In the mid-1800s, Britain began exploiting Thailand's extensive teak forests to build its naval fleet. So began a century and a half of forest destruction, driven first by international demand for timber, then by the expansion of agricultural land. By 1995, the once heavily forested country had less than 25% forest cover.
In 1988, flash floods in Southern Thailand killed hundreds of people and drew widespread attention to the environmental impacts of deforestation. The following year, with pressure from an expanding and environmentally aware middle class, the Thai government enacted one of the region's first logging bans.
Today, Thailand has established 148 National Parks. Just over half of the country's 19 million hectares of forest is designated as conservation or protected forests, covering around a fifth of the total land area.
The recent forest protection efforts have come at the expense of community rights to own and use forests. Laws governing National Parks and Wilderness Areas have made it illegal to take timber or even non-timber products, such as foods and medicinal plants. This has been disastrous for more than 20,000 communities living in and around the forests recently designated as protected areas: Suddenly, they were unable to use products that had supported their livelihoods for generations.
Today most communities still lack legal recognition of their right to use and access forest resources. With protection and production policies marginalizing many of Thailand's rural poor, the inevitable result has been widespread conflict. Evictions, arrests, home demolitions, and armed protests commonly occur around Thailand's forested areas.
There is some government support for community forestry, but the movement has struggled to advance in the face of the strict laws governing protected areas. Nevertheless, communities and civil society, with support from the Royal Forest Department, have managed to register and legalize around 7,000 community forestry sites outside of protected areas.
Since its establishment in 1987, RECOFTC has advocated nationally for more policies and legislation that advance community forestry in Thailand. At the local level, much of our work has focused on partnering with communities to set up community forestry sites, providing capacity-building support. More recently, our emphasis has shifted toward helping to strengthen emerging community forestry networks and exploring opportunities in climate change mitigation.