Constraints on People’s Participation In Forest Management in Thailand

Pearmsak Makarabhirom


Local communities have long managed and used forests for their own livelihood. Since the central government took over forest management from the people, however, local communities have suffered and forest management has failed for lack of community participation. It is the intention of this paper to analyze the constraints on people’s participation in managing the forest.

Before the late 1800s, the Thai state was actually a number of loosely aligned kingdoms. It was not until 1886 that the central authority in Bangkok declared the forest to belong to the state. Since this time there have been four major overlapping periods in Thai forestry. The period from 1886 to 1989 saw the granting of long-term forest concessions. Twenty years after the concessions started, the Economic Forest Plantation Program began (1906-1989). The Forest Village Project ran from 1975 to 1993, and since the 1980s there have been many attempts to recognize local capacities and redistribute land. Some examples are the Sor-tor-kor (Rights for Cultivation) Project (1982-1993), the Kor-jor-kor (Land Allocation for the Poor) Project (1990-1992), and the Four Sectors Cooperation Program (1987-1992 and in revised form, 1993), comprised of government, private sector, financial institutions, and farmers.

The results of these top-down forest management schemes can be seen nationwide. A number of studies have shown that villagers do not gain proper benefits from them and do not help them in restoring the forests. On the contrary, villagers are often used as cheap labor and go into debt as a result of their participation. Moreover, corruption among officials has marred many government-run projects (Techa-artig 1996). Thus, most have been terminated or have lost momentum because local people neither want nor will participate in them (RDI 1993; Apichai 1994; Sasaki 1999). Consequently, other problems have been exacerbated, such as land tenure, biodiversity loss, cultural degradation, water shortage, and large-scale forest fire.

There is ample documentation of the failure of state-led forest management, so why hasn’t there been a move to more people-centered management approaches? This paper argues that resistance to change comes from many sectors and that finding a solution is not just about linking local research to policy processes.

A quick assessment of the situation

A survey of different regions in Thailand clearly shows the failure of state-led programs. In the northern region, highland watershed forests have been cleared for large-scale monoculture cash crops such as maize (early 1970s), cabbage (early 1970s to date), ginger (late 1980s to date), and temperate fruit trees (early 1980s). There have been many drastic conflicts in this region as well, for example, around Doi In-thanon in Chiang Mai province and in Doi Luang in Chiangrai and Phayao provinces. Moreover, the proclamation of an area as a national park effectively makes “illegal” residents of people who had settled these areas years before the proclamation. The cases of the Karen and Lahu ethnic minorities in Pang Dang village, Chiang Mai province, and the Lisu in Pai district, Mae Hong Son province, are just some examples. With few attempts made to resolve these problems, conflicts between the government and local people have escalated to the point where members of ethnic minorities have been jailed for practicing subsistence cultivation (Northern Development Foundation 1998).

In the southern region, more than 5 million rai (1 rai = .66 ha) of forest land has been converted into orchards and rubber, coffee, and oil palm plantations. Mangrove forests covering 2.3 million rai in 1961 decreased to about 900,000 rai by 2000 due to forest concessions for charcoal and poles, brackish-tiger prawn farming, and urbanization. (Royal Forestry Department 2000). Current problems include the uncontrolled cutting of mangrove trees, the use of destructive pushing gear, and near-shore fishing by trawlers and push-nets which destroy fish, coral, seagrass, and the whole mangrove ecological system. Small-scale fisherfolk suffer because the government does not enforce laws or punish wealthy concession owners. As in other areas of natural resource management, the state has resisted calls for more participation (Yadfon Foundation 1999; Watana 1998; Rithipornpun 1994).

The northeast region has sustained the worst damage (Department of Environmental Quality Promotion 1998; Bunchon 1996; Premrudeelert et al. 1994). After twenty years of forest concessions (1968-1987), 87 percent of the total land area has been degraded. Traditional local forests and public lands have been destroyed for cash crop cultivation and Eucalyptus woodlots, particularly in mid-Northeast localities such as Nong Yor forest in Surin province and Dong Keng forest in Yasothorn province.

In the central region, rich forests have been destroyed by long-term timber concessions, followed by slipper concessions (a short pole hardwood used in railway construction); bamboo concessions for the pulp and paper industry, oil and resin harvesting concessions, the expansion of export crop cultivation, and large-scale eucalyptus plantations. Extensive plans for rehabilitation through forest village and forest plantation projects failed for lack of local participation (Apichai and Danai 1996; Sasaki 1999).

