“Community Forest” and Thai Rural Society

Fujita Wataru


Anan Ganjanapan
Local Control of Land and Forest: Cultural Dimensions of Resource Management in Northern Thailand
Chiang Mai / Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University / 2000

Shigetomi Shin’ichi
Tai noson no kaihatsu to jumin soshiki
(Village organization for rural development in Thailand)

Tokyo / The Institute of Developing Economies / 1996
English edition: Cooperation and Community in Rural Thailand: An Organizational Analysis of Participatory Rural DevelopmentTokyo / The Institute of Developing Economies / 1998

During the last several years, the “community forest” movement has become increasingly active in Thailand. Indeed, Thai society is facing a turning point. With no firm “communal land” tradition (such as Japan’s iriaichi), Thailand is searching for a more sustainable mode of forest use than the cultivation of forest frontiers shared by most rural societies. Both within the Royal Forestry Department (RDF) and among NGOs, there is disagreement over the ability of local communities to manage their own forest resources in a sustainable way. Legislation on a Community Forest Bill was initiated in the early 1990s, but has still not been enacted. The two works under review here explore the implications of this question from quite different viewpoints and point to different modes of community forestry in Thailand.

“Loosely Structured Community” and the Market Economy

Since John F. Embree’s essay (1950) recognized Thai society as being more “loosely structured” than Japan’s, the “loosely structured society” model has been most frequently cited in understanding lowland Thai peasant communities. Embree’s suggestion was based on certain observations: that although the father was the putative head of the family, children had no strong sense of duty and obligation to their parents; that cabarets were not well managed, with each female employee appearing or not on any given night as she pleased. Though various objections have been made to parts of his argument, I think the experience of field researchers in Thai villages bears out many of Embree’s observations. Monographs describing communities in various regions in Thailand have supported Embree’s idea. Many arguments on Thai peasant society followed Embree, for example, a volume edited by Dieter-Evans (1969) and a work by Mizuno (1981) that represented Thai society as an accumulation of bilateral relationships between individuals. This notion has been integrated into the idea of network society, which is descriptive of many societies in Southeast Asia. To design a community forest management system, the question is whether and to what extent this social feature can be changed to a more collective one.

Shigetomi Shin’ichi’s Tai noson no kaihatsu to jumin soshiki (Village organization for rural development in Thailand) directly responds to this question. He has carried out intensive field research in a village in Northeast Thailand, and field surveys in many villages in other regions. His major interest is not in forest management itself but in rural development. He analyzes factors affecting the formation of collective organizations that transcend bilateral relationships based on actual cases in rural areas. He argues that the transition from traditional cooperation based on bilateral relationships to collective cooperation began as an adaptation to the market economy. With the penetration of the cash economy, traditional bilateral relationships stopped functioning properly, as for example, where unpaid labor exchange was replaced by wage labor, or where it became impossible to cover the cost of funeral ceremonies with mourners’ contributions. In response, peasants formed collective organizations such as labor exchange groups, funeral ceremony unions, saving unions, and so on.

The formation of cooperative management organizations in which private resources are contributed by voluntary members is thought to be the root of collective organization. Shigetomi sees the next step as the formation of local organizations to manage resources under the auspices of rural development programs sponsored by the government or NGOs. Since the 1980s, development agencies have increasingly “discovered” peasants’ powers of self-organization and have begun development projects to engage the active participation of local people. These development projects provide resources at the initial phase, but thereafter or simultaneously local people invest their own resources. Many organizations for collective management by local communities have since been formed and the model has become the norm for the management of communal resources.

Shigetomi points out that, especially in North and Northeast Thailand, such organizations of local people have succeeded when they are based on administrative units that more or less coincide with the pre-existing villages, but not on a wider basis such as the tambon (sub-district). He explains the succcess of the new cooperative organizations in North and Northeast Thailand as being based on the traditional unity of natural villages through communal rituals of guardian spirits, whose realm defines the community.

He applies this framework in his argument on cooperative management of “local communal resources,” that is, resources occupied or created by communities, such as land, forest, and swamps. Local communal resources are natural resources and require a management system that includes all the residents within the surrounding area. Shigetomi’s cases concern the economic management of local communal resources, not the religious management of guardians’ forests. Most of his cases are communal forests in North and Northeast Thailand and communal swamps in the Northeast, where organizations for resource management have for the most part existed since the 1980s. These are areas where natural resources, which had previously been openly accessed, have now, because of resource scarcity, been enclosed and are communally accessed.

