Hilltribe Relocation Policy in Thailand

Northern Thailand's mountains are the home of the Karen, Hmong, Lahu and other ethnically distinct hill tribes. The Royal Thai Government has decided that hilltribe farmers, who traditionally practice slash-and-burn (shifting) agriculture, are responsible for destroying the nation's forests. It has, therefore, adopted a policy to resettle these farmers in the lowlands.

This is the third time since 1960 that the government has adopted a policy of relocation. Although prompted by slightly different reasons each time, the policy's effect remains the same: to evict hilltribe people from their mountain villages. At no time has the government included these people, some of whom have been indigenous to the region for several hundred years, in the formulation of policy.

In the following essay, Chupinit Kesmanee, a Thai civil servant, addresses the latest wave of displacements. Based upon field research in Kamphaeng Phet Province, his text criticizes the government's handling of evacuations and resettlement and suggests approaches to ensure that future relocations are more humanitarian. He also presents a more fundamental critique not of the manner in which the policy has been implemented, but, rather, of the policy itself. By undermining the validity of premises upon which the relocation policy is based, the author argues that moving hilltribe people to the lowlands is not the way to preserve Thailand's forests. His claim is that "it is because of the hill tribes that the northern region has more forests left than the other regions" (emphasis added).

This essay is an abridgment of an article entitled "Hilltribe Relocation Policy: Is There a Way Out of the Labyrinth? A Case Study of Kamphaeng Phet," translated from Thai by Dr. Kathleen Chindarsi and Dr. Kenneth Kampe. The full version contains case studies of six resettled hilltribe villages, which abundantly and movingly document the lack of food, loss of livestock, sickness, arrests and other hardships suffered by residents as a consequence of the government's policy.

Since 1960, when the Hill Tribe Welfare Committee was created, Thailand's hill tribes have repeatedly been accused of destroying the country's forests. Such accusations have appeared with increasing frequency of late, and are currently promoted through the mass media. Kamphaeng Phet Province provides a good case in point: "[in this province] alone, hilltribe encroachment and destruction of forests amounts to 10,000 rai [approximately 4,000 acres]". About one month later, another article appeared, stating: "The Third Army [responsible for the northern region] together with the Royal Forestry Department arrested 50,000 hilltribe families in Khlong Lan National Park because these families have destroyed more than 50,000 rai of forest".

The following statement by Lieut.-Gen. Ruamsak Chaikomin, commander of the Third Army, reflects the government's view: "Those who destroy the nation are not the ones who illegally cut down 20 or 30 trees, but the hill tribes". Phairot Suvanakon, deputy director-general of the Royal Forestry Department, went beyond this to suggest how to solve the problem:

To really end this hilltribe problem, they must be sterilized by force so that they cannot increase their numbers any further. Otherwise their numbers will increase rapidly because they prefer not to use birth control, since it is against their traditions. Apart from this, we must try to assimilate them.

Government agreement on the relocation policy was reported in a Thai newspaper:

The Third Army, Ranger Command, Border Patrol Police and Suppression Division are using firm measures to suppress forest destruction by hill tribes who practice shifting cultivation and opium growing in six northern provinces. The Committee for Control of Hill Tribe Destruction of Forests has agreed to relocate the hill tribes in lowlands in Uthai Thani, Nakhon Sawan, Kamphaeng Phet, Tak, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces beginning on 24 February 1986. The Third Army, Ranger Command, Border Patrol Police and Police Suppression Division forces will move in for the evictions. The Forest Protection and Conservation Subcommittee and the Hill Tribe Subcommittee of Kamphaeng Province agreed to move the hill tribes down.

The 1986 Evacuations

Those ordered to evacuate beginning in February 1986 may be divided into the following groups.

* Hill tribes in Khlong Lan National Park (formerly under the responsibility of the Hill Tribe Development and Welfare Center, Kamphaeng Phet Province) - 480 families numbering 2,554 people.

