The year 2020 marked the 10th anniversary of the passage of “the Regulation of the Prime Minister Office in the Issuance of Community Land Title Deeds” by the cabinet of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Subsequently, the government established the Community Land Titling Office (CLTO) as well as a premier-chaired committee and several subcommittees on solving problems of the Land Reform Network of Thailand (LRNT), the nationwide network of land reform movement organizations formed in late 2006. The pursuance of these land reform packages was a response of the Abhisit government to the mass rallies organized by the LRNT in early 2009. As a matter of fact, the Democrat Party under the leadership of Abhisit pledged to support the CLT idea during the election campaigning in late 2007. Later, the CLT appeared in the Democrat-led government’s inaugural policy statement which was delivered in the parliament on December 29, 2008. While some observers and core members of the land reform movement believed that the LNRT and the P-move (“the Peoples Movement for a Just Society” – a movement network which was formed to replace the LNRT in 2011) could successfully push the government of Prime Minister Abhisit to pursue the CLT policy and secure the continuity of the policy under the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the past decade of the CLT reform was regarded as a rocky one.
The community land titling was a newly invented concept proposed by the LRNT. Originally adapted from the traditional concept of local common land, the practice of the CLT is based mainly on an idea of community land ownership. Under the CLT concept, community members can use allocated lands for their private benefits, but they do not have individual ownership over the lands. The administration over the community lands is solely under the responsibility of the community land committee which is often operated in the form of community cooperative; meanwhile, the land distributed to the community is regarded by law as yet being state-owned.
The CLT was presented as an effective solution for local people suffering from problems of landlessness and land insecurity as well as problems of land conflicts with state agencies. Indeed, their problems were basically related to the state’s land management related to the forest conservation and agricultural policies. 1 In fact, the previous governments had implemented various land reform measures, but no measures had mechanisms that could prevent the loss of land through the land sell-off. In addition, the land problems related to the land management and the forestry agencies have never been earnestly resolved. The replacement of the granting of individual land titling by community land titling was thus considered as a major way out.
Yet the progress and outcomes of policy implementation appeared sluggish and trivial. On January 31, 2012, among 435 communities applying for the CLT, only two were approved as the communities qualifying the conditions and receiving local recognition of CLT rights by local land administration. 2 Until recently, the number of qualifying communities slightly increased to five. It was explained that the sluggishness of the operation of the CLT policy was attributable to personnel and legal constraints inasmuch as the implementation of the CLT policy was reliant on the prime ministerial decrees. 3 The deliberating and approving processes of the CLT required the CLTO to deal with other ministerial agencies, but the office received less cooperation.
The lack of cooperation was caused by hostile attitude toward the CLT policy among the related agencies, particularly those of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE), that could be observed since the inauguration of the policy. The agencies of the MNRC considered the CLT incompatible with the green environmental agenda. This green agenda included forest conservation, and a concrete measure of the governmental agencies was to prevent forest encroachment by minimizing access of people to protected forests. 4 The forestry bureaucrats considered the CLT policy as authorizing an amnesty to offenders and permitting more illegal forest encroachment.
In the implementation process of the CLT policy, it was noted that subcommittees chaired by Minister of and representatives from the MNRE appeared inactive and produced no progress. Conversely, the forestry officers at the provincial level ignored the government’s guideline which demanded them to avoid causing trouble to the local people of the communities whose the CLT applications had been under the deliberation process. As it occurred, in many areas in reserved forests and national parks, huge teams of the forestry and police officers raided the local people’s lands, arrested them, and destroyed their shelters and plants. The prosecution processes of these local people were terminated with the sentences of imprisonment and fine, regardless of the government’s guideline and land reform policy. The court’s decisions rested on the National Reserved Forest Act and evidence presented by the authorities. Certainly, the court verdicts were so because, in terms of the hierarchy of laws, an act is more superior than a prime ministerial decree and the government’s guideline.
In addition, subsequent to the military coup in May 2014, the MNRE bureaucrats and the army seized an opportunity to embark on new policies related to the management of lands and natural resources. They included the issuance of “Master Plan on Forestry” (แผนแม่บทป่าไม้) and the establishment of the National Committee on Land Policy (NCLP) (คณะกรรมการนโยบายที่ดินแห่งชาติ) to oversee nationwide land-related issues. Initially, some members of the P-move expected the military-appointed National Reform Council to support the CLT idea through the National Legislative Assembly. 5 But, in reality, the army showed less sympathy to the CLT policy, and announced a new NCLP-based land reform program. Besides, in June 2014, the junta government executed the forest reclamation policy (ทวงคืนผืนป่า) which stipulated the enforcement of harsh legal action against illegal forest encroachers and poachers of illegal forest goods. At the beginning, various cases under media coverage were ones linking with rich encroachers, but later on the implementation of the policy resulted in adverse impacts on poor people. The regional officers of the Internal Security Operation Command and forestry officers turned to carry out operations against the poor living in the lands accused of being illegally encroached. Evidently, the data from the P-move showed that during the first half of 2019, more than 1,830 forest encroachment cases were filed against poor people under the forest reclamation policy. 6
At the same time, the government of General Prayuth Chan-o-cha tried to convince the communities applying for the CLT to accept the NCLP-based program instead. The government claimed that the new program was reliant on the idea of community land ownership and thus was identical to the CLT; nevertheless, it was in fact less right-oriented. 7 Generally, the new program would legalize the use of lands in forest reserves, but there appeared restrictions on the use of space classified as Watershed Area Zones (WAZ) which were preserved as protection and commercial forest. 8 This restriction diminished the space that each community would obtain. This resulted in divided opinions among members of the P-move and the CLT network. Members of some communities which would expectedly keep up the majority of the community land were inclined to support the NCLP-based program. For them, apart from getting less negative impact from space reduction, the acceptance of the new program would ensure their legal rights over the use of land after they had been exhausted with their long struggle with the state agencies on land reform issues for several decades.
