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A worker sets rubber sheets out to dry at a warehouse -Photo courtesy of Bangkok Post

The government’s rubber subsidy scheme, spurred by the demands of the Rubber Farmers Association of Southern Thailand have unmasked the primary issue leading to deforestation in the region –and the opportunity is ripe for the government to address the situation once and for all.

Protests in southern Thailand by rubber farmers and plantation owners raged throughout the first weeks of September, causing widespread chaos among motorists in Nakorn Sri Tammarat, Surat Thani and Chumporn. Farmers blocked major highways and called for the government to subsidize the plummeting price of latex, which has lost nearly 50% of its value over the past three years. Among their list of demands, the farmers called on the government to intervene by guaranteeing the price of smoked rubber sheet at 100 THB a kilogram, while others wanted a pledging program, much like the rice pledging scheme for central and northeastern farmers.

The protests disrupted transportation in the south and paralyzed major highways and rail links in four provinces. In one instance the protests turned violent and clashes with the police left two dead and scores injured.

The government, looking to contain a dissention which was threatening to spread to the northeast, quickly dispatched a number of high-ranking officers including Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promok to the south to broker a deal. After a week of negotiations, a pledging package was drawn up and approved by most of the factions, effectively ending the strike and returning the region to normalcy.

While I applaud the government for their swiftness in working to defuse this explosive situation, there is one clause in the agreement which is a cause of concern to me.

According to the agreement, the government will subsidize up to ten rai (roughly five acres) of plantation per farmer at a price of 2,520 THB per rai (or $168 USD per acre). This clause was also extended to include plantations which lack proper land titles or are located within forest reserves.

Upon reading this, the first thought that popped into my mind was “You’ve got to be joking.”

In adding this clause to the agreement the government has in essence, supported encroachment and the establishment of plantations within forest reserves. I’m appalled.

PLANTATIONS: THE SCOURGE OF OUR FORESTS

Rubber and oil palm plantations have long been the scourge of southern forests. Much of the lowland forest was lost to logging from the 60’s to the late 80’s and replaced by coffee, tea and other cash crops before being converted into plantation. This rapid conversion from forest to plantation is one reason why Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of natural latex to date.

The Logging Ban of 1989 was supposed to curb the exploitation of forests in Thailand; however, in the two decades since the edict was signed, millions of hectares of forest have been lost to rubber and oil palm plantation. To this day, forests in the south are under constant threat from farmers looking to expand their property and pocketbook at the expense of our national heritage.

Few offenders have ever been brought to justice.

The biggest culprits are existing plantation owners with land bordering on protected forests or watersheds; with no watchdog or agency to monitor the industry, many owners brazenly clear the forests surrounding their plot with little or no fear of reprisals from authorities.

This illegal activity threatens not only lowland forest, but hill forest and mangrove forests as well.

An example of this scenario can be witnessed in the unprotected lowland forests adjacent to Khao Panom Becha National Park in Krabi. Once a tiny bastion for Gurney’s Pitta with at least two known territories discovered in the 1991 census, within ten years the forests were stripped and replaced with plantation, effectively exterminating the remaining pittas in the area. Not only were the lowland forests cleared, but even some sizeable portions of the national park were laid to waste in the same decade.

Khao Panom Bencha National Park remains to this day, a forest reserve embroiled in land ownership disputes and forest encroachment scandals.

This issue was highlighted during the devastating floods of 2011 when two outlying villages were washed away by a deluge from Khao Panom Bencha. In fact, the villagers themselves bemoaned that the disaster was brought upon them by their own doing; the rampant deforestation and forest encroachment stripped the lower recesses of the mountain of their old forest. With few giant buttresses to support the weight of the soil, the ground simply gave way and washed downstream in a torrent of debris, bringing death and destruction to those living around the park.

In 2012 another high-profile case of forest encroachment garnered the attention of the national media: forest fires raged out of control in the protected peat swamp forests of Nakorn Sri Tammarat and Pattalung provinces. For months a thick blanket of smoke from forest fires lingered over many provinces in the south, causing a rash of respiratory problems for locals throughout the region. It took weeks to bring the blaze under control and cost millions in taxpayers baht.

