Forest communities in Thailand use mapping technology to secure and manage their land

09, March 2020
RECOFTC
The Voices for Mekong Forests project and Raks Thai Foundation are training communities to map their lands to meet new legal requirements.

Anurak Agkara says life used to be much easier for his community in Nam Khae, a village nestled in the forested mountains of Thailand’s Nan Province. 

“We could take care of the forest and the watershed,” said Agkara. “For a long time, our community has collected herbs and other plants in the forest. The forest gives us benefits so we would never hurt it. Now, the law makes me feel guilty to be on the land I have lived on my entire life.” 

Community members say Nam Khae was founded more than 100 years ago. Since then, villagers have been managing local forests and using them to meet their daily needs. What has changed is the government’s opinion about to whom the land belongs. 

Despite its long history in these mountains, the community lacks government-recognized title to the land on which the people live, or to the forests in which they grow crops, forage for plants and gather firewood. To make matters worse, the government considers Nam Khae to be on government-owned reserved forest land. The threat of criminal penalties and fines is ever-present.

Nam Khae is not an isolated case. The non-governmental organization Raks Thai Foundation is working with 39 forest communities in the Upper Nam Wa Watershed in Nan Province that do not have legal title to some or all their land. Now, with the help of the Voices for Mekong Forests (V4MF) project, communities like Nam Khae are mapping their lands so that they can claim their land tenure and better manage the land. At the same time, V4MF is empowering women and supporting national efforts to monitor forests and thwart illegal loggers. 

Hope and urgency

Of the 39 communities in the watershed with whom Raks Thai Foundation works, 27 have lands that lie within national park boundaries. These communities have a clear process for seeking recognition of their right to live there. This is because of the new National Parks Act that Thailand adopted in May 2019. This law supports a national policy that aims to settle land tenure disputes. Known as Kor Tor Chor, Thailand adopted the policy in 2014 and is implementing it through a series of laws ratified in 2019. Thailand plans to eventually resolve all tenure disputes, including those in national parks.

When Thailand passed the new law, a countdown began: communities living in national parks have until 22 July 2020 to declare the boundaries of their communities and submit maps to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation. If they do this, they will receive a permit to remain on their land for the next 20 years. If not, anyone who gathers firewood, grows crops or otherwise harvests forest products could face criminal penalties and fines for encroachment.

A notice informs the village of Nong Nan of the new National Parks Act
A notice informs the village of Nong Nan of the new National Parks Act.

National park officials welcome the new law, saying the clarity it provides will support effective law enforcement in protected forests. Currently, many communities have informal relationships with national park officials. An official might know, for example, that a community regularly uses part of the forest for firewood. Understanding where a community has legitimate customary tenure claims can help officials set enforcement priorities. However, if community members and park officials are not in communication, or are at odds with one another, the villagers are more likely to be charged with encroachment. 

“The hardest part of our job is communicating with the villages in the park,” says Chaiya Tong Chai, a ranger at Khun Nan National Park. “There is distrust between us and the villagers, so people are not open and it is difficult to solve problems. We hope that by settling boundaries, we can build trust with communities in the park.”

While the law has given communities a pathway to securing tenure, time is running out. Maythawat Puttitadakun, manager of a local government office called the Bo Kluea Sub-District Organization, worries that many communities will miss the deadline to complete the mapping. He says lack of communication from government to communities about the law and limited financial resources to support the required surveying might leave communities without rights to their land.

Mapping and monitoring

With the deadline looming, the Voices for Mekong Forests project funded by the European Union is helping the 39 communities in the Upper Nam Wa watershed to map their land using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology. Raks Thai Foundation, the project’s lead partner in Thailand, is training and providing resources to communities that lack government-recognized tenure. The project builds the technical capacity of communities to use GIS technology and helps to organize the mapping activities. 

The process is bottom-up, rather than top-down. When Thailand created its national parks, boundaries were drawn using satellite maps that did not capture local communities and their land uses. Now, the accessibility of GIS technology means that, with the right training, communities are on an equal footing. They can produce the same quality and type of data as national park officials. Through the project, community members are now working with officials. They visit land boundaries together and survey and map the land using handheld GIS devices.

A map of land ownership in Nan Province
A map of land ownership in Nan Province. Yellow lines represent the boundaries of village land-use areas as of 2002, the first year detailed satellite imagery was available. Orange lines represent boundaries of village lands that receive limited recognition under Kor Tor Chor. Red lines refer to areas under investigation for encroachment.

In addition to their role in securing tenure for villages, the maps also help communities and officials to monitor land-use changes over time and address illegal logging. For instance, the data they are gathering supports the Voices for Mekong Forests project, which is developing forest governance monitoring systems in all five Mekong countries. Raks Thai Foundation and RECOFTC are piloting such a system in Nan Province. The system takes information about forest governance from sources such as on-the-ground reports, satellite imagery, and legal complaints, and connects it to a tiered governance system. A community and sub-district-level committee meets to review the data. It resolves minor instances of illegal logging locally and forwards serious concerns to provincial or national-level committees. 

Waiting for recognition

Some communities are using this training to conduct surveys so that they can gain government recognition of their lands under the National Parks Act. Others do not live on national park land, but also lack title recognition. The village of Nam Khae, for instance, is on land managed by the Royal Forest Department, not the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation. Villages like this one must enter a different tenure recognition process established by the National Land Policy Committee Act of 2019 as part of Kor Tor Chor. This process is organized provincially and has not yet started in Nam Khae.

It might take the Nam Khae community longer to secure tenure than those communities living in national parks, but that has not stopped the villagers from embracing mapping technology. They are using it to monitor changes in land use and to build a body of evidence regarding use and occupancy. This will help them to manage the land, defend claims about their tenure rights, and prepare for negotiations in the upcoming tenure-recognition processes.

A woman in pink stands in front of a village in the mountains
Maliwan Agkara is secretary for the mapping project in Nam Khae Village.

The project is also helping to ensure that women are represented equitably as owners and managers of land through their involvement in the mapping and land-tenure decision-making processes. For example, Maliwan Agkara is a community member who serves as the secretary of the Nam Khae mapping project. 

“In our village, the men go into the forest to map, but I manage the data,” she says. “Women can study that data and make conclusions.”

A group of people walk in the forest
Community members from Nam Khae map the boundaries of local land.

While the mapping is bringing many benefits, uncertainty remains, even for communities whose surveys enable them to meet the requirements of the National Parks Act. The final authority to give permits and resolve boundary disputes rests with the government. Meanwhile, the permits only last 20 years and the law does not specify what will come after. Still, local officials such as Maythawat Puttitadakun stress the importance of the mapping. 

“When everyone knows the boundaries,” he says, “everyone will benefit.”

###

This story is produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its content is the sole responsibility of RECOFTC and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. To find out more about this and other activities under the EU-funded Voices for Mekong Forests, visit the project page.

RECOFTC's work is made possible with the continuous support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)