Carbon Credit Policy and the New Forest Land Grab

The Thai government's plan for a carbon credit programme to achieve carbon neutrality has raised concerns among the civil society that it will lead to a new wave of conflict over land rights and that forest area will be handed over to the private sector.

“Thailand is committed to pursuing its goals with clear and equitable action plans to achieve greenhouse gas reduction targets by the year 2030.” So said Patcharawat Wongsuwon, Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, on the COP 28 stage, where he also declared that Thailand aims for a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 to attain carbon neutrality and a further reduction to 0% by 2065.

"If our community forest is included in the carbon credit project, we are afraid that we will not be able to go in and work on the land,” said Nittaya Muangkhlang. She lives in Subwai community, Huay Yae Sub-district, Nong Bua Rawe District, Chaiyaphum Province. In 2016, under the military government’s Forest Reclamation Plan, Nittaya and 14 other villagers were accused of encroaching on Sai Thong National Park forest and sent to prison. 

Nittaya Muangkhlang (Photo by Yostorn Triyos)

Currently, Nittaya is a leader in the movement to demand land rights for the people in the community.  To demonstrate that her community can not only coexist with the forest but also help to preserve it, her Community Forest Project is currently collaborating with the National Park Office. She is worried that her community may be evicted again, however.  Some of Thailand’s biggest companies are poised to engage in reforestation projects with state agencies as a part of a carbon credit scheme. Local community forests may be included in the project to increase land area and meet the governments goal of carbon neutrality.  

Under the carbon credit scheme, organisations or companies responsible for releasing excessive amounts of greenhouse gases can avoid being penalised for their emissions by earning carbon credits by participating in activities such as reforestation projects that help absorb greenhouse gases.  They can also invest in environmental technologies or buy carbon credits from other organisations that have lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Explaining her worries, Nittaya noted the reforestation projects are slated to be carried out on national park lands, raising concerns that communities like hers which will once again be treated like lawbreakers.

New wave of conflicts

The policy announcement has shaken many communities which have been fighting for land and resource rights for over a decade.” So noted a spokesperson from the Peoples Movement for a Just Society (PMove) during a demonstration in front of Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, the venue for the 2nd Thailand's Climate Action Conference” (TCAC 2023) on October 6, 2023.  The events was chaired by Prime Minister Settha Thavisin.

Protesters called upon Prime Minister Settha to make sure that the carbon credit policy will not just benefit investors but also provide justice for poor people living in forest areas through the reform of related laws and policies.

Greenpeace organisers holding up a banner saying Forests are not equal to carbon credits” in front of Prime Minister Settha Thavisin at TCAC 2023
(Photo by Greenpeace)

Conflicts between government authorities and people living in forest areas have a long history in Thailand. They can be traced back to 1896 when the Royal Forestry Department was established to facilitate logging concessions throughout the country, affecting millions of people living on forest land.

The latest phase began in 1985, when the government declared aForest Shutdown” policy,  ending all logging concessions and creating forest preserves. Preserve areas affected thousands of communities in forest around the country, leading to forced evictions and a peoples land rights movement to recover their ancestral lands.

At that time, the government wasnt democratic. It used administrative agencies to force villagers to leave their land without listening to their voices,” explained Pramote Pholpinyo from the Isaan Land Reform Network.  He added that over some 30 years of fighting for land rights in Isaan forests areas, efforts were always made to establish mechanisms and resolve conflicts. 

After the coup in 2014, the resolution process reportedly came to a halt, however. The military government declared aForest Reclamation Policy” with the aim of increasing the forest areas in the country to 40% of the total land area. Government officers went in and took over village lands. More than 4,600 were prosecuted. In many places, people are still in the process of trying prove their land claims.

At present, concerns are growing that there will be another wave of forced evictions. The new government affirmed at TCAC 2023 that it will be using forest areas for carbon credits. Over past 2-3 years, the previous government also initiated collaborative projects with the private sector to bring more forest land into the carbon credit project.

