A recent decision by a Thai appellate court against 14 residents of Ban Sapwai, a village in the northeastern province of Chaiyaphum, proves again that peasant women are bearing the brunt of false climate-change solutions. Instead of committing to the goal of mitigating climate change by phasing out fossil-fuel industries, the Thai government has chosen to go after an easy target – the poor and the landless.

The 14 cassava-growing peasants, nine of them women, were found guilty by a lower court in 2018 of encroaching on a national park after forestry authorities filed complaints against the villagers for refusing to leave land belonging to Sai Thong National Park. They were given prison sentences ranging from five months to 1.5 years. This happened as a dedicated provincial task force was being set up to look into the forced evictions. The villagers together with the Isaan Land Reform Network, a member of a national land-rights movement called the People’s Movement for a Just Society (P-Move), had lobbied the Thai government to set up the task force.

The sentenced villagers were ordered to pay “compensation fees” for environmental degradation ranging from 40,000 to 1.58 million baht (US$1,300-$51,000) for 1 to 48 rai (0.16-7.7 hectares) of land use. According to the Thai Confederation of Tapioca Farmers, the average village household makes about 53 baht ($1.70) per rai per month from its agricultural work.

The Appeals Court verdict reads that the farmers’ use of land in the forest reserve has caused loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation, thus contributing to climate change, and therefore the defendants are obliged to pay compensation to the state. The verdict cites data used by the Forestry Department based on samples of soil, land slope, and tree circumference, calculating the environmental degradation fee with a computer program.

The only “crime” of the villagers was in essence refusing to leave land on which they have settled since the 1970s, long before any demarcation was made for the national park. While the Thai government has attempted several times to conduct national surveys to register families and provide legal recognition to those residing in the forest, many families have been left out of the survey because of budget and capacity limitations.

Conflicts between forest-conservation policies and community land use is not new for Thailand. However, it was heightened significantly after a military junta seized power in 2014 and introduced forest-reclamation policies that aimed to increase the proportion of national forest land from 31.5% to 40% to “conserve the environment and to manage resources sustainably.”

According to the Development Coordination Committee, a non-governmental organization, of the 500 cases filed against “forest intruders,” only 10 are against large business owners  while the rest have targeted small-scale farmers. It also noted that many areas that should be reclaimed were in fact being used for mining, energy extraction and industries with complicit approval of the government.

The junta, which ruled until this year as the National Council for Peace and Order, had stipulated in NCPO Order 66/2554 that the poor and landless would be exempted from the forest-reclamation policies, but the authorities forged ahead with prosecuting villagers for lack of required legal evidence or documents. Many of them were forced by the authorities to sign agreements to give up their land without being informed about the implications or the consequences; nor were they consulted to offer their free, prior and informed consent.

In order to protect forest reserves, the government must conduct a human-rights, gender and environmental impact assessment to develop sustainable policies that protect people’s rights to land, development and the safe and healthy environment guaranteed in the Thai constitution. Crucial considerations must be given to such concerns as:

  • How many families are being displaced from their land?
  • How many will end up landless?
  • How many have already ended up  homeless, migrated or forced into cheap labor in the urban centers?
  • How many children will be left uncared for as their parents are imprisoned in defense of their land and livelihood?
  • How have the affected communities been informed or meaningfully engaged to shape their own lives and future?

It has been estimated that a total of 10,400 families nationwide could be evicted from their land because of the Thai government’s “green grabbing” policies. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment claimed in 2018 that the authorities had gone after large businesses exploiting forest land, but have failed to disclose such information to date.

“Green grabbing” is a term coined to refer to grabbing land under the guise of climate protection but handing it over to the private sector at the cost of rural and indigenous communities who have long and collectively used the land. Likewise, Thailand’s authoritarian leadership has played the main role of jeopardizing the lives of its rural and indigenous communities to enhance corporate profit and wealth.

Land Watch Thai has found that the government has given away 6,243 rai (about 1,000 hectares) of forest land to fossil-fuel companies in the form of mining and industrial zones in different parts of Thailand. Will an assessment of the human-rights, gender and environmental impacts of these extractive activities ever be carried out? Will these companies ever have to pay “environmental degradation fees” the way the Ban Sapwai villagers will after selling everything they own and more to pay their debts?

Instead of persecuting the poor, the newly elected civilian government must show its genuine commitment to climate change and protection of natural resources by refusing to hand over forest land to extractive industries, phasing out the use of fossil fuels in the country, and holding those corporations and state actors that have caused environmental havoc and human-rights violations accountable to its people and communities. It must recognize the role of Women Human Rights Defenders in protect poor landholders from rights violations or injustices conducted by state and non-state actors.

This article was co-authored by Pranom “Bee” Somwong, who leads the Protections International Thailand team. PI is an international organization working to protect human-rights defenders.