand. “There are about 10 million Thais in state forests that cover around 20 million rai of land. This is a time bomb waiting to explode,” he said. Mr Prayong believes that while there has been an improvement in the policy of the last government, implementation has not followed suit.

In response, Secretary to the Prime Minister’s office Phubet Jantanimi insisted that the government is doing the best it can. “The government has already agreed to give the land to the people [of Baw Kaew]. But the government can only ask for the cooperation [of the FIO], it cannot give a direct order,” he said.

This has led to confusion and frustration among Baw Kaew villagers. While the Working Committee on Community Land Deeds has encouraged villagers and the FIO to resolve their problems, the central government says it does not have the authority to enforce state-owned agencies to follow its mandate. This year, the committee ordered the FIO and the government to survey the land that Baw Kaew has requested. But until the FIO agrees to relinquish the land, villagers are left waiting with little control over the timeline or outcome.

Mr. Pramote of the Isaan Land Reform Network, however, does not believe the government is powerless to end FIO projects. He claims the government pays the FIO approximately 1.2 billion baht, or about $40 million per year. “If the government is sincere and has the courage, it can force the eucalyptus forest to be abolished. It has already happened in other areas,” he stated.

As community members wait for the FIO to cede the land, villagers have moved away from only fighting for legal tenure and are now developing the sustainability of their community.

According to Mr. Pramote, the current eucalyptus plantation is not sustainable.  “Since the eucalyptus trees grow really fast, they draw a lot of nutrients from the soil,” he explained.

In order to combat the negative environmental impacts and restore the soil, farmers have been planting local vegetables and herbs between the uniform rows of eucalyptus trees. In May of this year, the community also established a local seed bank in their village. They hope that it will help preserve their local knowledge and prepare them to cultivate the land once a land deed is granted.

Though Baw Kaew villagers’ strategy now focuses on developing  a sustainable community, their options are limited without a concession from the FIO. Until the eucalyptus trees come down, villagers will continue to live in protest for their former land.