* Hill tribes in Mae Wong National Park (also formerly under the responsibility of the Hill Tribe Development and Welfare Center, Kamphaeng Phet Province) - 241 families numbering 1,185 people.

* Hill tribes in Kamphaeng Phet Province that had not yet been reached by the Hill Tribe Development and Welfare Center - 108 families numbering 824 people.

* Hill tribes from Umphang district, Tak Province and from Lat Yao district, Nakhon Sawan Province, who also left the highlands - 95 families numbering 994 people.

Ethnically, the breakdown is as follows:

Tribe Families People

Yao 530 3,495

Lahu 189 854

Hmong 93 649

Karen 53 269

Lisu 29 164

Akha 30 126

This amounts to 924 families numbering 5,557 people evicted from their land. Many of these people have been able to resettle elsewhere - often in another province, sometimes with relatives. In addition, a survey conducted through July 1986 assessed that a total of 245 Yao and Lahu families consisting of 1,609 people entered the Ban Kae Refugee Camp in Phayao Province. However, a significant number of evacuees are still without homes, agricultural land, sufficient food, proper sanitation and adequate health care.

More official data exist, and can be summarized as follows: more than half of the total hilltribe population of Kamphaeng Phet Province was directly affected by this evacuation; at least 2,092 people (as far as government records show) were scattered to other places outside the province.

Problems in Resettlement

In considering resettlement plans to date, problems and obstacles abound despite the fact that high-level government officers paid attention to specifying the implementation procedures. Several issues should be raised here:

* Advance warning. Although some villages received ample warning of impending evacuation, records show that others received no warning. Moreover, the plan to move them in the month of April ill-fitted their agricultural cycle.

* Moving costs. To date, villagers have had to assume all moving costs. Some hilltribe people have been rendered practically destitute by the process of evacuation. Surely the government should assist with at least part of the relocation costs.

* Resettlement sites. This essential weakness in the government policy has caused continuing problems. At first, evacuated hill tribes, forced to settle clustered by the roadside near the town of Khlong Lan, suffered immediate health problems. Raising money for replacement land only increased their debts. In addition, some of these people had to pay considerable sums of money in fines to avoid prison or to secure bail after arrest.

* Subsistence support. After displacement, the evacuated hilltribe people were in a no-win situation, with no rice in reserve and little money. Insufficient government food relief clearly failed to meet their needs. Some women were forced to resort to prostitution, although this solution is not yet widespread,

* Control migration out of the province. A considerable number of hilltribe people can be described as "fugitives" fleeing their province - an indication of their lack of confidence in the Thai government's resettlement policy. No one can say for certain how many hilltribe people were willing to sacrifice their Thai nationalities to join Laotian immigrants and enter the Ban Kae Refugee Camp in Phayao Province as Laotians. They fled from the Khlong Lan evacuation only to face conditions in the refugee camp no better than those they had left behind.

On the matter of development plans in the post-evacuation period, the following points should be made.

* Allocation of land. Evacuees are now in their second year of waiting for land allocation procedures that have yet to be implemented. Many groups do not know whether they will receive any land at all. Even those who have received land find that it is often insufficient for subsistence.

* Provision of basic services. Basic services, particularly in public health and family planning, are still inadequate due to limitations on available labor and budget. Although some family planning services are available, the staffs of a few agencies reveal both a damaging misunderstanding and a ruinous ignorance by reporting to the public that birth control is against hilltribe traditions. This is contradicted everywhere: when hilltribe people feel the necessity, they seek family planning services with no thought to "tribal extinction," despite what some people may imagine. Inadequate provision of water for drinking and other purposes creates health and hygiene problems.

Previous Resettlement

The policy of moving hilltribe people down from primary watershed areas to be settled at sites provided for that purpose is not new. It has been promoted at least twice before. In fact, this strategy was proposed in the first year of the Thai government's policy of hilltribe assistance. In 1960-1961, the Hill Tribe Welfare Committee agreed to establish hilltribe settlements. Since the Department of Public Welfare had already established self-help settlements for the lowland Thai, it was felt that such settlements could also be set up for the hill tribes. The settlements were established in four areas: Tak, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Phetchabun provinces. But, as time passed and several obstacles were encountered, work proceeded in a different form through Hill Tribe Development and Welfare Centers in various provinces.