In the eastern region, forests covered more than 5 million rai in 1957. At present, since the government proclaimed ownership and management of the forests, less than 500,000 rai remain. The government has established many planning and management committees that include no representative from local communities. Therefore, local people do not cooperate (RECOFTC 1994).

Forested area of more than 3 million rai in the western region, inhabited by several local ethnic communities, was proclaimed a protected area and then a “world heritage” site. Again, the Royal Forest Department set up committees to plan and manage these protected areas, which it called the “Western Forest Complex,” without involvement by the local people (Alonglod 1993; Opas et al. 1998).

Clearly, then, a major reason state-led forest management in Thailand has failed is that forest managers and politicians have not recognized or allowed local participation in natural resource management. Over the long term, this has resulted in a host of inter-connected problems including enormous loss of forest, serious environmental degradation, and more frighteningly, a major decrease in the quality of life of rural people. State-led forest management has also created a split within civil society. Urban environmentalists and rural people have vastly different views about how forest resources should be managed, what management objectives should be, and how benefits should be shared (Anun 1998; Somsak 1998; Peamsak 1999a, b).


Constraints facing community forestry

The present constitution (1997) gives authority and responsibility to community and local organizations to manage natural resources. Item 46 establishes the rights of local communities; item 56 gives management rights to individuals; item 58 asserts individuals’ right to access to news and information; item 59 gives people the opportunity for free expression of ideas; and item 79 abolishes the former governmental role in controlling resources and the environment. Unfortunately no policies or laws have implemented these objectives and they are not reflected in national forest policy, which aims to achieve long-term sustainable management of forest resources in coordination with other natural resources (RFD 1985). The policy emphasizes the roles of government and the private sector and cooperation between the two, but little is said about people’s participation. This omission has led to an entrenchment of thinking and actual resistance to the participation of local people in forest management. This is due not only to the perceived authority of the state, but to the attitude, trust and commitment, and knowledge and skill of forest officials, and to the lack of incentives for local participation.

Wrong use of state authority:
Government agencies see themselves as enforcers of laws rather than managers. A forest monk who has witnessed this firsthand identifies what is wrong with their approach: “We can manage forest resources but the first thing we have to do is manage people. Those who are hungry will become more so if they cannot have access and use forests to meet their needs.” He adds that the government uses nitisat (strict rules and regulations) to manage forests, but nitisat is for criminals. Instead, the government should use ratthasat (diplomacy) to build the structures and mechanisms needed to accommodate the different interests and needs placed on forests. Laws provide very little room for working out problems; rather they stress punishment. The laws that are invoked are the Civil and Commercial Code, Article 1304 (4) for public treasures; Land and Forest Acts for forest and land uses, measures in land-use planning, land consolidation for agriculture, stipulation of forest reserve and protected areas, watershed classification, etc.; Wildlife Protection Act 1960 for wildlife; Fishery Act of 1947 for fish resources; Mineral Act 1967; and Petroleum Act 1971 for all mineral resources, including petroleum.

Ironically, those who are most to blame (concession companies and wealthy, influential national and local businessmen) rarely have to worry about such things. After allowing the exploitation of local resources, government agencies usually leave an area without proper rehabilitation. When problems are pointed out, state officials often put the blame on local people (Office of Senator’s Secretariat 1994).

Overcoming this problem requires a balance of authority within government agencies and between the state and the people. Devolution of forest management rights and authority to local communities is strongly recommended. At the local level, community organization must be strengthened and promoted in forms such as the village board committee, community committee, sub-district council, and sub-district administration organization. The roles and responsibilities of all actors must be clarified and communities should be allowed to participate in decision making as well as investigate the operation of government officials (Center for Social Development Study 1996).

Centralized management decision-making:
Forest Management plans are often decided by a few high-level officials on national-level committees such as the National Forest Policy Committee, the Wildlife Protection Committee, and the National Park Committee. The objectives and policy set by these committees do not correlate with the problems and needs of local communities. In fact, the political appointees on these committees often have little understanding of local realities.

This can be overcome through a decentralization process in which the authority of central departments is transferred to local organizations at various levels. It is also necessary for representatives of the people and NGOs to be appointed to national-level committees to balance members from the governmental sector.

Attitude toward rural people and perceptions of forest use:
Some government officials have negative attitudes toward local people, particularly poor people who depend on forests. They often assume that these are the people most likely to destroy forests, because they see forest use as forest destruction and do not understand local forest management. Government programs usually tell communities what to do rather than try to understand how the forest is used and how that use can be improved to support the objectives and needs of both parties. This constraint can be lessened by having local officials attend social activities in the communities (RECOFTC 1994). This would allow government officials to understand local people’s perceptions and their relationship with the forest.

