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In response to long-standing land problems in the country, the government has just passed a resolution to allow communities to farm state land for a period of 30 years.  A mechanism will be created to issue ‘community title deeds’, and oversee the practice of the farming communities.  However, farmers who have long struggled over land rights issues are sceptical of this government measure, as opposed to their own version of community title deeds. 

On 20 Oct the Cabinet approved a PM’s Office regulation on community title deeds, which is being vetted by the Council of State, the government’s advisory body on legal matters.

According to PM’s Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey, this programme is meant as a long term solution to land rights disputes between the people and the state.

Sathit says that the land under community title deeds still belongs to the state, and is given to communities for agricultural purposes, with prior permission from the state agencies who own the land.  A committee will grant the rights to eligible communities for a period of not more than 30 years, and will conduct a review every three years.  If any community is found to have failed to meet the committee’s conditions, the title deed will be revoked.  And the title deeds cannot be sold or mortgaged.

‘This is to start in 30 pilot areas in all regions.  The committee will visit these areas to make assessments on issuing title deeds.  The areas must be where villagers have no land documents of any sort.  For example, it may be part of a reserved forest which villagers claim to have settled before it was designated as a forest, resulting in an unsolvable dispute.  The community title deed will be the solution in this case,’ Sathit said.

However, Prapart Pintobtang from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science says that this government measure will probably give a little more farmland to poor farmers, but it does not address the crucial question of the redistribution of concentrated land ownership, the heart of land reform.

‘Farmers will remain insecure as the state can take away the land at any time.  Any future government which disagrees with this scheme can easily scrap it,’ he says.

Rai Dong villagers in Pa Sang district, Lamphun, who have pioneered their own version of a ‘community title deed’ scheme, simply distrust the government.

They have issued community title deeds among themselves, equally distributing to each holder a plot of 1.25 rai, or half an acre.  Each title deed says the plot of land can be inherited, and it must remain in use.  A community committee has been set up to regulate the scheme.  Selling of title deeds is restricted to within the community, and can only be done through the committee.

Community title deed issued by Rai Dong villagers

In November 2000, 282 families in Rai Dong and two adjacent villages started to clear 426 rai (170.4 acres) of land which had been abandoned.  Members of one family then came to claim ownership of the land, and sued the villagers for trespass.  Nonetheless, the villagers continued to cultivate the land, and checked up on the claimed ownership.

Sangwal Kantham, a villager, says that the villagers and NGOs found that the abandoned land had something to do with speculation during the land boom in 1990-1997.  In 1990, some So Kho 1 documents (certificates of possession) were changed into No So 3 Ko title deeds (confirmed certificates of use).  And the title deeds cover only 290 rai; the remaining 136 rai were claimed without any proof.

They found irregularities in the issuance of the title deeds.  For example, one No So 3 Ko title deed was issued on the basis of a So Kho 1 land document issued for another village.

When the business of land speculation slumped after 1997, the land was abandoned.

‘Land must be used.  This land has been abandoned, and is being wasted.  Some villagers here have no farmland, and nowhere to stay.  In some cases, 3-4 families live in an area less than one rai (0.4 acre),’ says Rangsan Sansongkwae, one of their leaders.

The villagers distributed the land by drawing lots, which they say is the fairest way.

‘At that time, we thought if we let everybody choose, we would compete with one another.  So we chose to draw lots,’ Wanrob Inthawong, another leader, says.

None of the plots can be sold, except when a particular member can no longer make use of it, or has no children to pass it on to. Then the plot can be sold to one of the villagers, with the approval of the committee.

The 426 rai were allocated to 282 families, each receiving 1.25 rai, with the rest being kept as common land.

Many of them have planted fruits like longan and mango.

‘Last year I sold 8,000 baht worth of mango, and 4,000 baht worth of longan.  Not much in my case.  But other people got tens of thousands,’ says one old villager.

Another villager says he sold 15,000 baht worth of longan.

Previously, most Rai Dong villagers worked as labourers for hire because of the lack of farmland.  Women were hired to sew clothing, men worked in construction in towns, and young people went to work at the Lamphun Industrial Estate.

‘We’re proud to have been able to keep it going for 9 years already,’ says one of the villagers. 

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