The second time the relocation policy was implemented was in 1969 as an outcome of the suppression of communist guerrillas. Many hilltribe villagers, who wanted to make it quite clear that they were on the government's side, were evacuated from areas of conflict. Many people living in widely scattered communities were resettled at this time. In some areas, rice had to be distributed to them.

Lessons from Previous Resettlement

The lessons learned from these first experiences may be summarized as follows.

1. Administrative problems develop when hilltribe people are gathered into a single, large community. In general, the practice of slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture creates social restrictions on community size. Bringing people together from several places leads to problems as each group tries to preserve its status and dignity. At present, the large, government-established self-help or evacuation settlements often face problems of conflict both within and between communities.

2. Finding suitable land in the lowlands or uplands (below the highlands) in which to settle large numbers of people is not easy. To date, the land is likely to be deteriorated plots unsuitable for farming - land that has already been rejected by lowland farmers. Some of the allocated land has gravely soil; even after almost 20 years, the villagers have still been unable to make full use of the area.

3. Bringing together many different people from a wide geographic area requires a lot of money. Aside from basic infrastructure, food and various development activities, public services must be provided on a large scale, requiring large investments in construction and maintenance.

4. In large communities, the lack of government labor to provide sufficient services increases the risk of social problems such as opium addiction and the spread of venereal disease.

These lessons notwithstanding, the apparent reason for relocating hill tribes in Khlong Lan district in 1986 resembles the previous rationale for resettlement. It was thought that "efficient development required bringing the hilltribe people to a central location to facilitate and enable the provision of cost-effective government services".

Who Destroys the Forests?

The Thai public has heard a great deal about how forests in various prohibited areas have been destroyed following the settlement of a hill tribe. In all of this discussion, an important factor in the alleged land abuses has been overlooked. Over the past two or three decades, and at an accelerating rate, lowland Thai farmers moved into prohibited forest areas in search of land. No agency yet has reliable data on the extent of lowland Thai migration up to the highlands, and no one has examined whether this trend reflects shortcomings in lowland agriculture or the government's failure to properly manage the national economy.

Another important and overlooked factor is logging by lowland Thai. Stories collected during research in Kamphaeng Phet from various hilltribe informants in different locations are consistent in one respect: after evicting the hill tribes, government officials conducted logging operations on a large scale protected by the hill tribes' reputation for forest destruction. Although the view that such stories are fabricated by hilltribe people may deserve critical attention, not all such stories can be discounted.

A reporter for the newspaper Thai Rath observed firsthand government officials destroying forests. His report clearly deserves considerable weight when assessing villagers' claims.

The evacuation of more than 900 hilltribe families from national parks in Kamphaeng Phet Province to protect watershed areas becomes deplorable when government officers turn into forest destroyers and build timber mills on a large scale. The Third Army and the Royal Forestry Department evacuated hill tribes from Mae Wong National Park...and Khlong Lan National Park..., Kamphaeng Phet...[After the closure of the Khlong Lan-Umphang Road], checkpoints were set up to forbid movement in and out beyond kilometer 57 to all but national park staff. It appears that after getting rid of the previous inhabitants, staff of Mae Wong National Park became forest destroyers, bringing in machines and circular saws to set up mobile timber mills working day and night at four bases along hillsides between kilometers 65 and 100. Ten-wheel trucks transporting the wood for sale in Bangkok passed the various checkpoints easily under the claim of being on high-level Royal Forestry Department business. Beginning in June 1986, villagers going up to look for forest products saw the logging and were appalled. They secretly photographed the mobile sawmill in operation and took the evidence to protest to the Third Army, the Royal Forest Department and the Office of the Prime Minister, but nothing happened.

Nevertheless, the Thai press consistently alleges that the hill tribes destroy the forests. These allegations now appear in the press as if they have been memorized, strengthened by constant repetition rather than confirmed by research in the field.

