UBON RATCHATHANI – A forest community in Ubon Ratchathani Province is determined to resist eviction by the authorities after a court ruled that the settlers can not inhabit a national forest reserve.

Earlier this year, Ubon Ratchathani Provincial Court handed a suspended one-a-half-year prison sentence and a fine of 10,000 baht to each of 32 households of the community for settling illegally in the Huay Yodmon National Forest Reserve. These families have since moved out from the forest area.

But another 31 households continue to assert their rights to the land. They occupy 20 rai of land and claim to have lived in the area before it was declared a national forest reserve in 1974.

Members of a forest community located in a national forest reserve in Ubon Ratchathani Province’s Sirindhorn District. Authorities have recently increased pressure on the 31 families to move out of the area.

“I insist that because we’ve settled here long before it became a national forest reserve, the government must solve this for us,” argued Prasat Lakthong, one of the community members. “We have long waited but there hasn’t been any progress.”

The 71-year-old told The Isaan Record he had first come to the area in 1967 as a soldier assigned to monitor what was once a stronghold of the communist movement in Thailand.

Mr. Prasat said that the community had previously been evicted from the national forest reserve in 1992. They have since been waiting for the government to resolve the land dispute. In 2011, they decided to move back into the area because they had nowhere else to live.

Since it took power in May 2014, the military regime has embarked on a mission to reclaim national forest reserves from encroachers and increase the country’s forest cover to 40% within ten years.

The government’s policy states it must not impact the poor and landless who had lived on the land before the enforcement order in 2014. But hundreds of poor forest dwellers across the region have been targeted as illegal encroachers or “investors” and faced eviction and legal persecution as a consequence of the policy.

At least 100 people have been charged with trespassing and encroachment in the Northeast.

This year the authorities increased pressure on the Huay Yodmon National Forest Reserve community to leave the protected forest. But despite admitting that they were in breach of the law, Mr. Prasat said the 31 families refuse to be evicted.

The community holds a 2011 letter from the Ubon Ratchathani office of the Forest Industry Organisation recognizing their habitation in the forest on the condition that they would not cause any damage or engage in any illegal activity.

“I wish that the authorities could make a compromise on our living here so it won’t come to a violent eviction,” said Mr. Prasat.

Sakda Kanchanasen, President of the Isaan Peasant Federation and a member of a committee working to resolve peasants’ issues under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said he had been informed of the case. The committee is currently gathering information on the case from the provincial authorities for further consideration and to make a decision on how to resolve the conflict.

Reporting by Phanuphap Yuthakij, a participant of The Isaan Journalism Network Project 2017 organized by The Isaan Record.