BANG KLOI, Thailand: No-ae Meemi looks frail in the crowd of villagers at the community hall. His long grey hair is covered in a light turban, lips red from chewing betel.
Little by little, he pulls his body along the bamboo floor to the front of the gathering. His disabled legs are folded against his chest.
“I wanted to hang myself so many times while living here,” the 59-year-old said softly in the ethnic Karen language.
“I wasn’t born here. I was born in Jai Pandin.”
Facing him and other villagers are national park officials, members of parliament and academics. Many of them have travelled 230 km from Bangkok to better understand what caused the Karens in Bang Kloi to leave their homes and farmland for a deep forest area.
Since January, villagers have attempted to return to their ancestral land near the Thai border with Myanmar. Many of them were arrested for encroaching on a protected area inside the Kaeng Krachan National Park.
But for the Karens, this piece of land is their rightful home, where nature had nurtured generations of their people long before the park was demarcated in Phetchaburi province. The site used to house their old communities known as Upper Bang Kloi and Jai Pandin until 1996, when the Thai government resettled them 20 km away.
The evacuation was largely due to border security concerns and efforts to conserve the Phetchaburi watershed forest. The resettlement would not have happened without a promise by the authorities – one of a better life, new houses and farmland in what would become the village of Bang Kloi today.
For many villagers, life in the new settlement has proven difficult. Its remote location means restricted access to infrastructure and development. Poor soil, limited food and insufficient water has pushed a number of Karens to find jobs in the city. But with COVID-19, many of them have lost their jobs and returned home.
Fear of starvation made families decide to go back to Upper Bang Kloi and Jai Pandin, where food used to grow in fertile soil and people lived freely with their traditions. Some of them claim they have not been allocated the land as promised.
For the authorities, however, the Karens’ traditional cultivation methods could damage the pristine forest of Kaeng Krachan, which they plan to nominate for World Heritage status later this year. They have pledged to address longstanding land and livelihood issues encountered by the community in the resettlement area.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Prayut chan-o-cha has set up a committee to look into the issues faced by the Karens in Bang Kloi.
CONFLICT IN THE HEART OF KAENG KRACHAN
The Kaeng Krachan National Park is the largest of its kind in Thailand, with a great biodiversity of flora and fauna. The area was declared a national park in 1981. It covers 2,915 sq km in the provinces of Phetchaburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan.
More than 80 per cent of the park is forested, including the watersheds of two main rivers. Each year, abundant rainfall is funneled to the streams and rivers within the park before flowing to dams and nourishing farmland beyond.
To protect the pristine forest, the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation removed 57 families of Karens from the watershed of Phetchaburi river in 1996. The operation took place six years after park officials discovered the ethnic communities in Upper Bang Kloi and Jai Pandin.
“We carried out an inspection flight above the forest along the border and found signs of encroachment scattered in the area,” Kaeng Krachan forestry officer Nijitnapong Bunditsamit said in a meeting with lawmakers and academics upon their visit to the park in March. He was part of the inspection team at the time.
The encroachment we found was unusual, nothing like ordinary houses we had seen before. There were big houses surrounded by dozens of smaller ones. We were suspicious and reported it to the security unit and the provincial administration.
From the perspective of the authorities, the Karens’ traditional way of life was deemed damaging to the pristine forest and fertile watershed of Kaeng Krachan. It involved clearing the forest for rotational cultivation, which took place between different plots in the same area.
Besides, Nijitnapong said, reports of armed violence along the border also contributed to the evacuation.
Based on official data, 252 Karens from 57 families were willing to leave their communities in the deep forest and relocate to the Bang Kloi village in 1996. They agreed to move in exchange for new farmland and houses, which the authorities promised to provide. Each family was supposed to receive 11,200 sq m of land for cultivation and a separate 1,200-sq m residential area.
However, some residents of Bang Kloi interviewed by CNA claimed they did not receive the land which was promised during the resettlement process.
One of them is Suree Thongkoed, 62, who said her farmland only measures 4,800 sq m and the soil is not suitable for farming.
“I can’t grow rice or annual crops. Right now, I’m growing just bamboo and banana but even the banana can barely make it,” she told CNA.
"Living here is very difficult. It tortures me so much."
