Maps for participatory planning in Thailand

Maps for participatory planning in Thailand


Oliver Puginier
Oliver Puginier
Technical Adviser, Natural Resource Management
GTZ Programme for Natural Resource Conservation and Management
[email protected]
In order to ferry community based land use planning from local to higher institutional levels, this research tried to combine land use mapping with hill tribe communities by using a simplified GIS. Constraints to participatory planning are illustrated with a call for the formulation of a coordinated government policy for highland development

The forests in the northern Thai highlands are one of the largest remaining forest resources of the country and serve as the main watershed areas for the Chao Phaya basin, which is the nation’s most fertile and valuable farming land. The north has experienced rapid changes in land use and forest resources in the highlands have been subject to increasing pressures. These have been affected by two parallel developments of rapid population growth and a drastic disappearance of forest cover, from 60% in 1938 (RFD, 1993) to as low as 15% (Maxwell, 1997). Both developments have been blamed exclusively on the hill tribes with their various shifting cultivation systems, yet it has to be noted that hill tribes till today only account for only 1.6% of Thailand’s population of 62 million (ADB, 2000). Land resources have become very scarce, to the point that traditional shifting cultivation systems have been reduced to one or two-year fallows and have been characterised as “degraded” (Ganjanapan, 1998).

As a reaction to rapid forest disappearance, a series of restrictive policies were formulated in order to save the remaining forests, though without concerted planning approaches till the 1990s. After an initial focus on the elimination of opium cultivation in the 1970s, the main focus shifted towards the restoration of forest cover and limited permanent land use to preserve forests. A watershed classification formulated in 1983 (still in force) placed most of the highlands in watershed class 1A, according to which no settlement or agricultural activities are permitted under the mandate of the Royal Forest Department (Tangtham, 1992). This severely restricted the livelihoods of hill tribes living there and practicing various forms of shifting cultivation. This was followed by a first national forest policy in 1985 and commercial logging was banned in 1989 (Pragtong, 1993).

As laws alone do not protect the forest, there was a gradual policy shift towards the inclusion of local communities, initiated by a draft Community Forestry Act of the Royal Forest Department (RFD) in 1991 (Amornsanguansin, 1992). The document has since been a highly controversial political issue and is still debated without resolution. RFD even produced a Thai Forestry Sector Master Plan in 1993 that called for the participation of local communities.

The plan has never been implemented as it lacked provisions for effective participation of key stakeholders (Jantakad and Gilmour, 1999). Attempts to harmonise sectoral development priorities led to the First (1992-1996) and Second (1997- 2001) Master Plans for Highland Development and Narcotic Crops Control, both focusing on the socioeconomic improvement of hill tribes, their settlement in permanent villages, environmental conservation and community organisation (RTG, 1997). However, there has also been a recent shift towards decentralized planning through the enactment of the Tambon Council (TC) and Tambon Administrative Organisation (TAO) Act, in March 1995. The objective is the propagation of democracy at grass-roots level by organising villages into Tambons (sub-districts), with elected village leaders having mandates for local government functions (Nelson, 2000).

In spite of these promising developments there remain a number of contradictions, and the plethora of policies has led to a situation whereby hill tribes are caught between three divergent policies regarding forest settlement and farming:

  • The restoration of forest cover to 25% conservation and 15% production forest, enforced by the Royal Forest Department (RFD), using the restrictive watershed classification. This went as far as hill tribe resettlement (Arbhabhirama et al., 1987).
  • Village registration by the Department of Local Administration (DOLA) under the Ministry of Interior, classified by population and long-term residence, progressing from satellite village with no official status to key village with recognised village leaders (Aguettant, 1996).
  • The classification of highland communities according to their potential for permanence, assessed in terms of household numbers, permanent settlement and land suitability for permanent agriculture, yet without the inclusion of hill tribe land classifications. The Department of Land Development carries this out (RTG, 1997), though without coordination with RFD regarding the forest status.

The livelihood basis of the hill tribes – shifting cultivation – has no place in the policy framework, hence it is important to help them overcome their marginalisation and facilitate the transformation of their farming systems to adapt to new realities. Hill tribes have practiced various forms of shifting cultivation for centuries in a sustainable way and are often victimized as land destroyers by the government instead of being accepted as partners in land use planning (Puginier, 2003). The highlands of northern Thailand are thus a prime example for a conflict between a centralised government system with divergent priorities of forest preservation and integration of ethnic minorities that extends its control to the remote areas, where traditional shifting cultivation clashes with centralised planning – an ideal case study for land use planning. The issue has thus become one of mediation and conflict resolution in order to overcome the apparent dichotomy between forest protection and agricultural subsistence. Where there is competition for limited resources, land use planning aims to strike a balance between a rational technical approach of resource valuation and a social basis for conflict resolution (FAO, 1993), yet two conditions must be met if planning is to be useful:

  • The need for changes in land use must be accepted by the people involved;
  • There must be the political will to put the plan into effect.