Guest contribution by Joanne Jean

CHAIYAPHUM – A room of villagers filled with worry and agitation gathered on straw mats last Saturday to listen to a discussion about what the future holds for their community. Baw Kaew village leaders and visiting politicians of the Future Forward Party discussed ways to resolve a decade-long land dispute that might enter its final chapter after the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision that allows the state to evict the community.

“We have no plans of leaving the land after the eviction date on August 27,” said village leader Nit Torun. “This is our land.”

Future Forward Party secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and party-list MP Pita Limjaroenrat visited the community on August 17 after village representatives had issued a call for help from political parties in the face of the looming eviction.

More than 70 villagers from Baw Kaew joined the discussion between community representatives and Future Forward Party politicians.

For more than 40 years, the villagers of Baw Kaew have been fighting for their right to the land they have been farming for generations. Their struggle began in 1978 when the Forest Industry Organization (FIO) seized ownership over 4,401 rai (about 1,740 acres) of land for a eucalyptus plantation known as the Kon San Forest Project. With little warning, the FIO ordered the eviction of more than 1,000 residents from their homes at that time. However, some families stayed in the area. 

After decades of unsuccessful protest, the villagers founded the Baw Kaew community in 2009 to call attention to their cause. 

“In 2009, 31 villagers were sued for trespassing and the Baw Kaew people fought the case up to the Supreme Court which ordered them to move out,” said Pramote Polpinyo, coordinator of the Isaan Land Reform Network.

The community actively worked to establish a community land title scheme under under the Abhisit and Yingluck governments, but after the military coup in 2014, these efforts stalled. 

The FIO once again ordered the eviction of the community in August that year under the military government’s Forest Reclamation Policy, or Order 64/2557, ostensibly intended to battle deforestation. 

Village leader Nit Torun, 66, (left) is determined to keep fighting against the eviction order. Future Forward Party’s Piyabutr Saengkanokkul (right) looks at a map of the area. Baw Kaew village in Chaiyaphum’s Kon San district consists of more than 170 people. The area of the community covers 96 rai (about 38 acres).

The meeting on Saturday started with community leader Nit, speaking with a strong conviction that showered the room with hope and determination as the crowd shouted protest slogans. Villagers of all ages stepped forward and shared their stories as Piyabutr and Pita listened and offered advice.

“We need to enforce community rights by creating committees across the country that consist of an odd number of people involving government leaders and villagers,” Pita said. “This can be used to resolve any issue that arises between the forestry department and the people, and to give both sides a chance to decide what the laws should be.”

He added that his party is reviewing laws related to land reform and mechanisms that allow the government to give out land to corporations and people who are using it for industrial purposes. 

Pita also suggested that for every tree torn down, there must be at least two new trees planted in order to combat deforestation and solve lack of budget, legal disputes, economic inequality, and poverty as farmers would be able to make a profit from the land.

Future Forward Party secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and party-list MP Pita Limjaroenrat talk with Baw Kaew villagers.

A long-term goal he proposed was using satellite technology to determine what land in Thailand is residential and which is for agriculture. 

The Future Forward representatives believe that it is their duty to bring justice not only to the Baw Kaew community but to communities throughout Thailand who have been taken advantage of and stripped of their basic human rights to land.

None of the villagers have plans of leaving and although they’re remaining resilient, the inability to act in their case has left them burdened and distraught. 

“They’re not going to be kicked out in the next few weeks,” Pita claimed.

The FIO offered to provide a plot of land for the villagers to grow crops, but the community refused the offer. 

“We were here first and the government wants to take our land and sell it to investors so they can turn it into a eucalyptus reserve forest so they can cut the trees down and give it to the paper pulp industry to make money,” Samphan Touwat, a villager, stated

“We have evidence that we were legally here first,” Samphan claimed.

It is evident that the Baw Kaew people have nowhere else to go, and due to the inequitable circumstances they’re facing, they have prepared to continue fighting this issue until their rights are restored. 

“Your zip-code should not define your opportunities,” Pita stated.

Yet, that is the harsh truth for many farmers across the Isaan region.

Correction: An earlier version stated the number of residents in Baw Kaew village is 182. In fact, the exact number is unclear but there are at least 170 people currently living in the village. The article has also been updated to reflect that some of the families of Baw Kaew never left the area despite the eviction order from 1978. 

Joanne Jean majors in broadcast journalism at Florida A&M University. She is studying about development and human rights issues in the Northeast this fall.