Poor soil is a common problem in the Karen village. When CNA visited the settlement, the terrain appeared to be challenging for cultivation. While some plots near a water source seemed fruitful with rows of banana trees, others were barren.
In February this year, park officials found 36 Karen families in Upper Bang Kloi, along with 18 plots of cleared forest land measuring 0.24 sq km. The villagers claimed these were old fallows left to regrow for years. They also insisted on staying there and requested proof of land rights.
Their refusal to leave led park officials to inform the police. Eighty three people were later removed from the forest.
The operation took place amid allegations of the authorities’ mishandling of the Karens. Officials were said to have confiscated mobile phones from the villagers before pushing them out, making it impossible for the Karens to document the operation and use it as evidence.
A park official clarified in a meeting with the villagers in March that the confiscation of mobile phones was part of the procedure and that the authorities recorded the operation with their body cameras.
Following the clearance, 42 adults and 41 children were brought back to Bang Kloi. Twenty-two people, including No-ae, were arrested for encroaching the national park and later granted temporary release without bail. They are forbidden from returning to Upper Bang Kloi or trespassing on the park without permission.
If guilty, they could face a jail term of between 4 and 20 years or a fine between 400,000 Baht (US$12,742) and 2 million Baht, or both.
“We could not ignore the encroachment. Otherwise, we could be charged for not exercising our official duties under Article 157 of the Criminal Code. We had to take legal action,” Nijitnapong explained when he met lawmakers and academics in March.
Land and livelihood issues in Bang Kloi have made headlines and sparked discussions about conservation and human rights since early this year.
In February, a group of Karens travelled to the Government House in Bangkok. They demanded their rights to live and farm in their ancestral land after the COVID-19 pandemic increased hardships in the village.
“I’ve lived here for a very long time and it has tortured me so much. Sometimes there is almost no rice to eat or money to buy it,” said Suree.
She was born and raised in the forest at Jai Pandin. Up there, she said, food was sufficient and the soil was good and moist. She could grow rice, beans and pumpkin, unlike in the resettlement area where the soil is sandy and full of rocks.
“Admittedly, some areas that are high on mountain slopes are not covered by the water system, which now reaches about 70 per cent of the total area,” Nijitnapong explained. Nevertheless, he said the Department of Water Resource is trying to solve the problem with irrigation and that there is enough water for cultivation all year round.
Twenty-five years have gone by since the Karens’ evacuation to Bang Kloi. Yet, some villagers claimed they are still waiting for land allocation in the village.
“Before we moved, the officials promised to give us farmland. But until now, I haven’t received anything,” Kaew Kwabu told CNA.
Unable to grow crops, the 50-year-old has to weave for 130 Baht per day (US$4.15). The money is used to buy rice from food stalls in the village to feed her family and unemployed children. But since payment is only made every two to three months, Kaew usually owes money to the shop owners and struggles to make ends meet.
“It’s not enough to live on,” she said.
I’m not afraid of death but I’m afraid of not having food to eat. How could my children and grandchildren survive without food?
The resurgence of public interest in Bang Kloi has shone the spotlight on the community’s troubled past.
Between 2010 and 2011, a series of evictions were believed to have taken place deep inside the forest. Fleeing hardship in the new settlement, many Karens had gone back to their ancestral land for farming.
This led park officials to drive them out from Upper Bang Kloi and Jai Pandin. The operation involved torching of buildings and belongings of the Karens. According to a court document seen by CNA, officials claimed they found a gun with ammunition, remains of wildlife, cannabis and a 100-year-old tree that was felled and burnt in the area.
CONTROVERSY OVER ROTATIONAL FARMING
Another issue of divergence between authorities and the Karens of Bang Kloi is whether the traditional practice of rotational farming would harm the national park.
Aerial images taken by officials between January and February this year showed several parts of the forest were cleared and burned.
According to the Karens, the process is part of their ancient agricultural practice, where cultivation rotates between different plots of land in the same area. They also claimed the clearing only took place in their old fallow and that ash from the burning provides chemical-free nutrients for the soil.
“When it’s the farming season, we’d clear the forest and burn the trees before planting seeds of rice and vegetables,” Kaew told CNA. “In the following year, we’d rotate to another plot so trees can grow in the old fallow.”
Each plot is normally shared by a few families during the annual farming season. The fallow is then left to restore its fertility for about 10 years before being cleared again for cultivation.