Trust and Commitment:
There is very little trust among the major stakeholders in the debate over who should manage the forest and how it should be managed. Past experience clearly shows the failure of government-led forest management strategies, yet there is little commitment to change. On the contrary, the forest department has been quite strategic in trying to win over public opinion by creating more national parks and demonstrating effectiveness through high-profile arrests. However, strong forest protection and crime suppression measures create negative feelings among local people toward the officers.

The way out of this constraint is for the government to review related policies, programs, and commitments with the people. Long-term commitments and agreements should be encouraged at the local level so that new initiatives can be implemented in cooperation with local people and all stakeholders.

Knowledge and Skills:
Governmental officials do not sufficiently understand new concepts, strategies, and participatory methods of forest management, agroforestry, and joint/collaborative forest management (Banerjee 1992; Fisher 1995; Gilmour and Blockhus 1993). They see community forestry and community-based natural resource management (Bartlett et al. 1992; DENR 1996) as a way to control local people, not as a means to support improved forest management. They also lack skills in facilitation, community organization, and the social sciences which would help them work effectively with communities. In short, forest officers are not properly trained.

Participatory learning processes which engage government officials and local people working together must be encouraged. It is necessary to train both parties to understand new concepts, participatory approaches, and techniques. Further, government representatives posted to the districts, such as District Forest Officers and Forest Protection Officers, must be given support, encouragement, and flexibility to perform their new roles in promoting people’s participation.

There are currently very few incentives for people to participate in forest management. Most government “participatory projects,” devised with little local input, are more about meeting government targets and objectives than about obtaining actual local participation. Protected forest management is therefore very strict, and even subsistence activities are prohibited in protected areas. In the case of domestication of forest trees in farm areas, people are afraid that if their fields become forested, the government might take them over as “forest areas” and put them under central control. In the case of teak and dipterocarp tree promotion, farmers can plant trees but have to get permission to cut, process, and transport their own wood. Clearly, the government must make benefits, including moral support, flow to all participants in forest management.

Legal and Administrative Policy:
At present, forestry laws and regulations are hostile to people’s participation, especially in government-proclaimed protected areas which prohibit all use. Though there are thousands of communities managing and protecting their local forests, their activites are deemed illegal. Further, current laws and regulations prioritize the private sector, while poor upcountry people are seen as enemies of the forest. At recent Senate hearings on the Community Forestry Bill, these contradictions were raised, but instead of amending the harsh laws, the “gospel” was upheld. Local reality and decades-old laws are still in conflict.

These seven issues are not new, but have been long discussed. Most governments have not taken them into serious consideration, however, especially during the ten years before the economic crisis. In fact, government departments concerned with forest management still enjoy large budgets and thus have no reason to consult with local people. They are accountable to no one.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Promoting people’s participation in forest management requires concerted efforts on the part of government, NGOs, academic institutions, and the people themselves. In the short term, the state should create incentives to allow local people to benefit from its programs. Enforcement should give way to cautious flexibility so that new concepts, participatory approaches, methods, and techniques can be encouraged.

In the long run, forestry reform will entail the revision of goals and improvement of policy, laws, regulations, and institutions in order to implement new policies. Fundamental linkages between livelihood security (living, cultivation, and community forests) and land tenure should be recognized by the state. Parallel institutions to deal with local conditions and community objectives should also be developed. For if local people cannot make their own plans and enter freely into agreements, why would they participate? An important first step would be to engage local participation in collecting and analyzing information that would lead to forest management options suitable to local needs, while fostering a collaborative spirit between local people, NGOs, and government staff (Mather 1998: Sripen 1996). In fact, participatory action research is a highly recommended practical tool to build researchers’ working experience with local communities that can lead to wider participation.

Community forestry as seen in other countries is not just forest management, but a means to wider change and empowerment at the local level. Community forest management provides basic needs, generates income, and strengthens local capacities to manage natural resources and the environment. It contributes to the development of human resources by raising awareness and fostering right attitudes, knowledge, and skills through participatory learning. Eventually it will help to balance decision-making between the central government and local communities.

­Pearmsak Makarabhirom
Pearmsak Makarabhirom is Program Officer at the Community Forestry Country Support Program, Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific (RECOFTC), Kasetsart University, P.O. Box 1111, Bangkok 10903, Thailand.
Tel: 9405700 ext 1228; email:

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


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