When Gib Tonnarmpech and her family were forced to leave their home in Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan National Park by authorities, they walked more than two days in dense forest with about 60 other families to get to their resettlement site.
They named the new site Bang Kloi, after their ancestral land that had been home to the indigenous Karen people for generations - and one that several families have tried to return to in the more than two decades since they were evicted.
Now, the nearly 700 people who live in simple wooden homes on stilts in Bang Kloi village fear new threats after Kaeng Krachan National Park was recognised in July by the United Nations’ cultural agency (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site.
“We lost everything. Life has been very hard here - the land is not good for growing rice and vegetables, so we have to buy everything,” said Gib, 43, as she chewed betel leaves and embroidered cloth with some women in a community weaving centre.
“We don’t know what the World Heritage listing means - no one has told us how it will impact us or whether it will help solve our problems,” said Gib, who was among more than 20 Karen people who were arrested and charged earlier this year with encroachment after they returned to their ancestral site.
While indigenous and local communities like the Karen own about half the land under customary rights, they only have secure legal rights to 10 per cent, according to Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
Hundreds of thousands of people have been evicted globally as governments prioritised conservation, with some 300 million estimated to be displaced by a global push to conserve at least 30 per cent of the earth’s surface by 2030.
A 2010 Thai Cabinet resolution called for recognising the Karen people’s way of life and traditional way of farming and foraging, but it has not been implemented, say human rights groups who opposed the World Heritage listing.
“Indigenous people have lived in the forest long before the national parks were established, but several laws deny them the right to land,” said Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director at the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development.
“The state views forests as not just a natural resource, but as a way to generate income from tourism, which the World Heritage status will enhance, and the indigenous people are seen as trespassers,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The environment ministry has said the original site the Bang Kloi community lived in was a protected area, and that their problems are being addressed in the resettlement site.
“My first job is to protect the forest,” said Ittipon Thaikamol, head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, and a senior officer of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
“We have to ensure that the forest and the environment are not affected as a result of these people living there.”
Forest areas have long been sites of contestation between the state, corporations, conservation advocates, minority ethnic groups and local communities.
Kaeng Krachan is Thailand’s biggest national park, sprawled over more than 2,900 square kilometres (1,120 square miles) on the border with neighbouring Myanmar, and renowned for its diverse wildlife including leopards, bears and elephants.
It is also home to about 30 communities of ethnic Karen people. The forest was declared a national park in 1981, and the Bang Kloi community was evicted from its settlement in 1996.
Several families returned to the old site over the years to farm, as the land they had been given was rocky and dry. In 2011, forest rangers and soldiers torched their homes and fields and forced them to return to Bang Kloi, the families said.
“People are unable to do their traditional rotational farming and are starving, or forced to become manual labourers in order to feed their families,” said Pachara Khamchamnan, an activist with the Save Bang Kloi Coalition.
“The Karen have lived in harmony with nature for generations, yet they are now viewed as aliens, as drug traffickers, and face violence and intimidation for trying to live off the land as they have always done,” he said.
A military government that took charge in 2014 vowed to “take back the forest” and increase forest cover, resulting in hundreds of reclamations from farmers and forest dwellers, according to research by Mekong Region Land Governance.
Between 2014 and 2019, more than 46,000 cases were brought by the government against villagers and ethnic communities for forest encroachment, estimates Land Watch Thai, a non-profit.
Under a new National Parks Act that was drafted in 2019, those convicted of encroachment and other offences can face up to 20 years in prison and fines of 2 million baht ($59,014).
The law allows indigenous people to live in designated areas of the forest for 20 years, after which authorities will review their case and grant an extension if no violations are found, said Ittipon of Kaeng Krachan National Park.
“We have to follow the law - they are living on government land, and they do not have titles. They have been resettled in a designated area, and given facilities such as a school and solar panels,” he said, pointing to light fixtures.
Matter of pride
The Kaeng Krachan National Park was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites this year after earlier failed bids.
The addition came despite an unusual appeal unusual appeal by UN human rights experts to UNESCO to defer a decision until Karen people in the park complex had been consulted.
Heritage status “would perpetuate the denial of the Karen’s right to remain on their traditional lands and carry out their traditional livelihood activities,” they said in a statement.
But the listing will benefit the Karen people as there will be additional resources for the park and greater resolve to solve their problems, said Ittipon.
“For Thai people, the listing is a matter of pride. It is for the benefit of all people, and it is also an opportunity, as many more people will want to visit the park,” he said.
“With the listing there will also be more scrutiny, and we have to be careful to maintain the status. So we will consult with the community and together make a plan for conservation and for tourism,” he added.
But the community remains sceptical. Their demand for an irrigation system has not been met, they say, nor has their demand for more land for their expanding families. Several solar panels that provide meagre light at night are in disrepair.
“Some people may still prefer to live here, but others want to go back to the old site. We should be given a choice,” said Nih Ran Pongthep, head of Bang Kloi village.
“We are worried that if more tourists come, we will have even less land and that the river and the forest will be spoiled. We have a right to live in the forest - we are not here just for a photo opportunity or as a tourism attraction.”
This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.
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