Some Lateral Thinking on the Draft Community Forestry Bill
Translation, Photos : Krisakorn Wongkorawutl
The Thai Constitution (1997) represents an invigorating framework of extraordinary quality for environmentalists, which provides the nation with a unique advantage over all other countries in Asia. Of note, Article 46 and Article 56 of the Constitution respectively empower traditional communities and communities to participate in the management, maintenance, preservation and exploitation of natural resources, while Article 79 encourages public participation in the preservation and exploitation of natural resources.
Despite these very clear provisions, the country has as yet failed to transpose these statements into legislative frameworks that embrace natural resource management in the manner envisioned. Indeed, the contents of the draft community forestry bill - a keystone piece of legislation falling under this constitutional framework for natural resource management - still remains a contentious topic after over a decade of debate. It therefore appears opportune to consider the core issues contained within this bill; and more broadly, the context of the relationship of communities to their natural resources. Consideration of three main areas provides a refreshingly clear way forward from the current impasse.
Presently, there are in excess of one thousand communities nationwide managing community forests, and there are several thousand more communities making efforts to conserve their forests. All these designated community forests show similar characteristics, being areas of forest in which one or more communities have had a traditional relationship of harvesting forest products from their adjacent forested lands.
Under the draft forestry bill, these harvesting rights are recognized. The core management aspects comprise the physical demarcation of the village lands with posts and/or signs, encompassing any forest with recognized ownership by the community. These village lands - including forests – are then zoned according to different land use practices and community rules are drawn up for each of the different land areas. Maps of the village lands are produced. Of note, the respective provincial community forest committee proposed under the bill monitors the entire process.
The first issue that requires consideration - which relates directly to the wording of the aforementioned articles in the Constitution - is for those communities living and dependent upon wetland resources. Do they have similar rights under the Constitution to their fishery resources and aquatic plant resources, just as their sister communities' claims to bamboo, mushrooms and rattans are recognized? Is it practical for wetland communities to physically demarcate their village lands in a similar fashion with boundary posts and signs, designate zones and draw up community rules for wetland resource management?
Before such contemplation is deemed purely theoretical, it is worth ‘revisiting' forest communities and their village landscapes. It soon becomes evident that virtually all communities managing community forests have given attention to the management of their wetland habitats, namely the watershed streams, simply because they are communal natural resource assets found within their village lands. Frequently, these mountain streams and hill streams have been declared as fish preservation zones, within specific village rules.
Moving further downstream, the preponderance and diversity of wetlands increases – after all water is under the influence of gravity. Yet more communities also have traditional rules ascribed to wetlands, whether they be ponds, marshes, stretches of river or other waterbodies, recognized by the communities, but unrecognized in any legal framework. These findings only reiterate that village landscapes countrywide comprise mosaics of communal forested lands and communal wetlands of various categories, interspersed with agricultural lands. And that village landscapes - and not forest alone - have community rules regarding natural resource utilization.
In essence, the community “forestry” legislation should be expanded to cover wetlands, perhaps being more appropriately termed as community natural resources legislation. As such, it should embrace the constitutional rights of all communities throughout the country, from the villagers living in the watersheds of Mae Hong Song, right through the entire spectrum of village landscapes to the Sea Gypsies living on Mu Ko Surin.
The second significant issue is to clarify how the basic constitutional rights of communities interrelate with respect to protected areas. In this context, it is vitally important that the Community Forestry Bill is not considered in isolation . It should be contended that the content of the community forestry legislation be “open-ended” on the matter, and broadly support the wording of the new Constitution (1997) regarding permitting communities “to participate in the management, maintenance, preservation and exploitation of natural resources and the environment”.
However, ensuring the integrity of biodiversity values found within the protected area system becomes an overriding concern - should the “floodgates” be opened on community access to natural resources in all forest categories, including protected areas - through the passage of “open-ended” community forestry legislation.
This issue should be resolved through the drafting of new protected area legislation and the clauses contained within it, currently being undertaken by Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University on behalf of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. This updated protected area legislation will need to incorporate clauses on the following issues:
- establishing a strengthened National Parks Committee and a Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Committee (or given the virtually identical mandates - a single National Protected Areas Committee) that are technically competent and have a strong conservation ethos so that the phasing of community access to traditional harvesting of natural resources is based upon a strong science base.
- authorizing the formulation of policy statements, under which sections would refer to the community access to natural resources. These policy statements would get refined over a period of time.
- authorizing access to communities regarding the harvesting of natural resources - in accordance with policy statements on the subject prepared by the national protected area committee.
- authorize the designation of buffer zones, so that communities living in buffer zones abutting protected areas of high biodiversity value are adequately compensated for loss of the access rights – should their traditional access rights be constrained.
The policy statements – which are bound to be a focus of deep controversy – depending on whether your pin your colours to biodiversity concerns or community concerns, might almost certainly be phased. The phasing might be broadly along the following lines: Phase 1. Clauses to approve joint management in pilot parks (e.g. Joint Management of Protected Areas Project). Phase 2. Clauses to approve joint management in protected areas of low national biodiversity value, and high socio-economic utilization. Phase 3. Dependent upon lessons learnt from Phases 1 and 2, a review of joint management in all protected areas, including sites of high biodiversity value. These policy statements would need to be unambiguous to ensure the protection of biodiversity values.
The third issue requiring consideration is the relationship of communities – and the representation of their rights through both the National Community Forestry Committee and the National Committee on Wetland Management; and how these institutional bodies interrelate with all other natural resource institutional bodies. These bodies may include the national protected area committees, the national river basin committees; forest fire prevention and management committees; the national reforestation committees; etc.
All these committees should be supervising the preparation of policy statements, strategic plans, guidelines and other outputs. The preparation of these policy statements crystallizes the role of communities in the management of their own natural resources, and changes the government agency role from that of leading implementing agency – to technical advisor. In an economic context, the pursuit of the entire suite of natural resource issues would prohibit unwise, top-down “development” ambitions that occur under present management regimes.
Tackling the aforementioned issues will contribute significantly towards addressing the Cabinet Policy Statements issued on 23 rd March 2005, soon after the Thai Rak Thai led government came into office for a second term. These include (1.) the policy on poverty alleviation; (2.) the policy on the enhancement of the quality of human resources and society; (4.) the policy on the management of natural resources and environment; and (6.) the policy on the development of laws and legislation and the enhancement of good governance. Passage of community natural resource legislation would also provide a legal basis for adopting the sufficiency economy strategy promoted by His Majesty the King - at the village level.
John Parr is the Director of Conservation at WWF Thailand. He is also a member of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law and the IUCN World Commission for Protected Areas.
A draft protected area legislation document (Thai language only) can be obtained from http://www.wwfthai.org/thai/resources/download/the Draft Community Forestry Bill.pdf It was produced from an analysis of 34 pieces of protected area legislation worldwide and subsequently reviewed by a technical group of Thai protected area management specialists.