By Evan Gershkovich
BANGKOK — Empowering local communities to take care of the country's forests is necessary to combat the increasingly devastating effects of climate change in Thailand, forestry experts and academics say.
"Climate change is already here," Dr. Peter King of USAID Adapt Asia-Pacific said at a panel discussion in Bangkok on Tuesday. "It’s already affecting many communities throughout Thailand and the rest of the world, and we’ll all have to adapt one way or another."
The lecture, titled "Adapting to climate change – how can we foster innovative ideas that work?" was co-hosted by The Royal Forest Department of Thailand and RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, a Thai NGO.
According to RECOFTC, countries across the Asia and Pacific region are experiencing increasing flooding, landslides, droughts, and storms, as well as an average temperature increase of 0.76 degrees C and a 1-3 mm rise in sea levels annually.
Many scholars say the region will be hit hardest by the effects of climate change, with the rural poor expected to suffer the most.
Enlisting the help of rural communities to take care of Thailand's forests is therefore necessary for both humanitarian and ecological reasons, forestry practioners and academics at the panel said.
"Community forestry is relevant now more so than ever before," said Dr. Doris Capistrano, Senior Advisor for the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change. "Increasingly, scientific evidence is showing very clearly that when local communities are involved in decision-making about forest management, forests tend to be better managed according to all ecological indicators."
Vatcharin Panasan, the Village Chief of Pang Yang Community Forest in Nan province, said his village began experiencing increasing flooding and landslides about 10 years ago, causing damage to the villagers’ properties and farmland.
In response, the community switched from a rotational rice cultivation system to terracing cultivation, planted trees on the former farming areas, and ensured that they would maximize their food supply by planting forest food crops in the new forest.
"We faced difficulty in turning our farming areas into terraces because we didn’t have the needed finances for the correct tools, but we had to survive," said Mr. Vatcharin. "We would like to request to get more support from the government because we live in a protected area – we have no land titles or land rights. Without these rights, we aren’t able to make more changes to our land to help us with further problems."
Although Thailand has over 9,000 community forests, RECOFTC’s Somying Soontornwong pointed out that more than 1,000 forest villages lack tenure rights to the land.
"It is quite clear that in Thailand we have a big problem with land rights security," Ms. Somying said. "If villagers are insecure on their land, how can they invest for adaptation?"
In the 1960s, the Thai government began a drive to end deforestation, kicking many villagers off land that became protected areas under the National Park Act of 1961 and the National Reserve Act of 1964. With nowhere to go, many villagers fought for compromises to remain on the property as long as they did not sell any land or produce crops other than for their own consumption.
Yet lacking long-term property security, many villages have struggled to recover from environmental stresses and prepare for future ones.
Furthermore, the events of the past few months raise questions about whether the central Thai government is interested in supporting community management of protected areas.
On 14 June, Thailand’s military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), issued an order calling upon authorities to put an end to deforestation and forest encroachment. As a result, combined task forces of park officials, soldiers, and police entered forest reserves across the country to evict local villagers and commercial operations from the protected areas.
"Local level adaptation to climate change impacts rests on good governance in Thailand," said Dr. Surin Onprom, a lecturer of Social Forestry at Kasetsart University. "Local people have difficulty accessing resources because the national law is unclear. We have to clarify our laws and secure tenure rights in order to support the adaptation of local communities. We need to go beyond old thinking."
Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, Director General of Royal Forest Department (RFD), however, claimed that the government is working with villagers rather than against them.
"We are actively promoting better cooperation between villagers and forest authorities," said Mr. Theerapat. "Currently, the Thai royal government is supporting community forestry activities – especially the prime minister right now. We want to decrease conflict and increase cooperation."
Dr. Komsan Rueangritsakul of RFD’s Bureau of Community Forestry Management, said he believes the NCPO has been correct in executing the law.
"We have been trying to work with the villagers in harmony – we know that they have no choice, that they have to stay there," said Dr. Komsan. "But within the current situation, we still need to enforce the laws fairly. We need to continue to enforce the law, even though it is important to update the laws."
"This problem is an old, old problem," he continued. "But our first priority is to ensure that no more forest land is converted for commercial use, and so, we need to continue enforcing the old law."
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