Shigetomi’s argument, based on abundant field study, is that the transition from bilateral social relationships to collective organization for the purpose of managing communal resources has occurred as an adjustment to the market economy and to resource scarcity. Therefore, the penetration of capitalism does not necessarily dissolve social unity, but may also strengthen and encourage it. Newly-formed cooperatives in North and Northeast Thailand rely on pre-existing local unity organized around Buddhist temples or guardian rituals, which overlap with the area of natural villages. However, the resultant collective organizations do not possess the same mental basis of unity that had been the core of traditional bilateral cooperation; rather, they are based on incentives of purely economic interest. Shigetomi’s analysis of rural social organization thus focuses on economic factors and social structure. Anan Ganjanapan’s study, on the other hand, though dealing with similar issues, emphasizes the friction between traditional cultures and modern institutions.

Toward the Legalization of Traditional Culture

Anan Ganjanapan is a leading scholar-activist of the community forest movement in Thailand, especially in the North, where the movement first began and where the network of academics, NGOs, and local people is most active. Local Control of Land and Forest is a collection of his recent essays. This book, which documents several case studies, demonstrates his basic idea that the “community forest” is one measure of the local community’s struggle for its own rights. His argument shares a starting point with the so-called “community culture school,” is within the mainstream of community forest activism, and provides its theoretically clearest framework in Thailand. Besides this book, he has written or edited several others in Thai (Anan 2001; Anan ed. 2000a; 2000b) which argue the importance of local initiatives to control local natural resources.

In contrast to Shigetomi, Anan argues that local communities have traditionally been capable of managing natural resources, and he takes the self-sufficient community as his proto-type. He suggests that this self-sufficient community has been destroyed by such features of modernization as the cash economy and legal institutions. Within this framework, he uses cases from North Thailand to write about conflict for control over forest, land, and labor resources.

A case study of a village in Chiang Mai province is used to illustrate the impact of commercial agriculture on land and labor practices. Irrigated commercial crop cultivation in the dry season was introduced in the 1970s to complement paddy cultivation in the rainy season for subsistence. The higher cost of commercial crop cultivation—for seeds and fertilizer—changed the relationship between landlords and tenants. As tenants had difficulty accessing credit, landlords supplied the inputs and thereby tried to enhance their control over the tenants’ production. In some cases, a fixed amount of the tenant’s crop replaced previous proportional profit sharing. The relationship between landlords and tenants therefore changed from a kind of patron-client relationship to something closer to wage labor. Further, the limitation of farm tenancy to within kin groups has been abandoned.

Anan also discusses modern legal institutions, pointing out that modern ownership and government-issued land titles have had significant influence on local customs and religion. The modern land tenure system only acknowledges individual ownership, whereas in the lowland peasant society of North Thailand known as khon muang, land was customarily possessed by matrilineal kin groups. Within the modern system of land tenure, the kin group must receive land title in the name of one individual member. This is meant as an expedient, but conflict arises within the kin group when the “landowner” tries to mortgage the land or use farmland for other businesses. Further, it is reported that many villagers do not even apply for legal land title.

In North Thailand, conflict over natural resources has also created inter-ethnic problems. While lowland Thai and highland Karen had long resided in self-sufficient ways, relatively new migrant ethnic groups such as Hmong or Risu in the highland began exploitative opium cultivation in the Karen’s fallow fields or the Thai’s watershed forests. In other cases, Karen people lost their lands through economic exploitation by lowland Thais and migrated into the forest area, causing deforestation.

Anan’s basic thesis is that self-sufficient peasant society based on the unity of kinship or community has been destroyed by modern institutions which promote individuals and the cash economy. He suggests that customary regulation of land, forest, and community be thought of not only in terms of economic resources but holistically, as part of a community’s life. Moreover, he says, farmers who desire to live such a life must insert the communal or collective idea into modern institutions and legally secure their customs and traditions.

