Guest contribution by Joanne Jean

CHAIYAPHUM – After the eviction deadline for a forest community in Chaiyaphum’s Kon San district was extended in a surprise decision on Monday, villagers and their supporters celebrated their tentative victory. But the community’s decade-long battle for their right to land is set to escalate again when the extension expires in late September.

The mood was tense on the morning of August 26, the day before the eviction date, as village leaders and members of the Isaan Land Reform Network sat down to negotiate with representatives of the Forest Industry Organization (FIO) and an advisor to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

Meanwhile, 200 police, soldiers, and FIO officers stood ready to carry out the eviction set by the Supreme Court for August 27, upholding a lower court’s decision ruled that Baw Kaew was illegally encroaching on forest reserve land.

“Our department sent us to observe the event and listen to what the community wants and how the government may be able to help them and then report back to my department to give the information to the government,” said Ittipol Taengdaen, an investigative police officer from Bangkok

The negotiations brought a bittersweet surprise for the villagers–the eviction was put off for 30 days. The new deadline is September 27.

“We’ve gone through three court processes. First we went to trial, then to the appeal court and then the supreme court,” said Nit Torun, a 66-year-old village leader. “They all ordered us to leave, so right now we don’t know what to do, and we’re worried.”

Villagers gather around their community leaders and members of the Isaan Land Reform Network as they negotiate with government officials to put off the eviction. Photo by Adithep Chanthet.

Over the past month, villagers and their supporters from civil society groups have been busy preparing for the eviction by lobbying politicians and government officials, inviting supporters to protect the community, and painting protest signs. Politicians, student activists, human rights defenders, and NGOs followed the community’s call for support.

About 200 people gathered on August 27 in the heart of Baw Kaew village to celebrate the suspension of the eviction order, and publicly called for a long-term solution to the land dispute.

In a ceremony to symbolically claim the land, Baw Kaew villagers formed a circle as a group of men put three red painted pillars into the ground. Displaying in white letters the name of the community and the word unity, the pillars stand for the Baw Kaew people’s presence and history in the area.

Baw Kaew villagers cheering on as three wooden pillars are put into the ground to symbolize the community’s claim to the land. Photo by Adithep Chanthet.

The villagers also used the event to discuss ways to ensure a sustainable future for their community and create a plan to negotiate with the government and the FIO.

“We have a plan to create a committee between the villagers and the Khon San FIO office to resolve this problem and we’re working to push this plan to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment,” said Oranuch Pholpinyo from the Isaan Land Reform Network.

The community wants the government to collaborate with the villagers and create a joint development plan for the forest reserve area.

“All we need is 830 rai [about 328 acres] to sustain ourselves,” said village leader Nit. “We will divide the use of the land. One part of it will be growing cash crops to generate income for the community, and another part will be used for consumption.”.

Baw Kaew village consists of 46 households occupying an area of 96 rai (about 38 acres).

Residents of Baw Kaew village carry protest signs calling for their right to land. Photo by Adithep Chanthet.

In February of 2011, the community walked to Bangkok to negotiate their land rights with the government and the FIO. They reached an agreement in March that said the FIO would stop charging the villagers, drop all charges against them, provide 1,500 rai under a community land title, and reconsider how the area of land should be used.

Despite this agreement, the community received an eviction order from the local FIO office in Khon San District in July this year.

The people of Baw Kaew and their supporters are determined to resist the eviction order at all costs even if the negotiations with the government fail.

“If the eviction goes through and they start tearing houses down, we are not afraid to clash with the authorities,” said Wisanlaya Ngamna, a student activist of the Dao Din group at Khon Kaen University. The group has been supporting communities facing human rights issues across the Northeast.

For years the Baw Kaew community has been receiving support from activists, NGOs, and other northeastern communities that are facing similar issues.

“Worst-case scenario we will walk to Bangkok with our network,” said Nit. “We’re facing issues related to land policies established by the government. These policies affect our livelihood so it’s up to the government to create better ones in order to help us”

The next 30 days will determine the fate of the Baw Kaew village. Despite all the support, the situation is worrisome as time continues ticking and as it remains unclear whether the FIO will agree to a long-term compromise.

Baw Kaew villagers might be poor on material possessions but they are resourceful and their spirits are rich.

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.