On Monday (4 September), members of indigenous communities in Lampang marched to the Ngao District Office in Lampang to protest the declaration of a new national park in the area due to the concerns that their lands would be taken over by the park.
Community members and activists gathering on the field in front of the Ngao district office, holding banners calling for the Thai authorities to protect indigenous rights. (Photo by Pachara Khamchamnan)
The community members, along with activists from the Northern Peasant Federation (NPF) and the People’s Movement for a Just Society (P-Move), marched from a nearby gas station to the Ngao District Office, where a public forum on the new national park, to be named Tham Pa Thai National Park, was taking place. They gathered in front of the district office and took turns giving speeches for around 30 minutes before joining the forum.
Sompong Yang, an indigenous Karen villager from the Ngao district, said he felt the forum was unfair, since many community leaders had not been invited to attend. He was concerned that communities would be adversely affected if the new park was declared without their input. He also said that he currently lives on land that has been declared to be part of the national forest. As there has been no stipulation granting him rights to it, he is worried that his access will be taken away if the land becomes part of a national park.
Other community members also raised concerns about a lack of clarity in the land survey process, which could result in their community lands being included in the new national park zone, and park regulations being used to limit their access.
They were told by Peeramet Tuetansakul, director of the Protected Area Regional Office 13 in Lampang, that the new national park is part of national forestry policy and a 20-year national strategy, which requires 40% of the country to be forest land, 25% of which will be a conservation zone and 15% an economic zone.
Documents released before the public forum wrongly accused indigenous communities of deforestation, encroachment, and causing forest fires.
After community members demanded an apology from the national park, Thanakorn Singchua, who is slated to be the head of the new national park, apologized for the terms used in the documents. However, when park officials were asked to clarify the borders of the new park and send each community a detailed report of the land to be included, they were told that officials still need to conduct further land surveys. Community members responded by insisting that officials should not be conducting a public forum before the surveys were complete.
They also insisted that they would not participate in the forum and demanded that it be called off until park authorities had discussions with every community potentially affected. They submitted an open letter to Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, the new Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Pol Gen Patcharawat Wongsuwan, and the Director of the Protected Area Regional Office 13 in Lampang ,demanding that park officials conduct a land survey with the communities to make sure their land is taken out of the park area, and to ensure that local departments under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment do not violate the human rights and dignity of the local indigenous communities by propagating lies against against them.
They further called on the new government to amend related forestry and conservation laws, regulations, and policies to protect the rights of local communities in accordance with international declarations that Thailand has signed, particularly the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). They asked the Prime Minister to issue a public apology for the violations committed against indigenous communities by government policies and to push for a new law protecting the indigenous way of life.
The NPF read a statement following the forum, saying that despite the fact that indigenous communities have been on the frontline of protecting the country’s natural resources, working to help with recovery from decades of logging concession and preventing forest fires, they are still accused of deforestation. NFP asserted that the best way to move forward is to ensure that all community land is excluded from the national park zone before it is formally declared a park.
A public forum on the Tham Pa Thai National Park, previously scheduled on 4 – 8 September, has now been indefinitely postponed. Somchart Raksongploo, a village chief in Lampang’s Mae Mo district and a member of NPF and P-Move, said that he was told by the Protected Area Regional Office 13 that the public forum has been postponed because a new survey needs to be conducted to ensure that the new national park would not affect local communities.
P-Move’s Prayong Doklamyai also said that a report about abnormalities during the public forum was submitted to Jatuporn Buruspat, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, who ordered the DNP to postpone all public forums and schedule a meeting at the Ministry with all involved parties.
P-Move noted that documents declaring a new national park at the forum accused the communities of illegal logging, encroachment, and causing forest fires. It also pointed out that leaders of the local communities were not directly invited to participate in the forum, with many missing out and some only joining after receiving invitations from the local network of indigenous peoples.
P-Move added that chairs and drinking water were not provided at the forum. Community leaders were also asked if any P-Move activist would be joining the forum, with park officials claiming that outsiders are not allowed to join due to lack of space.
P-Move said that park officials have been putting down boundary posts in some communities without informing community members. When asked, park officials claimed the boundary were made under an old National Park Act and needed to be changed, The communities said this was unacceptable since it meant that the DNP was holding a public forum before the new boundaries had been established. Additionally, when community members demanded during the forum that park officials present a detailed map of the park and surrounding area to ensure that all of their land had been excluded from the park, the officials instead used meeting time to explain the legislation involved. The community members took this this to mean that officials were unprepared and had yet to complete a map of the area.