Like most developing South and Southeast Asian nations characterized by high population and economic growth rates, the Kingdom of Thailand has suffered severe deforestation during the last half century. Particularly over the past three decades (1961-91), these trends are reflected in the decline of nearly one-half the country's entire forest, from 54 percent to less than 28 percent cover (see Figure 1) (FN 1).

A diverse and complex set of interrelated causes and effects can be attributed to such patterns of forest loss. The primary factors fueling Thailand's cycle of deforestation have been twofold: conversion to agriculture and logging. The conversion of forest to farm has been spurred by land hunger and competing use pressures from fast-growing human populations. Thailand's population more than doubled between 1961 and 1991, rising from 23 to 58 million, while annual population growth rates in the Northeast region ranged between 3.3 and 3.8 percent during the 1960s and 1970s (FN 2). With the expansion of European economic markets and foreign assistance packages during the 1970s, Thailand also experienced a rapid increase in field crop production, especially upland cash cropping on formerly forested lands. Other factors responsible for forest land conversion have included the Land Certification Program (STK), which regularized villagers' claims to forest lands by allocating land-use certificates, and the 1975 amnesty granted to "illegal residents" of designated reserve forests (FN 3). Subjected to a virtual management vacuum, the majority of Thailand's public forests, covering 40 percent of the country, have functioned as an "open access" resource. The forests have served as a frontier land bank for the nation's expanding agricultural and development needs. These transformations have frequently led to overexploitation and serious ecological degradation.

Until the mid-1960s, almost all of Thailand's logging concessions were granted in the North, covering approximately 40 percent of that region's land area (FN 4). However, in 1968 a government strategy to accelerate economic development profoundly changed the situation. Over five hundred thirty-year logging concessions were vetted throughout the Kingdom, encompassing close to one-half the nation's geographical area and most of its designated reserve forest. The following years witnessed rapid commercial exploitation of Thailand's most valuable and accessible timber, including its famous teak (Tectona grandis) stands in the North. As in many developing countries today, the poor, rural Thai farmer has often been blamed for the destruction of such forests, which have already been thoroughly logged over by powerful timber concessionaires, often in partnership with Thai public enterprises.

Figure 1


Fortunately, indications of heightened awareness and new directions in forest management have been emerging over the past decade in Thailand, paralleling similar trends in other Asian nations. With the rise of environmental movements, including vocal, urban-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and journalists, public attention has been turned to such issues as upland deforestation and illegal logging, downstream erosion, landslides and flooding, and conservation of biodiversity in protected areas. Nonetheless, until very recently there has been less consideration for the needs of forest-dependent rural communities and their potentially strategic role as allies in the protection and stabilization of forest resources.

Pressured in part by this increase in public concern over forest conservation and poor management, in 1985 the Thai government responded by issuing a new National Forest Policy. While the policy took positive steps in encouraging environmental awareness, interagency cooperation, technical innovation, and public participation in forest management, it failed to specifically address the needs or tenurial rights of forest communities. Nor did the policy offer any strategies to ensure incentives for community participation in management. To the contrary, several years later the national Khor Jhor Khor, or Forest Land Resettlement program, was launched, further underscoring the lack of consideration for rural forest communities. First initiated in the North and Northeast, the program enlisted the Thai military to oust and relocate villagers from certain forests designated as protected areas and critical watersheds and to undertake a massive reforestation effort with fast-growing exotics such as eucalyptus. Facing the problems of widespread tenure insecurity and failed earlier efforts at land reform, the ambitious resettlement scheme aimed to target up to 10 percent of the country's population, or over 5 million people currently residing in the nation's public forest lands (FN 5). However, riddled with strong resistance movements and public protests across the Northeast-often spearheaded by monks, village leaders, and NGO activists -- the Khor Jhor Khor program was finally revoked by the new democratic government in 1992. Earlier, in 1989, in another important turn of events, a tragic landslide blamed on commercial watershed deforestation killed hundreds of people in the South, inducing the government to enact a nationwide ban on all logging and to begin developing a more strategic paradigm for forest management.

Experiences over the past several years indicate that planning in Thailand's forestry sector is shifting to an increasingly progressive and responsive approach toward rural communities. The Seventh Five-Year National Economic and Social Development Plan (1992-96) emphasizes the crucial role of local communities in resource management, while also linking issues of rural poverty to sustainable forestry development. As of this writing, the Parliament is reviewing a draft Community Forestry Act, which would provide crucial political support and legitimacy to collaborative endeavors between communities and forestry field staff in protecting and managing village forests.

Despite the current lack of such a formal policy framework which specifically addresses community rights and responsibilities in managing public forest lands, it is striking to note the widespread, often spontaneous grass-roots initiatives by local communities across Thailand to organize themselves around forest protection and management. A national inventory conducted by the Royal Forest Department (RFD) in 1992 documented over 12,000 traditional rural community groups protecting forest patches ranging in size from 1 to 4,000 hectares for a variety of religious, ecological, and utilitarian USeS.6 These activities, most of which are unofficial since Thailand's reserve forest is under the sole jurisdiction and control of the RFD, are operating informally. Some are implemented under pilot programs and others through local agreements between the Tambon (subdistrict) Council and RFD.

In an effort to increase understanding of locally appropriate systems of community forest management -- and thereby encourage tangible, equitable alternatives to custodial, bureaucratic forest control -- it is now critical to assess and closely document the successes and lessons arising from field experiences. Based on the first round of diagnostic research conducted by Thai members of the Southeast Asia Sustainable Forest Management Network, the following two case studies, in the Dong Yai forest of Northeast Thailand and the northern Nam Sa sub-watershed, help illuminate some of the important ecological, social, economic, and institutional aspects of community-empowered systems of forest management (see Figure 2).

Figure 2:

Community Forest Management Research Sites in Thailand

Go back the Table of Contents