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State-owned land illegal occupation by firms a big problem


Civic group urges govt to enforce law as companies stay on 130,000 rai in 2 provinces even after expiry of leases

Illegal occupation of state-owned land by private firms across the country after their leases have expired has frequently led to violence. Companies also often intimidate activists or landless villagers who campaign against them – or even eliminate opponents in their way, like a recent double murder in Surat Thani province.

A woman based in Chai Buri district lost her mother – Pranee Bunrak – an activist who joined a campaign by PMOVE, a civic group that has been rallying against illegal occupation of more than 10,000 rai of forest and farmland in this southern province. Benjawan Bunrak said police had made little progress in the murder, which took place last November.
The victim, along with a woman friend who was also shot dead, was gunned down in a hail of automatic fire on November 19 last year while riding a motorcycle.
“I know that those behind my mother’s murder are influential people [involved in the illegal land occupation],” said Benjawan. 
Pranee was shot dead with a woman friend, Montha Chookaew, travelling with her, in the morning after the Bunrak family home was levelled to the ground by men using backhoes.
Pranee, Walnisa Chookaew and Suwimol Jantharos who were daughters of Montha, all of whom are landless and poor, had to jointly borrow Bt50,000 from a lender, who charged them Bt10,000 a month in illegal interest, to arrange the funerals.
State-owned land with leases to companies that expire are often repossessed temporarily by the authorities and land offices, who later distribute the land to landless villagers who may lease the properties at cheap prices or later acquire them permanently after long-term occupation or farming.
The women and more than 500 members of PMOVE staged a rally last week outside Government House to query the police about their progress in solving the murders. They also demanded that the government solve the failure to get companies to vacating land and return properties to the authorities for distribution to eligible villagers.
A leader of the Federation of Southern Farmers, Suraphol Songkharak, said there was about 10,000 rai of such land, including a 1,000 rai of fertile forest, set to be distributed to the eligible villagers. But the companies continued on sit on the land. Aside from companies’ resistance is inaction by land offices. This has prompted landless villagers to trespass on these properties.
There is a total of 70,000 rai of such land in Surat Thani, together with another 60,000 rai in Krabi, totalling 130,000 rai still occupied by companies even after the leases expired, mostly since 2003. 
This land belongs to several state agencies, including the Forest Industry Organisation under the Agriculture Ministry and the Treasury Department under the Finance Ministry, with most of the latter in Surat Thani.
About 400 companies have vacated properties in Surat Thani but two major companies and a few other small ones remain. An initial agreement brokered by the land office, after frequent protests and complaints lodged by the villagers, stipulated that 60 per cent of the 70,000 rai should be distributed to the villagers while 40 per cent would be leased to the companies.
To solve the problem, Suraphol said authorities must be strict in repossessing such lands and distributing them fairly through an integrated mechanism to landless villagers or career farmers in need of more paddies or plantations.
PMOVE coordinator Krissakorn Silarak said the families of both victims would each get Bt100,000 in compensation, as promised by provincial authorities, while police from Bangkok and local border patrol police units have been assigned to provide security for both families, villagers and PMOVE activists.
PMOVE adviser Prayong Doklamyai said a written inquiry and suggestion was submitted directly to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra last October, and 10 joint committees set up since, but little progress had been made.
 
Details of illegal occupation of state-owned land and disputes with private companies
The disputes involve state-owned land managed and supervised by:
 - The Forest Industry Organisation (FIO)
 - The Treasury Department
 - The Agricultural Land Reform Office
 
Land status:
1. Surat Thani: 
- 70,000 rai is under the FIO’s supervision.
- Of 60,000 rai belonging to the Treasury Department, the province allocated 20,000 rai for private companies’ use (40 per cent) and for individuals to rent on a case-by-case basis (60 per cent).
- The Agricultural Land Reform Office owns 10,000 rai. Of this, 9,000 rai is rented to private companies, while 1,000 rai is forestland. Villagers have encroached on some of the land, leading to disputes. Other people have filed complaints alleging that some of the office’s land was illegally sold to others.
2. Nakhon Si Thammarat:
- Villagers have encroached on a total of 4,940 rai of forestland under the FIO’s supervision.
3. Krabi:
- There is 60,000 rai of forestland under the FIO’s supervision.
- There are 10 plots of oil-palm plantation whose con?cessions expired in 2000, 2002 and 2003. They are in the Ao Leuk-Plai Phraya, Neu Khlong and Khao Phanom areas.
 
The disputes:
- Land-lease contracts have expired; 
- Villagers have seized land plots to call for fair allocation of land for usage; 
- Civil and criminal lawsuits have been filed; 
- Some villagers involved in land disputes have been killed;
- Related agencies have negotiated for land allocation;
- People have called for the establishment of a committee to probe land allocation, seeking leases to make use of the land.
 
Eight proposals made by PMOVE
 - Establish a problem-solving mechanism driven by the people for a fairer society;
 - Solve land-ownership disputes through the community land deeds principle;
 - Establish a land-management bank (as a public organisation);
 - Launch a pilot project for such a local land-management bank in the North;
 - Start a loan scheme for homes (Ban Mankong project);
 - Tackle homelessness;
 - Establish a special cultural zone (fishermen's village on Rawai beach in Phuket);
 - Tackle the Pak Mool Dam issue.

Published : January 12, 2013

By : Thanapat Kitjakosol The Natio