By Pongphon Sarnsamak
“We have to accept the truth there are more than 400,000 people living in forest reserves. The only way to protect forest areas from deforestation is by giving people rights over forestland and allowing them to use the land,” permanent secretary Chote Trachu said yesterday.
Instead of taking legal action against people who are considered to be living illegally in forest reserves in mountainous areas, the ministry’s plan is aimed at encouraging them to continue living in the forest reserve, utilising the land and helping the ministry to recover and protect the degraded areas.
Chonlatid Suraswadi, deputy directorgeneral of the Forestry Department, said the ministry would this week ask Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to take the situation into consideration and approve the plan during her inspection trip to floodhit areas from Bangkok up to the North.
People’s rights to forestland will be issued under Article 16 of the National Forest Reserve Act of 1985, which allows individuals to live in or utilise forest reserves.
In exchange for being allowed to occupy and utilise forest reserves, people will be asked to enter into an agreement with the ministry that prohibits them from transferring their land rights, called “Sor Tor Kor”, to their family members or from selling their land.
They are allowed to use the land only for environmentally friendly farming and for growing trees.
For example, if people have 100 rai in forest areas, they will be asked to divide their land into two parts. About 30 per cent will be used for agricultural purposes and 7o per cent for reforestation.
Only people living in degraded forest reserve areas will be eligible for land rights.
People will not be allowed to live on and utilise forestland in headwater areas, on high mountain slopes, in mangrove forests and in atrisk forest biodiversity areas. The expansion of plantations in forest reserves is banned.
The Forestry Department will send its officials to verify the utilisation of the land.
“People’s rights to forestland will be immediately cancelled if we find that they do not use their land for agricultural purposes or that they sold it to someone else.
“They can’t file any lawsuit to ask for compensation for the withdrawal of their rights,” said Samak Donnapee, chief of the Forest Land Management Bureau, which oversees the project.
Under this project, the ministry expects that about 1.8million rai of degraded forest reserves will be recovered soon, he said.
The ministry also wants to overcome the land conflicts in forest reserves between officials and people living in the disputed areas.
About 200,000 people are living in Zone C forest reserves located in headwater areas. The ministry is now working to find a fix to the problem – whether to give them the right to continue living on their land or to move them out of Zone C areas.
“This resolution will depend on the government’s policy,” he said.
Since the ministry’s project to issue Sor Tor Kors was launched in 2000, about 3,000 people have been given the land document.
But the scheme was suspended due to a change of government and forest reserve management policy.
To restore degraded forest reserves, the ministry will also implement another project called “Change rice farms for forest areas”.
The project is aimed at promoting people whose paddy field is located inside a forest reserve and is at risk from natural disasters such as landslides and flashfloods to move out and grow rice in nearby areas.
The ministry will provide ricegrowing areas for them and also will teach them how to raise rice and vegetables on terraces.
The ministry expects to get back 3,300 rai of forest reserves from people living in six watershed areas – Ping, Wang, Yom, Nan, Sakraekrang and Pasak.
“We hope this will be a longterm measure to resolve the conflict over the utilisation of forest reserve land and to rehabilitate the degraded areas,” Samak said.