According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Thai military junta prosecuted people in more than 28,000 cases of forest encroachment covering over 800,000 rai (128,000 hectare) from 2014 until late last year. But in Ubon Ratchathani locals are wondering why they are being prosecuted for farming on land passed on to them by their parents.

Guest contribution by Panumas Sanguanwong

“If I lost my land, I would want to die. I wouldn’t want to live,” said 50-year-old Rit Chansuk, his voice quivering with emotion as he looks over the two-rai plot of land (0.32 hectare) where he’s grown cassava and is about to lose.

Rit is one of several villagers accused of encroaching land in Pha Taem National Park in Ubon Ratchathani. He was born in the mountainous area known for its ancient rock art and cliffs above the Mekong before it was declared a national park in 1991.

“We have farmed on this land since our parents’ generation, even before Pha Taem was turned into a national park,” Rit says.

In 2014, the military junta under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) ordered that forest areas be reclaimed from encroachers in a push to increase the country’s forest cover by 40 percent or more than 27.2 million rai (4.35 million hectares). Since then until September last year, people in more than 28,000 cases have been prosecuted for forest encroachment, covering a total area of almost 820,000 rai (131,200 hectares).

Across the Northeast, several forest communities are resisting eviction from land that they claim has been been theirs for generations.

Rit Chansuk, 50, is one of several farmers who are rejecting accusations that they are encroaching land in Pha Taem National Park in Ubon Ratchathani.

From creeks to farmland

Rit was born in Ta Mui village in Huai Phai sub-district in Ubon Ratchathani’s Khong Chiam district. He claims to have inherited the land in question, along with his two elder brothers, from his parents.

“This area used to be creeks, full of rocks. Since there wasn’t much land, we simply farmed rice,” Rit remembers. “Later on we started moving the rocks, creating a ridge with the rocks to collect soil, and since then we’ve turned into the farmland that we see now.”

In 2015, Pha Taem National Park officials, following the government’s forest reclamation policy, conducted a land ownership survey. They found that Rit’s land encroached on the park and asked him to sign a document which would hand the land over to the authorities, but he refused.

“I am not encroaching on park land. There were clear boundaries between the land that we farmed and the national park,” Rit says. “But now they’ve extended those boundaries toward the roads. How can they expect us to swallow that [to return the land]? Where will I farm? My land is here.”

Meeting a deadline

By late 2018, Rit found himself accused of encroaching Pha Taem National Park land and was reported to the police three times. The police are still deciding whether or not to arrest him and press charges.

He is in a different situation than other villagers who willingly signed documents because they feared prosecution. He is still farming on the land despite the uncertainty about when the officials will make him give up the land.

“If the government has any sympathy at all for the poor who earn an honest living, they should solve the problem so that villagers are able to farm on their own land,” he says. “They should set up clear boundaries so villagers are able to coexist with forests.”

A map showing Ta Mui and Tha Long villages in Ubon Ratchathani’s Khong Chiam district. The red lines show the path of the land survey that officials from Pha Taem National Park conducted.

A village with a history

The history of Ta Mui village can be traced back to 1858 before it expanded into a larger community and was officially recognized as a village by law in 1927 as part of the Huay Yang sub-district. Later, it fell under Huay Phai sub-district in Ubon Ratchathani’s Khong Chiam district. The village currently consists of over 120 households.

Dong Phu Lon forest was declared a reserved forest in 1973 before being declared as Pha Taem National Park in 1991.

Sot Chansuk, a Ta Mui villager, remembers the time around 40 years ago when war raged in neighboring Laos. Fearing that the fighting would would reach across the Mekong, his family moved from Ta Mui village near the river to the safety of the mountains.

“In the past there weren’t as many officials, so locals would help protect the forest and notify officials if they saw anything wrong,” says Sot.

He added that after Pha Taem was declared a national park, the park chief at the time conducted a land ownership survey and assured villagers that their farmland would be seperated from the park land. But this agreement was never put into writing.

“I stopped farming in the mountains for a while because I didn’t want to be arrested,” the 66-year-old says. “At the time an official came to survey the land where I’d built a fence around my area, but he didn’t care.”

Pha Taem National Park officials conducted another survey in 2016 using satellite imaging and asked villagers with forest land to leave the area.

With little knowledge of the law, Sot and several other villagers signed a document without fulling understanding the ramifications.

Sot’s land is still fenced off to prevent cows and buffalos from destroying his crops which include mango, tamarind, and cashew nut trees that his parents had planted, and they are still the family’s main source of income.

While the land yields produce, it does not generate much income for the family. After the seasonal harvest, Sot switched to catching fish from the Mekong River, but he says the river is not the same as before.