Hilltribe Cultivation Creates Ecological Balance

According to the press, the hilltribe practice of shifting cultivation ruins watersheds so that rainfall is reduced, resulting in a drop in water levels in the region's streams and rivers and leading to a general dryness. Eventually, the conventional wisdom continues, precipitation cuts through the surface soil of the treeless land so that the soil erodes and silt accumulates in the waterways. The resulting floods then endanger the property and lives of nearby lowland Thai. However, available information supports the theory that it is because of the hill tribes that the northern region has more forests left than the other regions.

In 1967, Paul J. Zinke (then associate professor of Forestry and Conservation at the University of California, Berkeley) and Sanga Sabhasri (then secretary-general of the National Research Council of Thailand) made a systematic study of soil fertility under the shifting cultivation system of the Lua' hilltribe people. The research found that burning fields did not cause soil moisture to diminish greatly because the fire did not burn long enough. Carbon content remained at an adequate level; the nitrogen level actually increased.

In fact, forest regeneration was found to play a significant role in the increase and maintenance of calcium and phosphorous levels. In addition, the shifting cultivator's method of soil management increased levels of potassium and lowered soil acidity. Finally, in terms of erosion, Sabhasri observed that gully erosion was not found in the forest fallow cultivated area, even on steep slopes. Moreover, damage from rill erosion was relatively insignificant.

McKinnon, in response to the belief that flooding occurs more frequently in the absence of forests, quotes numerous hydrologists who have critically examined the idea that forests help to slow down and reduce flood waters and to lengthen flow periods when water levels are low. In one sense, it is true that forests can help reduce flooding. But the damage caused by big floods is just as great when it rains in forested areas as in non-forested areas. The attractive idea that forest cover helps lengthen flow periods when water levels are low is clearly wrong, and the higher evapotranspiration rates from forests actually diminish the total water yield otherwise possible from a non-forested catchment.

The Lua's cycle of shifting cultivation, as explained here, clearly creates a balance between an area's soil conditions, crops, geology and climate. Considered in ecological terms, when the Lua' or other hilltribe people cut down trees to make fields, the effect is much different from when loggers cut them for commercial purposes. Even if the same levels of cutting are compared, mineral nutrients of the trees cut by the hill tribes are returned to the soil as ash and decayed matter; the mineral nutrients in the trees cut by traders, however, are taken out of the area as wood.

A systematic examination of the issues and the information used by policy makers leads to the disturbing conclusion that popular conceptions about the environment now widely circulating in Thailand are not altogether reliable and do not justify the confidence with which they are used.

Policy Recommendations

What is most needed is to adjust policies concerning the hill tribes to insure that they are both realistic and humanitarian. The government must articulate a development policy for the future. Subsistence agriculture, rather than cash cropping, must be the primary focus of highland economic development policy. Certain other issues should be addressed and administrative priorities made explicit.

* The government should consider the capability of rotational cropping systems [i.e., shifting agriculture] to maintain a healthy ecological balance. The government should also provide legal recognition for this kind of agriculture and promote it as the most viable method of cultivation on mountain land.

* The government should grant legal land tenure to the hilltribe people, an act that must proceed hand-in-hand with the granting of Thai citizenship.

* The government should recognize the importance of maintaining the highland agro-ecosystem by discouraging the use of chemicals. In addition, local wisdom regarding the highland ecosystem should be consulted in formulating preservation policy.

* The government should support experimental work on ways to increase the efficiency of traditional rotational cropping systems, focusing on methods to accelerate soil rehabilitation and to increase subsistence crop yields.

These recommendations to change policies and directions concerning the status of the hill tribes, the role of the administration and the management of highland resources lend themselves to concrete, practical tasks. The proposals submitted above have been implemented elsewhere - for example, India has developed community-governed forestry and Japan has implemented mixed cropping and non-chemical agriculture projects with success. Sincerity and determination in solving these problems are all that are asked.

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