UBON RATCHATHANI – Residents of a national forest reserve in Ubon Ratchathani Province want to have a final resolution over a land dispute that has been dragging on for more than forty years.

Last month, 50 residents of the Huay Yodmon National Forest Reserve gathered at the local town hall of Chong Mek Subdistrict. They demanded initiating a process that would determine the rights of those affected by the official declaration of the national forest reserve in 1974. Based on the 1964 National Forest Act, the group said they are entitled to such process.

Earlier this year, the group from Chong Mek and Nonko subdistricts had successfully called on the government to replace an established committee overseeing the matter with new a committee. The former committee of the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment had not been able to bring about justice, the group had argued.

Residents of the Huay Yodmon National Forest Reserve gathered at the town hall of Chong Mek Subdistrict calling on the government to finally resolve their long-standing land dispute.

Akhom Homkaew, the group’s representative, said residents have been affected since the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives issued Order 707 establishing Huay Yodmon a National Forest Reserve in 1974.

He said the group began calling for their rights in 2000 but even though ministry-level committees have been set up, no fair solution has been reached.

On 12 October, Sirindhorn District’s former chief Prasit Inthashot called on an district-level meeting to speed up the rights determination process by identifying villagers who had cultivated the land prior to the national forest declaration.

But Mr. Akhom said the meeting considered an unacceptable condition: an elimination of the residents’ entitlement if they were found to have already received government compensation for having been affected by the national forest declaration, or the construction of the Sirindhorn Dam in the area.

“Claiming that villagers who were compensated […] should not be entitled to another government compensation because it would be an overlapping claim, is irrelevant and unfair,” Mr. Akhom said.

Such condition is not legally sound and bars villagers from getting fair treatment, he argued.

In May, a new committee began looking into the land dispute. On 24 October, the committee held a meeting to determine whether to accept complaints from the group affected by the declaration the national forest reserve. The issue is now being deliberated by the permanent-secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment.

Mr. Akhom said the group agreed to wait for the deliberation of the new committee before taking any further step. If their complaint is accepted, they will meet with the governor of Ubon Ratchathani to discuss the issue. But should it be rejected, they are planning on pushing the matter with the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment.

Chuan Jansaman, a former community leader in Nonko Subdistrict, said that villagers had relied on the leadership of local government officials for too long. His group’s plight has never been properly addressed and the matter was left in the hands of the government without ever reaching a resolution.

Mr. Chuan called on the new committee to take the complaint into its jurisdiction and to act according to the Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s vow to protect and respect the rights of all to eradicate inequality, as announced in the 20-year national strategy.

The residents’ group complaint came following a court decision earlier this year to hand a suspended one-a-half-year prison sentence and a fine of 10,000 baht to each of 32 households for settling illegally in the Huay Yodmon National Forest Reserve.

So far, 32 families have moved out. But another 31 households continue to assert their rights to the land, claiming they had occupied the area before it was declared a national forest reserve in 1974.

Legal scuffles between the villagers and authorities over land rights have been on the rise since the military government issued a special order in June 2014 granting authorities sweeping powers to end “forest encroachment” by evicting forest dwellers.

In August 2014, a forest master plan whose aim is to increase Thailand’s forest cover to 40% of its total land mass with in a period of ten years.

The military government claims the plan serves to protect the country’s natural resources from “capitalists.” But over the past three years, hundreds of villagers, particularly in the Northeast, many of which have settled on the land for decades, have been evicted, sentenced, and fined on charges related to forest deforestation and encroachment.

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