Anan discusses the community forest within this framework, referring to customary protection of watershed forests and sacred forests or to the utilization of communal woodland in North Thailand. It is emphasized that the moral basis of local management of community forests as a customary right is the idea that pa (forest), standing against muang (city) and inhabited by spirits, frees local people from state power. Even though this moral basis has declined, and, in some cases, traditional community forests have been encroached upon by villagers individually or sold to mining companies, Anan suggests that villagers’ feeling of community belonging and local culture remain, contributing to the conservation of old community forests and the establishment of new ones. More importantly, he points out that the recent revitalization of community forests is motivated by the need to guard resources against outsider invasion, such as commercial logging, enclosure of the forestland by business, and degradation of the watershed forests by hill people’s cultivation. However, as local customs do not have a legal basis, village efforts to conserve forest resources have been uncertain in the face of commercial logging or the government’s designation of reserved forests. Villagers have been struggling with this situation by utilizing the official authority of village committees or tambon councils, codifying customary rules, and organizing patrol groups. Villagers have been making efforts to formalize local customs and obtain a legal basis for them. The concept of “collective rights” has therefore been constructed by this demand for legal acknowledgement, in which peasants in North Thailand have reinforced local idioms to legitimize their own rights. Anan suggests that sustainable use of natural resources can not be expected without full recognition of local people’s collective rights to resource management as a counterbalance to the state’s superior power.

Tree scenery in Phetchabun, Thailand
Tree scenery in Phetchabun, Thailand

Culture and Organization

The common point in the arguments of Shigetomi and Anan is that the traditional social order has declined or changed through modernization and the introduction of the cash economy and that recently, cooperative activities have became popular again. On the basis of this recent development, they consider the prospects of communal resource management by rural people in accordance with the modern state system. However, Shigetomi thinks of the regeneration of cooperation as an adaptation to the cash economy, separate from traditional mentalities, while Anan emphasizes moral value or a sense of belonging to the community in the traditional context and the need to secure its legal standing.

The essence of the difference is the premise of traditional rural society: Shigetomi assumes bilateral cooperation, whilst Anan suggests the existence of community organization that has long managed communal resources. This difference partly emerges from their respective research sites. Although Shigetomi refers to many regions, his intensive field research has been in a village in Northeast Thailand, where protection of village guardian forests, though not of other natural resources, is common. Anan’s argument depends largely on cases from North Thailand, where traditional communal resource management of irrigation systems and watershed forests can be found. But Anan also reports that these traditions in North Thailand have declined, which means the social organization of the communities has not been strong enough to maintain management of their resources by themselves.

We must reconsider what kind of organization is needed to manage communal resources in sustainable ways and what culture of norms should regulate the behavior of each member. As Shigetomi points out, an organization consisting of all residents of a certain area that manages communal resources such as forests or swamps is different from a voluntary organization such as a saving group. The resource management organization will inevitably contain members who neither agree nor conform with the expectation of sustainable use. The management system must therefore be able to enforce regulations.

Based on this framework, it seems that moral value, unity of kin groups, and the sense of belonging to a community, which Anan emphasizes but acknowledges have declined, are an insufficient cultural basis for a reliable management system. The decline shows up in the inability to enforce rules and punish breaches. On the other hand, the guardian’s forests in North and Northeast Thailand have been protected and preserved through enforcement of the rules and punishment for breaches better than other communal forests in North Thailand. This means that people do have a sense of rules. But though the protection of the guardian’s forest can be a symbol of unity for a community, such religious practices are totally different from the regulation of forests as communal resources.

Can we find any evidence of a willingness to follow community rules against one’s own self-interest in the recent changes Shigetomi examines in communal resource usage and conservation? He devotes one chapter to an intensive case study of a village in Northeast Thailand where the development of a village cooperative organization began with the formation of a rice bank in the 1980s. The rice bank gathered 50kg of unhulled rice from each voluntary member and loaned it to members at 20 percent interest per year. Dealing with members in arrears was done through dialogue in meetings attended by all, including delinquent, members. Around the same time, the cooperative shop was founded. The shop was funded and managed by voluntary members and the earned interest was distributed to them. In case of breaches of the rules, board members used moral suasion to bring violators into line. Management like this largely depended on the leadership of village headman and the social authority of elder leaders of kin groups in the village. Shigetomi highly values this kind of conflict resolution and decision-making by dialogue as being crucial to generating members’ consciousness of participation. But it also means the organization was not strong enough to deal with breaches automatically by following the rules. Dependence on village headman and other elders for smooth management shows that the organization was not autonomic but a fabric of bilateral networks with charismatic persons as the hubs.

