Thailand is on the cusp of a new era in participatory forest management. The transition from conflict to cooperation and from open forest access to community-organized access controls is well underway in numerous parts of the country. Given a supportive environment, which includes institutional mechanisms to ensure two-way communication flows and information feedback, local communities are proving their abilities to work as partners with each other and the RFD to reverse forest degradation. Local leadership, exemplified by Dong Yai's Tambon Council and sympathetic forestry extensionists such as the COs in Nam Sa, can help create a climate of improved trust and communication among community user groups and better understanding about diverse village needs and priorities.
Forest-dependent communities hold the greatest stake in the sustainable use and management of their surrounding natural resources. Generations, often centuries, of traditional forest use by communities have resulted in valuable indigenous knowledge concerning patterns and processes of biologically diverse forests. With the establishment of secure systems of community protection and regulated extraction, field evidence underscores what traditional forest communities like the Karen already know: the powerful-as yet untapped-potential of natural forest regeneration on degraded lands across a wide range of Thailand's agro-ecological zones.
By reversing the conventional view of community groups as the problem and instead approaching rural populations as the potential key to the solution, new paradigms of collaborative forest co-management can be developed and tested. The sooner Thailand's national policy supports such models, the greater the chance for reversing conflict situations of open-access forest exploitation which spiral out of control.
While a formal community forest management policy still awaits official approval by the government, there is an emerging interpretation of "unwritten" policy in Thailand which supports community participation and empowerment. This unwritten, tacit policy, based on practice, represents the concerted efforts of a coalition of a new generation of RFD staff, working together with university-based social scientists, foresters, economists, nongovernmental organizations, and rural communities. This coalition is assisting community management groups throughout the country, inventorying indigenous, informal management systems and forest areas, and monitoring natural forest regeneration processes under community protection. As Dong Yai and Nam Sa experiment with strategies and generate important lessons concerning the institutional and socio-ecological possibilities of community management systems, an alternative path toward forest sustainability and development equity is being forged.
The Thai research teams feel increasingly convinced that the key to stabilizing the nation's forest resources is to support the involvement of rural communities in protection and sustainable management, as in Dong Yai and Nam Sa. The potential scope is vast. Over seven million hectares, or one-third of Thailand's forest area, is currently degraded and occupied by communities.
The diagnostic systems research undertaken by the teams in the first two years has been synthesized in these initial case studies. More detailed and specialized topical research is planned in the coming years. Fortunately, conflict mediation and community management mechanisms are already functioning on the ground in both the Northeast and North study sites. The Thai teams have accordingly set their priorities on comparative studies of forest structure and regeneration in old swidden plots in various stages of secondary succession, in the North distinguishing among different land-use practices of the Hmong, Lisu, and Karen. This will be complemented by further exploration of interagency coordination, the processes of decentralization in watershed management through information sharing and social networking, and villagers' changing attitudes and perceptions as forest managers. The objective is to develop predictive capacity in identifying factors conducive to organizational sustainability and widespread replicability of community management systems across watersheds and regions. Current and potential income-generation opportunities from non-timber forest products, with a focus on bamboo shoots, mushrooms, vegetables, medicinals, and edible fauna, will also be investigated. While bamboo and rattan experimental trials will be continued by the team in the Northeast, the next phase of research in Dong Yai will expand to include small-scale natural forest underplanting and management of rattan and edible bamboo by the communities.
New institutional strategies are evolving. Over the past two years, the Community Forestry Unit (CFU) of the RFD has involved its regional offices in a comprehensive inventory of the community forest management organizations in their respective territories. To date, approximately 12,000 local groups have been identified, including forests managed by local monasteries, schools, community and kinship groups, and nongovernmental organizations. The CFU has also requested each region to compile an in-depth case study of one effective community protection group each year. The case studies are used as issue-oriented discussion materials to help RFD staff understand community organizational needs and the types of policies, programs, procedures, and attitudes which can best support local forest management activities. The broad-based involvement of regional RFD staff in diagnostic baseline surveys, participatory rural appraisals, and case study documentation helps to focus their attention on community management systems and stimulates staff awareness of the importance of these initiatives. Major shifts have already occurred in the attitudes, capabilities, and field operations of many RFD staff in support of community management.
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3. James Hafner, Kamon Pragtong, and David Thomas in Keepers of the Forest, ed. M. Poffenberger (W. Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1990).
4. Kamon Pragtong and David Thomas in Keepers of the Forest.
5. Bangkok Post, 12 December 1991.
6. Kamon Pragtong, RFD, personal communication, April 1993.
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8. James Hafner in Keepers of the Forest.
9. Royal Forest Department, personal communication, April 1993.
10. Wisoot Yukong, Regional Forest Division, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, April 1993.
11. Samer Limchoowong, Developing Local Organization for Watershed Management in Sam Mun Highland Development Project (Honolulu: East-West Center, 1992).
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