An investigation revealed the fires were set by local businesses and plantation owners looking to clear land in protected forest zones. Despite threats by the head of the forestry department to prosecute the instigators, no legal action was taken and the case was quietly brushed under the carpets.

ADDING UP THE LOSSES

Let’s take a look at some statistics here:

– Thailand’s total area amounts to about 513,000 square kilometers. Roughly 10% of that is protected under the supervision of the Royal Forestry Department and the Department of National Parks (DNP).
– 27% of Thailand’s land is under cultivation. Of that figure, rubber plantations take up nearly a fifth of the total land under cultivation, making it the second largest crop after rice.

Or we could spell it out in simpler terms:

– Thailand maintains roughly 14% forest cover throughout the country. 10% of that falls under the jurisdiction of the Forestry Department.
– Nearly 6% of the total land mass in Thailand is devoted solely to the production of rubber.

What is most worrying is the fact that the amount of land being converted into plantation for the cultivation of rubber increases at a faster rate than any other crop in the country to date. The exact numbers are unknown as many plantation owners do not register their plantations with local authorities.

Meanwhile, the amount of land gazetted for national parks and wildlife sanctuaries increases at a rate of roughly 2.2% every five years.

Let’s also take a closer look at that 10% figure which is currently under the management of the DNP. Mr. Damrong Pidech, the former head of the Forestry Department stated that 30% of national park land has been encroached upon. In some provinces, such as Chiang Rai, forest reserves suffer from nearly 60% encroachment by the private sector.

So to sum it up, national park land is not really “protected” due to massive encroachment by the private sector. Add up the figures and we’d probably be looking at more like 7% instead of the 10% touted by the forestry department.

But of course no one in the DNP wants to put that on any official paperwork.

Forests are also under threat from other forms of agriculture as well. Palm oil is another plantation crop which is rapidly increasing in popularity among southern farmers and is the dominant crop in many provinces such as Krabi, Trang and Satun. This rapid conversion of forest into plantation should clearly spell out the dire need to immediately address the situation of encroachment in Southern Thailand.

IT’S TIME TO STOP THE BLEEDING

I believe the rubber farmers have every right to demand fair prices and government aid. However, before they receive their share of benefits, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife should investigate those with irregular paperwork to see whether or not their claims are lawful and penalize those who expanded their interests beyond the legal limits. I certainly do not agree that the government should reward those who are encroaching on national forests or using protected land for personal gain.

Most importantly, the government needs to keep closer tabs on the rubber industry to make sure that no one is stepping out of line and abusing public resources. The Department of National Parks, the Ministry of Agriculture and Public Land Office should coordinate their efforts to sort out this mess. I believe that if this issue was thoroughly investigated, the number of plantations found to be encroaching on national parks and forest reserves would be staggering. In fact, I would be willing to bet that Mr. Damrong may have underestimated his figures by a wide margin once the numbers are tallied up.

Any plantation located within a forest reserve, with the exception of those in existence prior to the demarcation of the reserve, should be treated as encroachment and dealt with accordingly. Plantations which use the excuse “lacking proper land title” should also be thoroughly investigated as many plantations which were founded on reclaimed forest land are not issued deeds by the Land Department.

I understand that there are cases of individuals who have no land ownership titles yet have occupied the land long before the government declared the area a national park or wildlife sanctuary; however, records of these tenants should be available in the archives of the DNP. Those lacking proper paperwork and are found to be legal tenants should be awarded with the proper certification to back their claim of ownership. Those caught abusing state property should be penalized.

Sorting this mess out would take a lot of manpower, time and expense and would surely enrage some influential land owners with heavy investment in the crop, possibly sparking another round of violent protests in the region. No doubt the DNP and local law enforcement agencies would rather forget the issue and “let it pass” than to involve themselves in another round of cowboy politics.

However, until the government or the DNP decides that it’s time to stop turning their backs on the issue our forests will continue to be gutted at the hands of greedy landowners and investors with seedy business practices. The problem is, in this time of political turmoil, no one wants to upset the apple cart. So most likely, the payouts will continue and the forests will continue to be ravaged until they have been sapped out of existence.

Categories: Conservation

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