Harnessing the power of communication: a local community documents their forest resources and gets involved in forest decision-making

Pitchayessapong Kurupratchamak (Burm) grew up living with his grandparents in Boonreung, in northern Thailand. At 20, he left for Bangkok and started a small business. Unfortunately, because he lacked experience his business was unsuccessful.  The failure of his business left Burm feeling depressed and he lost interest in working in Bangkok - so he packed up and left. After leaving Bangkok, he traveled and visited friends around Thailand, helping them out in their small shops.

“I felt very bad about my life. I was drunk a lot and desperate. I was involved in gambling and lost repeatedly, but unfortunately, I couldn’t stop. Until one day  I got a call from my mother asking me to return and help on her rice farm,” Burm recalls.

Boonreung  is in a valley surrounded by small hills and sprawling rice fields. People from the community used buffalos and cows for cultivation, when the animals weren’t working they were kept in the village forest. The forest is large and shared by two other villages, and the head person from one of the other village’s had the idea to register the forest as a public animal grazing area. The provincial government office accepted the proposal and issued a land title, registering the forest as state public utility land. The land title indicated that the forest could be used by four villages for public animal grazing, and demarcated clear boundaries for each village.

However, the land registered as public grazing land had healthy forest cover. There were plenty of deciduous bamboo forests, small ponds, and
wetlands. Traditionally, people collected a number of forest products, such as mushrooms, bamboo shoots, bamboo pipes, wild vegetables, insects, fish, and medicinal plants. There was a strong relationship between local people and the forest, and people wanted to take good care of it.  

This was all set to change, however, when the community learned that Chiang Rai Provincial Office wanted to convert Boonreung’s public land into a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). When people became aware of the plan to establish the SEZ on Boonrueng forest, they asked Burm if he could help to form a local group to address the issue.  

“I became aware of the Special Economic Zone plan from different media,  such as Facebook and local news. I understood that Boonrueng was one of the targets, but I had never seen anyone come to talk to the community. When we asked questions to local authorities we did not get any clear answer”, says Burm.

On 5 August 2015, Burm first saw local officers come to Boonreung and talk about the SEZ. Burm discovered from information posted on Facebook by various sources that within the SEZ there would be zones for industrial, education, and other development programs, but no clear detailed plan was available. He shared this news with the Boonrueng villagers.

The Forest Conservation Group, in which Burm was an active member, began a campaign to stop the SEZ from going ahead. The group raised
20,000 THB, printed posters and made green t-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Boonreung does not want the Special Economic Zone’.

Songpon Chantarueng (Peth), the Chair of the Forest Conservation Group, believed that this kind of public engagement would be an effective strategy. However, they were met with resistance from local authorities who responded by sending local security guards to ask them to remove the posters from Boonreung.

Thai PBS, a national television station,  came to interview villagers about their views on the SEZ. Local people had used the forest for generations and wanted to continue to do so. Burm remembers that the villagers told the reporter that they did not like the idea of the SEZ. However, they could not articulate exactly why they were opposed to it. Peth had a similar experience after partaking in a forum organised by the local municipality in which the government tried to convince the community of the SEZ’s value. Although, the community still refused consent, Peth saw that, “we just kept arguing that our forest is rich, but could not articulate what it meant in detail”. Peth believed that they really needed to “provide strong information to support their argument”.

Luckily, the community soon had an opportunity to learn how to document the value of their forest in a compelling way to outsiders.

A number of networks and organisations began to work with the community to help document the forest and history of Boonreung. Together, they collected different social and demographic data and documented the  village boundary.

As part for this documentation, the community conducted a forest resource assessment with support from RECOFTC, the River for Life Association, and the Institute of Biodiversity and Environment for Local and ASEAN Development (BELAD) at Chiang Rai Rajabhat University.

RECOFTC helped the community to establish sampling plots for the forest inventory. The results helped the community to understand the forest ecosystem.

“I learned a lot from RECOFTC, including how to set sampling plots for plant surveys and carbon measurement”, Burm muses.  “We calculated the basic timber volume from our forest. We found the average density of timber trees is about 122 trees per rai or about 835 metric tons per rai. We found about 2,204 young seedlings per rai which was 8 times higher than the criteria for degraded forest. With all this information, we could prove our forest was healthy, not degraded”, he adds.

From this initiative, the community began to see the value in documenting their forest, and the utility in being able to describe their forest in economic and scientific terms. “We improved our database to make it scientifically sound to support our gathering of social and demographic data”, says Burm.

In a further push to stop the SEZ, the community shared the data with the provincial governor. CSOs and NGOs were also invited to share their views on the value of Boonreung’s forest. RECOFTC provided evidence highlighting the value of the forest ecosystem, and the diversity of wild animals and fish.

The Boonreung conservation group organized an event - ‘Long Live Our Forest Day’, which received a lot of support from the public. The conservation group were able to share the data they had collected from the forest with other villagers. The information gave local people confidence in telling stories about Boonreung forest in their own ways. People increasingly spoke among themselves about the forest and became more aware of the value of the forest. Burm says that he then realised the power of having a comprehensive database and information system.

People shared this information with other communities nearby. Representatives from the forest conservation group also shared this information in other forums organized at provincial or national level on the SEZ. Significantly, the data was presented to the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT) which has a mandate to develop the SEZ.  

Finally, on 24 August the community was told that IEAT had decided not to include Boonrueng forest in the SEZ. The communities’ hard work had paid off, and the forest assessment had been invaluable.

This was a great outcome, but Burm still has some worries. “My big concern at the moment is that IEAT only excluded the forest area under Boonrueng administrative boundary from SEZ plan, but our forest is bigger than just Boonrueng and is shared with other villages. What we have to do next is to help those villages to protect their rights. We can share the information we have and empower them to fight in a effective way.”

Burm plans to share Boonrueng’s experience with other communities facing  similar issues. He also wants to use the situation as a case study for building social unity and security within Boonrueng and neighboring communities.

“Even though we had support from external agencies, the Boonrueng community must be proud of what they have done so far. Without initiative, and cooperation and support from the whole village, we might not have had this success. We have learned a lot about how to prepare information for advocacy and how to communicate with the public. We should continue doing this for future generations and for other communities who still suffer at the hands of similar government development programs.”

 

 

September, 2017