The village’s cooperative organization evolved from the management of private resources of voluntary members (the original rice bank and store) to the management of communal resources by all villagers with the assistance of NGOs. The rice bank now includes the whole village, and an aquaculture project has begun in the communal swampland. There was an unsuccessful pig-raising project in which loans became uncollectable. In the 1990s, an organization containing several natural villages was formed. The turning point was the affair of the bad fertilizer, in which the fertilizer-purchasing group, consisting of members from several villages, claimed damages for their losses and were successful in receiving compensation. Currently a farmers’ group runs the rice mill and eight nearby villages engage in community forest management. Here again, Shigetomi considers the key factor to be trust in the village headman, who was leader of the collective fertilizer claim.Therefore, the character of the organization—relying on the charisma of a certain individual—has not changed. Shigetomi considers this to be the process of transition from bilateral cooperation to collective cooperative organization to expansion over the natural village boundary; he suggests that the collective organization requires members to respect collective agreements and to contribute to the organization. However, when routine procedures require collective agreement of all members each time, the organization cannot be thought of as an autonomic entity. To go back to the question asked above, the answer is clear: there is no evidence that rules are followed just because they are the rules of the community. The predominant concept underlying village social behavior is still the bilateral relationship.

How to Implement Community Organization

As Shigetomi’s case study shows, charismatic individuals play a crucial role in even long-evolving collective organizations, making them inherently unstable. I have also encountered cases in which collective cooperation did not succeed because they lacked a well-trusted leader. Villagers often attribute their failure of cooperation or lack of community unity to the ability of their leaders. They recognize their own selfish behavior, but think their leader is responsible. Such an unstable social system cannot be fully responsible for the sustainable management of community forests and local utilization of natural resources. But as Anan suggests, it is also true that the 1990s era of democracy has spurred local people to cooperate further in guarding their resources from outsiders. Thus, it is important that local people’s collective rights be recognized by the modern legal system. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between fully national and fully local jurisdiction over natural resources.

So far, all property rights have been either individual or national, a situation that has enabled outsiders to exploit resources without respect for local people’s livelihood. Though forest institutions in Thailand have paid a certain amount of attention to local use of forest resources by giving use permits (though within limits and following bureaucratic procedures), the forests have been principally state-owned and no systems have been elaborated to actively preserve local people’s use or rights. Forest officers have therefore been essentially adversarial in the eyes of local people. But today, partnership between forest officers, NGOs, and scholar-activists must be pursued in order to strengthen local organizations which still depend on bilateral relationships. The role of NGOs in assisting local people’s resource management is demonstrated in the case studies of both Anan and Shigetomi, but in fact, forest officers also participated in the establishment of community forests in the 1990s. As the policy of the forest department shifted to emphasize collaboration with local people and to encourage the establishment of community forests, NGOs played a useful role in mediating between officers and villagers. Both forest officers and NGO workers not only give advice on organization and management, but also arbitrate conflict within and between communities. I visited a community forest in a Northeast Thai village that was well managed by means of collective maintenance works and punishment of violations; the forest officer, who had been a consultant, thought that proper forest management might cease should forest officers’ involvement be withdrawn.

The success of forest officers as arbitrators for the villagers rests on their social authority as well as their knowledge. It is also true that this is a kind of bilateral relationship that depends on the personal ability of each officer. On the other hand, insofar as the new policy strengthens the officers’ authority to function as arbitrators, it represents institutionalization. The integration of local people and representatives of state agencies can stabilize community forest management to a certain extent, even though the actual organization might continue to operate through bilateral relationships. The most important thing is not “rights,” but the “system” which maximizes the interests of the local people in the long term. Nowadays, with the move toward decentralization, the role of local administrations, such as the tambon (sub-district) level, is much talked about. But, in fact, a flexible network of various actors—government officers, scholars, NGOs, and local people—is more suitable for resource management according to the reality of each local community.

Fujita Wataru
Fujita Wataru is Junior Research Fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University. 

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 2 (October 2002). Disaster and Rehabilitation


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