Land rights

As Thai forest aims for UNESCO status, Karen community pushed to the margins

Environmental conservation and indigenous rights are often natural bedfellows – but what happens when the two are at odds? In Thailand's Kaeng Krachan Forest, Karen communities battle to secure ancestral land rights, as officials strive for world heritage status

Written By:
January 19, 2021
As Thai forest aims for UNESCO status, Karen community pushed to the margins
The Karen community carries out a traditional ceremony to protect the forest on December 16. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

Wansao Phungam’s eyes glistened with tears as she recalled her struggles of being charged for encroaching on national park land. 

Speaking at a mid-December seminar – held by the Karen community about a proposal to transform the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex into a world heritage site – Wansao said that the area that her family has called home for generations in central Thailand is now a protected area and she is charged for encroachment. 

The lack of attention Wansao received from state authorities she’d approached about the issue hammered home something she’d always known: the Karen ethnic group she is a member of are not given equal rights in Thailand.  

The Karen community carries out a traditional ceremony before the seminar on December 16. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex is a lush woodland on the border between Thailand and Myanmar in central Thailand’s Phetchaburi province. It’s a regional biodiversity treasure home to endless animal and plant species. But year after year, the forest remains stuck just a step away from becoming a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site – a location globally recognised as an area of outstanding ecological importance. 

Since the designation of the forest area as a national park in 1981, there has been recurring conflict between the Karen indigenous group who live in the area and state authorities surrounding traditional livelihoods in the forest and land rights. Most recently, in July 2019, the 43rd UNESCO committee postponed Kaeng Krachan’s consideration for world heritage status, citing these issues. 

Now, ahead of the latest application for world heritage status in June or July this year, the debate regarding balancing preserving ecological wonders and indigenous cultures looks set to resurface as a resolution seems no closer for long-standing land rights disputes among the forest’s Karen community.

According to Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri, chairman of the region-wide Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact group, repeated referrals of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex for world heritage status have served to bring to light problems previously cast into the shadows.

“A lot of problems are swept under the rug. So from the world heritage perspective, there’s still a lot of unresolved problems,” he told the Globe. “If we get the world heritage [status], will it even be something that is celebratory?” 

Kittisak said that land rights is the most pressing problem that must be resolved before the area receives world heritage status. 

“We have to start by fixing the problems that have been brought up by the community first. The main problem is with land rights. The issue is that the villagers were here before [the area was designated a national park], and later on, the national park restricted the area,” said Kittisak. 

Located in between the Thailand and Myanmar border, the Kaeng Krachan National Park is the kingdom’s largest national park, covering 2,915 km2 – an area roughly the same size as the US state of Rhode Island. 

Combined with two other protected areas, the Mae Nam Pachi Wildlife Sanctuary and Kuiburi National Park, it makes up the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex – the area that is on the tentative UNESCO list for Natural World Heritage site status. 

The Kaeng Krachan National Park, the Mae Nam Pachi Wildlife Sanctuary and the Kuiburi National Park make up the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex.

“The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex is worthy of becoming a world heritage site based on its outstanding natural value,” Dr. Petch Manopawitr, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s former Southeast Asia deputy, told the Globe

He notes that the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex is a vast forest area with high habitat diversity per unit area, and home to critically endangered species such as the Siamese crocodile, Sunda pangolin, and the Asian elephant. 

But also residing in the forest are the Karen people, a community with a close relationship with the forest who had lived there for many generations before it was declared a protected national park in 1981. Their livelihood depends on the forest, especially the practice of shifting cultivation – rotating land for agriculture, cultivating one area before moving on to the next, giving the soil time to replenish. 

But the past four decades have seen conflicts about land between state authorities and Karen people rise with increasing frequency and intensity, with the community and their practices, such as shifting cultivation, coming into conflict with Thailand’s conservation-focused forest governance laws and policies. 

“The forest has been our ancestral home,” said Rung Sanaetipung, a Karen villager in Nong Ya Plong, part of the Kaeng Krachan National Park. “The livelihood of Karen people are closely linked to the forest. We’re not encroaching on the land. We’ve been here for many generations. With that logic, then the national park authorities are the ones encroaching on our land.”

It’s a chain problem – if the Karen community don’t have land to work, then they have to migrate to the city to find work, and then they face problems there, and come back to their original land

Karen villager, Rung, points out the updated conservation area boundaries. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
Karen community holds up signs advocating against the world heritage status. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

Though long inhabitants of the forest, this sentiment is not reflected in the legislation, with the community’s right to their traditional land not recognised from a legal perspective. 

With the goal of conservation and increasing protected forest area, Karen people have often been evicted from their land – the first time being in 1996 when 57 Karen families, 391 people, living in Bang Kloi Bon were relocated downhill to Ban Pong Luek-Bang Kloi. After failed promises to provide plots of land, many moved back to the original site they were displaced from. Just this week, more Karen villagers requested to return to their ancestral land that they were evicted from a decade ago in the forest at Bang Kloi Bon, but were turned down by authorities. 

While the Karen are moved on by authorities, and alternative ways of living thrust upon them, what happens is a cyclical struggle in which the community return to their traditional lifestyle of shifting cultivation as alternative ways of life prove unstable and unsuitable. 

“It’s a chain problem – if the Karen community don’t have land to work, then they have to migrate to the city to find work, and then they face problems there, and come back to their original land,” said Kittisak.  

Wansao Phungam is a villager at Nong Ya Plong district, part of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex aiming to become a natural world heritage site. In August 2018, she was charged for encroaching on forest land based on a 2014 updated forest reclamation policy passed under the then-military government, the National Council for Peace and Order government.