On April 5, 2015, Prime Minister Prayuth delivered the first certificate of the NCLP-based land title to the community of Mae Tha subdistrict in Chiang Mai, and he also pledged to apply Mae Tha as a model to other landless communities throughout the country. 9 Certainly, there appeared serious discussion among the Mae Tha community members before the community decided to be a recipient of the NCLP-based program. In the end, the community could secure about 81 percent of its land, while losing a small part of its land classified as buffer zone forest and idle lands. 10 As a matter of fact, the Mae Tha community was regarded as one of the most well-prepared communities ready to receive a CLT, and a chief member of the CLT movement network. As the community branded as the best practice opted to accept the state-sponsored land titling program, this led to divided opinions among members of most communities. Hence, some observers considered the certificate delivering to the Mae Tha community as a tactic employed by the junta government and the forestry agencies to undermine the unity of the CLT network.
In late November 2020, there was news disseminated among members of the P-move that there would be the submission of an agenda on the abolition of the CLT to the cabinet meeting held on November 30, 2020. This rumor triggered a strong reaction from members of the P-move in many provinces to voice their opposition. Nevertheless, Varawut Silpa-archa, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, promptly denied such news claiming that the agenda was already abandoned from the meeting list. Certainly, the explanation of the Minister confirmed the attempt to abolish the CLT, and this was not the first time that the people joining the CLT movement had to encounter obstacles.
Throughout the last decade, the implementation of the CLT policy had been retarded by bureaucratic agencies. The submitting of the government-appointed subcommittees’ proposals to the cabinet for deliberation were tactically delayed. Meanwhile, the forestry agency’s refusal to hand over forest land to the CLTO also hindered the progress of the CLT program. 11 In addition, the execution of the forest reclamation policy appeared to be the reiteration of the Project to Resettle Poor Villagers in Degraded Forests (Kor Chor Kor) pursued by the government of Prime Minister Anand Punyarachun, subsequent to the military coup in 1991. But, unlike the Kor Chor Kor project which was terminated due to severe opposition from villagers and activists in the Northeast, the forest reclamation policy had remained in effect until it was abolished in 2019. Moreover, under the junta government, the MNRE seized the opportunity to revise the existing National Park Act. Albeit the objections from various people sector’s groups due to its flaws, the bill was passed by the National Legislative Assembly in 2016. The new law authorizes the MNRE to impose stricter rules with heavier penalties on the land and natural resources management in the national parks. 12Truly, these facts reflect long-term projects on land and forest management of the forestry agencies. They also indicate how bureaucratic resistance to the CLT could tactically obstruct the progress and achievement of the implementation of the CLT policy when the bureaucratic agencies were unable to oppose it at the policy formulation process. Taking these facts into account, the future of the CLT thus has remained highly uncertain.
Assistant Professor, School of Political Science, Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University
- Regarding the former, the state’s forest conservation policy was executed through the announcement of national park and the areas of preserved forests without recognition of the local people’s land rights based on prior community settlement. The enforcement of the state measures led to the displacement of the local people from land categorized by the government as national park and reserved forests, and those who insisted to remain living in their communities have become illegal. Meanwhile, the state’s agricultural policies favoring large-scale agribusiness producers had damaged small-scale farmers and peasants as they encountered farm production failure, economic hardship and, in the end, loss of their lands used to get collateral loans due to abundant agricultural household debts. ↩
- Jason Lubanski, “Land is Life: A Policy Advocacy Case Study of the Northern Thailand Land Reform Movement,” Master Paper, SIT Graduate Institute, Vermont, 2012, p. 57 table 10. ↩
- In terms of personnel, although the status of the CLTO was equivalent to a division within the Office of the Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister Office, it did not have its full-time staff and needed to rely on permanent staffs of other divisions to operate its works. In terms of legal authority, the prime ministerial decree is subordinate to laws of ministries related to the CLT. See Thannaphat Khotsing, “The Community Title Deed Policy Implementation,” Master’s Thesis, National Institute of Development Administration, 2013. (in Thai) ↩
- Timothy Forsyth, “Environmental Social Movements in Thailand: How Important is Class?” Asian Journal of Social Sciences 29, 1 (January 2001), pp. 35-51. ↩
- Chusak Wittayapak and Ian G. Baird, “Communal land titling dilemmas in northern Thailand: From community forestry to beneficial yet risky and uncertain options,” Land Use Policy.71 (2018), p. 322. ↩
- Pratch Rujivanarom, “New government urged to revoke forest reclamation policy, work with local forest communities,” The Nation, July 9, 2019, Retrieved from https://www.nationthailand.com/news/30372624. ↩
- Chusak and Baird, “Communal land titling,” p. 320. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- bid., p. 325. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., p. 326. ↩
- Pratch, “New government urged to revoke forest reclamation policy.” ↩