For the government, these actions are illegal and have adverse effects on the forest’s ecosystem.
“I saw video clips sent by a working group on the ground … I’m so sad and so sorry to see that forest area, which Thais conserve, highly value and wish to become a world heritage site,” said Natural Resources and Environment Minister Warawut Silpa-Archa in February.
"Although a group of people reasoned they had lived there for a long time, every single square inch of Thailand belongs to Thai people, especially the Kaeng Krachan forest, which we’ll soon nominate as a world heritage site."
The Thai government has made several attempts to nominate the area as a natural World Heritage site. However, it was recommended by the World Heritage Committee to first “resolve rights and livelihoods concerns” regarding “Karen communities within the Kaeng Krachan National Park”.
Rotational farming has long been associated with deforestation and shifting cultivation. But according to forestry expert Somsak Sukwong from the Center for People and Forests, the two cultivation methods are different.
In shifting cultivation, he explained, farming takes place in the same area for 10 to 20 years until the soil is depleted and when that happens, farmers will move to open a new forest area and repeat the practice.
While this method causes deforestation, Somsak said rotational farming on the other hand provides soil cover to the forest and helps prevent erosion.
“Scientifically speaking, the impact of deforestation depends on how the land is utilised after the forest has been destroyed,” he told CNA.
“The effect of deforestation on land is a result of soil erosion, where good top soil is taken away by the surface runoff.”
Based on this principle, Somsak said, there are two key elements that help prevent soil erosion. One is trees, which are collectively known as ‘tree cover’. The other is soil cover – vegetation on the surface of the soil.
According to Somsak, both kinds of cover exist in rotational farming, where crops cover the soil in the first year before trees grow back in the fallow and protect the land for many more years. “So, good rotational farming means the soil is covered all the time,” he added.
GOVERNMENT SETS UP COMMITTEE ON LAND ISSUES, LIVELIHOODS
In March, the prime minister set up a committee to resolve land issues and improve the quality of life in the remote Karen village. It comprises high-ranking officials from various ministries and academics in different fields.
“We all have to think how we can help the residents of Bang Kloi to have farmland so that they can take care of themselves and their families,” Prayut said in a podcast aired by the Government House on Mar 20.
“In just a few months, I expect the issue of farmland will be resolved.”
Commenting on the land allocation issue, Nijitnapong, the forestry official said all 57 families that moved to Bang Kloi in 1996 received what they had been promised and no other Karens were left behind in the forest.
All the families were transferred to Bang Kloi in military helicopters, he said, and there were documents showing how much land they were given as well as where each plot was.
“However, the national park had a problem. We kept these documents in the basement of our old office, which was flooded by the rain. Another problem was termites,” he explained.
"A lot of our documents were lost."
Currently, the authorities are trying to trace the 57 families for information related to land rights. Still, the process is said to be time-consuming as some Karens have moved out from Bang Kloi or changed their names. Moreover, official data may no longer be completely accurate.
Pichai Watcharawongpaibul, director of the 3rd Conservation Area Management Office in Phetchaburi, explained in a meeting at the Kaeng Krachan National Park in March that some families had ended up with more land than others.
“We need to start from these 57 families first and see how they expanded or how more people have joined them, dividing them into different groups to solve the problem of land rights,” he said.
More than two decades after the Karens were relocated, the problems of land and livelihoods have continued to affect them.
“It’s hard to say if their attempted return is legally right or wrong,” said Prayong Doklamyai from the People's Movement for a Just Society or P-Move.
For them, it is a righteous act. Their reasons are hardship and the fact that the area used to be their farmland. When the government evacuated them but was unable to allocate land, they thought it should let them return to cultivate at their old place. That’s why we have this situation.
In the meantime, park officials have located an area that could possibly be allocated to landless villagers in the future. However, they cannot proceed to take any action under the existing law on national parks.
“We have already explored the area,” Nijitnapong said. “But the process, frankly speaking, would require amendments to the law.”
Back in Bang Kloi, the villagers are leaving the community hall, without much clarity on whether or not they would be able to return to the forest. Right now, all they can do is wait for the government to come up with solutions.
For No-ae, the answer is clear. “Our traditional way of life is sufficient. It does not disturb others. It does not bring chaos,” he said.
“It is simple living. People can live. The forest can live. There is no problem.”