She was sentenced to three years and eight months in prison with a fine of over two million baht ($66,611) – an unpayable sum. Wansao filed an appeal, insisting that her family has occupied the land for generations, but was dismissed by the Appeals Court. Now, she has to take out loans to pay court costs and awaits to see if her case will be brought to the Supreme Court. 

Wansao’s case is just one of many that have arisen since the legislation enacted by the NCPO came into force. 

The aim of the 2014 forest reclamation policy is to decrease the likelihood of illegal encroachment and increase Thailand’s forest-covered areas from its current 31.57% to 40% of the kingdom’s total area. But though with conservation in mind, the policy has also led to an increase in land evictions. Consequently, Karen communities face land conflicts as ongoing litigation charges them with encroachment, forcing them to move out as land becomes consumed into national park territory. 

What’s more, even Karen who received land following the 1998 Cabinet resolution, a guideline for designating land to forest-dependent communities, have to meet the condition that the land is used continuously, which contradicts their ethos of shifting cultivation.

“The Karen community still has no clear land area for economic activity. Most importantly, Karen people cannot continue to carry out shifting cultivation,” said Waraporn Utairangsee, human rights lawyer at the Human Rights Lawyers Association Thailand. 

“For those who have been prosecuted, they have left the land as part of the shifting cultivation process and then face charges of land encroachment once they return, even though it has been their land before.”

The Karen community still faces issues of barriers to gaining citizenship and adequate services, human rights activists that protected the area have also been harassed

Beyond land rights, gaining citizenship also remains an issue for Thailand’s Karen community. A lack of Thai citizenship means that they do not qualify for jobs in the city, nor have access to basic services like healthcare and education. 

Ahead of the latest attempts to designate the area a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site in mid-this year, the Karen community are mobilising to address this long list of concerns. 

On December 16, an event was held at Baan Tha Salao, Nong Ya Plong district in Phetchaburi, in which the Karen community from the area delivered an open letter to the World Heritage Committee saying that they faced land eviction. The letter, read aloud on stage, stated:   

“The problems surrounding land rights for the traditional communities have not been genuinely resolved and justly. Importantly, the Karen community still faces issues of barriers to gaining citizenship and adequate services, human rights activists that protected the area have also been harassed, and Billy’s [Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen] enforced disappearance case. These are human rights violations that deeply affect our traditional livelihoods.”   

Pinnapa “Muenoor” Prueksapan, Billy’s wife, speaks at the Karen seminar in December. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen was a Karen activist that filed and assisted a lawsuit against the park chief, Chaiwat Kimlikitaksorn, over the destruction and eviction of Karen families in Chai Paen Din – the “heart of the land” – in the Kaeng Krachan forest.

In April 2014, he disappeared after being detained by Chaiwat and park rangers for harvesting wild honey. Later, in 2019, burnt fragments of Billy’s bones were found in an oil drum and Chaiwat was arrested for setting fire to over 100 Karen shelters. While there’s a clear suspect, his murder has never officially been solved.   

For the Karen community – with issues of land ownership, agricultural activity, enforced disappearances, and citizenship all up in the air – a world heritage status where the culture and human rights of local communities are respected feels like a distant ideal. 

“I’m not against the Word Heritage status. But I want all the local problems to be solved before the forest area becomes a world heritage,” said Wansao. 

The proposed world heritage site encompasses over 5,000 households, both in the national park area and the surrounding area. 

“It starts with ensuring that Karen villagers have land to gain income – that is the basis of stability. If they have land to work, villagers won’t starve,” said Kittisak. “But if the Thai government wants to achieve the sustainable development goals, failing to address this issue will mean it will not be able to do so. Lots of policies look good [on paper], but are not the same in reality.” 

In addition to the needs of the Karen community that inhabit the area, the activity carried out by Karen on land is key to the health of the surrounding ecological area. The park is located in an area with important headwaters, with a potential domino effect on downstream freshwater resources if the Karen community are forced to change the way they operate. 

“Currently, the national park officials may promote livelihoods that do not match with the conditions of geographical location – such as mono agriculture,” Dr. Petch said. “The activities promoted as alternatives to the indigineous community is important because it can have consequences to the area, an area that is already ecologically sensitive.” 

Wansao Phungam speaks in front of the land that authorities allege she has encroached upon. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

Kaeng Krachan’s world heritage debate between nature conservation and indigenous land rights tugs on which principle is valued more. 

For human rights lawyer Waraporn, there are many resolutions, bills, and laws in place regarding forest management in Thailand. But as they all point in many directions, there remains too much room for authorities to choose the one that fits their overarching vision, with the law not treating local communities as equal partners.

“So far, there’s been resolutions that overlap in many directions. Though [national park authorities] may not enforce newer updates, it depends on the direction of the policy,” said Waraporn. “For park officials to use it, it has to be integrated into the National Park Law.” 

The most recent law, the 2019 Community Forestry Act, is a step in a positive direction. It allows villagers living in forests outside of conservation areas to manage natural resources after they have registered with the government, but it still has limitations as it does not include communities within conservation areas like those at Kaeng Krachan.

For Waraporn, the upcoming UNESCO World Heritage nomination is a good opportunity for the Karen community to place pressure on the Thai government to recognise and respect their culture and history – a stage to bring all parties together on this topic, to untie the knots that have gathered over decades. 

“The world heritage nomination can be an opportunity for villagers to mobilise for the government to accept their way of life. If possible, the optimal direction is the government has to also certify the community,” said Waraporn. 

“[The Karen community] are not set on being against world heritage status if we are able to guarantee their rights to land and livelihood. Then it will be a world heritage site that has pride.”   

Read more articles