Chula Chansuk, or “Ko”, looks for fish in the Mekong River in Ubon Ratchathani’s Khong Chiam district. But more often than not, his nets remain empty.

Fewer fish in the Mekong

Sot’s brother, Chula, also works as a fisherman in Ta Mui village. Every morning, he starts the engine of a small boat and heads off to check whether his fishing nets yielded any fish. But most of the time, he nets only sticks and garbage.

Chula said that some ten years ago, the water level in the Mekong river was different. The construction of Chinese dams upriver played havoc with the water levels and disrupted the natural feeding and breeding cycles of the fish.

In the past he was able to earn several thousand to around 10,000 baht from catching fish during the high water season. But now hardly anyone in the village bothers to go fishing.

“In the past you would catch fish to sell, but these days we can barely feed ourselves with the catch,” Chula says as he gathers up his fishing nets from the water.

A 2017 UNESCO study found that the disruption of sediment flows in the Lower Mekong Basin, especially during the construction of 11 dams on the Mekong River, profoundly affected downstream areas, particularly in terms of food security from farming and fishing.

“Enhanced collaboration among key actors at the national and regional levels for sustainable sediment management is strongly recommended,” the UNESCO study proposed.

Without fish in the river, Chula switched to farming. Like his brother Rit, officials told him that his land belongs to Pha Taem National Park, but Chula insists that he owned the land before the national park was even declared.

“I don’t understand why my brother’s land is in the park and he is considered a ‘new encroacher’ despite our family farming there since our parents’ time,” Chula wonders aloud.

Demolish half a house

Less than one kilometer away from Ta Mui village is Tha Long village, also in Khong Chiam district, where officials say six residents have been charged with land encroachment.

Among them is the family of Kongpat Wonglakorn and her husband Lai Sirimat. During a land survey, park officials told them that everything was in order but later said they had to demolish half of their house.

Kongpat Wonglakorn, 54, was told by park officials to demolish half of her house because it encroached on national park land.

“They told us to demolish it ourselves. If we didn’t, they said they would demolish it and we might be arrested. They said we might have to pay fines and be sent to prison,” Kongpat says.

Officials brought satellite images for the villagers to see, and told Kongpat that half of her house was overlapped Pha Taem National Park.

“They said according to the map, it curves right here,” she says, running her finger over the map. “I don’t understand but I’m very stressed. How can they demolish it? I don’t have anywhere to live. We aren’t rich investors. We’re poor people.”

According to a police report from Khong Chiam police station in Ubon Ratchathani, Lai is accused of land encroachment under the 1941 Forestry Act, the 1961 National Park Act and the 1964 National Reserved Forest Act because part of the land in Pha Taem National Park overlaps Dong Phu Lon Forest Reserve to the north.

Meanwhile, Nakarin Sutatto from Ubon Ratchathani’s Pha Taem National Park says that since the forest reclamation policy in 2015 was implemented, a total of 41 plots of land were found to be encroaching on national park land. Officials provided satellite images as evidence that villagers had encroached on the land after 2015, resulting in some locals having to return their land.

“Seven residents of Ta Mui and Tha Long villages refused to return their land,” Nakarin says. “They insisted that they owned the land before the area was declared a national park. I don’t know what to do because there is proof of encroachment.”

In November 2017, some villagers filed complaints to Ubon Ratchathani’s Damrongdham Centre to seek justice. Ubon Ratchathani’s governor at the time set up a fact-finding committee to survey the boundaries between three affected villages, including Tha Mui and Tha Long. The committee found that some plots of land were found to be encroaching on the boundaries.

“We don’t want to prosecute the villagers, but we have to arrest encroachers who refuse to return the land. We are waiting for the prosecutor to decide whether or not to prosecute them,” Nakarin says.

Villagers should not be affected

Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment spokesperson Sophon Thongdee said in an interview that the government had focused on reclaiming land from businesspeople, people who exploited the land purely for commercial gain, rather than ordinary villagers. After the reclamation, the land would be restored and trees planted.

“We need to find ways to help those who have lived on the land before the areas were declared as forests,” Sophon said. “We are currently waiting for policy guidelines to solve the problem in a sustainable manner, but villagers aren’t the main focus of this policy.”.

He added that the minister had received orders from the prime minister to adapt the policy to become more “people-friendly.” He asked the media to refrain from calling the policy “forest reclamation” because it had a psychological effect and sounded not so “people-friendly.”

“This policy is successful and we were able to reclaim up to 800,000 rai of forest land,” Sophon said. “From now on we need to prevent the encroachment of new land.”

This story was first published in Thai on August 23, 2019. Translated by The Isaan Record.