Pramote thinks it likely that forest areas will be taken away from communities for inclusion into carbon credit projects. In the past, the Forest Industry Organization (FIO) and other state enterprises sought to have forest areas under their supervision be included in the carbon credit scheme.  In some instances, they also took land to plant commercial crops.  A forest that used to belong to the Baw Kaew community in Khon Saan District, Chaiyaphum province was taken to plant Eucalyptus trees, not to preserve forest cover but to gain economic benefits.

There is already an international mechanism in place for first world countries to give third world countries payments to offset their carbon emissions.  This provides forest agencies with a justification for including forest areas under their supervision in carbon credit schemes.” Pramote worries that such practices will result in a new wave of conflicts and exacerbate existing problems related to forest reclamation.

A New Form of Forest Concession and the Loss of Community Rights

We want companies doing reforestation on government land to reveal the actual area where projects are slated to take place to make sure that areas with contested ownership are not included,” noted Surin Onphrom, an independent expert on forest and community rights. He went on to explain that carbon credit trading in Thailand must be done through the Thailand Greenhouse Gas Management Organization (TGGMO), which uses a government agency as a middleman to buy and sell carbon credits. As the process is complicated, big companies often sign MOUs with the government, without publicly revealing project details and locations.

The result, Surin said, is that national forests, a public resource, are being allocated for corporate benefit.  He explained that two types of forest are likely to be included in the project, areas under state supervision, including areas they are trying to seize, and community forest areas managed by the public. Surin feels that scheme amounts to a new and more complicated form of forest concession.  Unlike the traditional type, it was not a logging concession but it still involves using public land for private sector benefit.

It places a further constraint on community access to forest resources at a time when community land rights have yet to be established.”  The idea behind community rights, was to allow people to gain access and co-manage forest resources with the government. Now, however, the government’s push to start the carbon credit project with corporations will undermine the ability of the people to manage forest areas.  All the rights will be in the hands of private contractors who will presumably plant trees that have a high capacity to absorb carbon but are not suitable for the ecological system in the area.

Examples from the Mangrove Forest in the South

Under the two important international agreements on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2015, mechanisms were put in place for developed countries that emit greenhouse gases exceeding specified limits to make compensation payments to developing countries with low emissions. The goal of the scheme was to support an overall reduction in gas emissions.

But for polluting corporations, it is just another money-making scheme.  They can kill two birds with one stone. First, they launch a social responsibility campaign  depicting themselves as the preservers of nature. Then, they use their forests to avoid paying compensation for their actual carbon emissions. Finally, they can sell extra carbon credits, which are in high demand in the global market, to other countries.”

By way of example, Mr. Banthiya Yangdee, from the Center for Creating Ecology Awareness, explained how the  Department of Marine and Coastal Resources registered some 160,000 rai of mangrove forests in southern Thailand as carbon community forest” to 35 leading companies in Thailand.  Banthiya feels that the carbon credit scheme does little to solve the problem of climate change and is being used instead as a tool for powerful nations and big companies to justify the continued release of greenhouse gases.  The impact falls on communities that rely on forests. In the case noted above, government agencies acted as a middlemen pushing mangrove forest areas into the carbon credit project. In the near future, other types of forest in other regions will also be pulled into the project by agencies such as the Royal Forestry Department and the National Park Department. 

They are giving forests that communities have been taking care of to companies. Villagers had been trying to get their mangrove forests registered but never received government support. However, when the carbon credit policy was put in place, the registration process became much easier.”  Concerns are being voiced that forest supervision will be in the hands of the companies and villagers access rights will be limited. Communities which used to participate in developing mangrove forest areas may be denied the right to find food or even gather firewood

In reality, the government should provide financial support to communities to preserve and restore mangrove forests. Villagers have always been the ones who did the work and the forest was already absorbing a high level of carbon before the carbon credit project.” Banthiya believes that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emission are more just and efficient than the carbon credit scheme.  He thinks that using tax measures or financial support for local communities to supervise and restore forests would work better than having companies take on the role.

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