For many of Thailand's rural people, community management of local forests has been a way of life for centuries.
- Thailand has more than 10,000 community forest sites.
- Around 7,000 of these are registered with the Royal Forest Department.
- No community forestry sites are recognized within protected areas.
In the 1970s, looking for ways to address the country's rampant deforestation, the Thai government officially recognized community forestry as a tool for sustainable forest management. By 1989, an estimated 8,000 sites existed, and today there are more than 10,000.
In 1991, supported by nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and communities, the government began drafting a Community Forest Bill to guide the formalization of community engagement in forest management.
Unfortunately, for two decades the bill has been a constant source of national debate and considerable frustration, particularly for local people seeking legal protection and support for their community forests. The original draft has undergone a number of rewrites, and has been rejected, passed, and then rescinded. The major point of contention has been over local people's forest use rights within protected areas.
At its essence, this conflict has arisen because of a clash of values. A Bangkok-based conservation movement has pushed for minimal human activity in Thailand's protected areas, apart from recreation. In contrast, community forestry advocates argue that forest-dependent people should be able to manage and use forest areas within protected areas if they had been doing so before the park or conservation boundary was established.
Several contradictory laws and policies have complicated matters. Thailand's Constitution, which guides the country's laws and policies, clearly empowers communities to actively engage in natural resource management, protection, and use. Supporting this is the Decentralization Act of 1988, which enables local government units to facilitate local people's engagement in natural resource management, allowing for assistance in developing management plans, accessing resources, and networking.
However, other legislation works against community forestry, such as the National Park Act of 1961, which prohibits use of timber and non-timber forest products within park boundaries.
Thus, support for community forestry varies even within the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The Ministry's Royal Forest Department, responsible for all forests not in protected areas, has long supported community forestry and has a subdepartment that supports communities in legalizing sites. In contrast, the Ministry's National Park, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department, responsible for protected-area forests, has largely worked to prevent community forestry in protected areas, operating under the exclusionary National Park law.
The end result is that today there is no Community Forestry Bill in place. There is also no recognition for community forests that overlap with protected areas. This affects between 1 million and 2 million local people who depend on forest resources from these forest areas.
However, community forestry proponents — including the Royal Forest Department, NGOs, and Thailand's emerging community forestry networks — continue to make progress. As of 2010, the Royal Forest Department had formally recognized and registered around 7,000 community forests, all outside of protected areas, and it is actively seeking to register more.
A major recent initiative has been the development of community forestry networks with a range of members, from the Tambon (subdistrict administrative unit) and district levels through to the Community Forestry Assembly, which operates nationally. These networks are proving to be an important vehicle in which to share lessons learned and practical experience for setting up and managing sites. They also give supporters a stronger voice to advocate for legislative reforms.
The emerging issue of climate change mitigation is also gaining the attention of the community forestry movement in the country. New climate change initiatives present possible means of developing participatory forest management that delivers greater benefits to local people.