Kaeng Krachan and the state's charade

In his column "From the Prime Minister's Heart" in the government's newsletter, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha reaffirms his administration's commitment to sustainable development and the sufficiency economy. The gap between words and actions is as wide as an ocean.

In the government's proposal to Unesco to classify Kaeng Krachan forest as a World Heritage Site, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment pledged commitment to the rights of indigenous forest dwellers, saying they would be allowed to live on their ancestral land and participate in managing the national park. The gap between words and deeds is again infuriating.

Both incidents show that state authorities know what is right and wrong, that they cannot turn a blind eye to global ethical standards. They also know how to project a good face to the world. They just don't want to walk the walk.

Worse, they think the world will fall for their charade.

In his column, Gen Prayut says it takes time to achieve global sustainable development goals and implement His Majesty the King's sufficiency economy model. I couldn't agree more.

But he goes on to say that this is why the country needs a 20-year national development strategy put in place before the next government comes along.

Now, wait a minute.

The regime's efforts to push for a national development strategy law are highly controversial. With parallel efforts seeking to allow junta members to become senators to oversee reform measures, the regime is facing criticism for trying to prolong its hold on power.

It wouldn't be surprising if the regime cites national security to back its political moves. But the royal concept of the sufficiency economy? The global consensus of sustainable development?

Environmental protection and inclusive decision-making are key to sustainable development. Moderation, domestic immunity against unpredictable global variables and special attention to small players in the agricultural sector are key elements in the sufficiency economy philosophy.

Tied to vested interests, previous governments -- be they red or yellow -- all paid lip service to sustainable development. Obliged to show recognition to royal initiatives, they similarly turned the "sufficiency economy" into an empty, meaningless mantra

Wut Boonlert, chair of the Karen Network for Culture and Environment, heads to Unesco to voice concerns over the nomination of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex as a World Heritage Site when land rights conflicts have not yet been resolved. He is accompanied by the widow of a missing Karen activist and other forest dwellers. Pawat Laopaisarntaksin

To be fair, previous governments also zigzagged the legal requirements on environmental impact assessments (EIA) and health impact assessments to support unpopular megaprojects designed by officialdom. But they did not change the standard rules.

It took a military regime to bypass the EIA law to fast-track unpopular megaprojects and lift land zoning restrictions to facilitate the government's mandate on special economic zones.

The mandarins were overjoyed. They immediately announced that they were ready to go ahead with 70 infrastructure schemes, long delayed by local opposition and EIA studies. They include big dams in forests, coal-fired power plants and deep-sea ports. At stake are precious forest and marine resources, the livelihoods of fishermen, and the local tourism industry.

These moves follows a crackdown on poor forest dwellers, regime support for polluting gold mines and efforts to remove community rights and human dignity from the next charter.

This is not sustainable development. Nor is it the sufficiency economy. It is plain and simple state authoritarianism.

Critics slam the sufficiency economy as out of touch with an interconnected global economy. I see it differently.

The focus on moderation is a commentary on Thailand's long unregulated development. Its moral dimension also questions the government's greed-driven economic policy.

The focus on small farmers is also criticised as localism which goes against interconnected economies.

No one can resist globalisation, that is for sure. The emphasis on small farmers is an effort to strike a balance, not only out of concern for justice and the environment, but also for food security amid extreme weather.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, family farms are the world's predominant form of agriculture, and crucial agents of change in achieving sustainable food security and in eradicating hunger. Is that localism too?

Under the sufficiency philosophy, family farms must have land and ponds, pursue mixed farming and form networks to empower themselves. In a country with millions of landless farmers, making sufficiency farming a reality requires land reform, decentralised water management and a departure from chemical farming. We can see why state authorities continue to pay it mere lip service.

Which brings us to the Kaeng Krachan controversy.

There is no need to look far for real-life examples of sufficient living. The Karen forest dwellers have been living in Kaeng Krachan for generations. The forest and wildlife remain rich, to the extent that it is now eligible for a World Heritage Site nomination.

Forest authorities, however, want to kick them out. First through forced relocation, then -- for those who resisted -- through setting fire to their bamboo shacks and rice barns.

They are accused of encroaching on the forest and of drug trafficking. They have been called illegal immigrants and armed insurgents. Their subsistence farming rotation system is demonised as slash-and-burn. Their advocate was murdered and a community leader disappeared mysteriously after being arrested by a former park chief who still enjoys full backing from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

What forest authorities view as routine treatment of powerless indigenous peoples the world would see as a scandalous violations of human rights. That is why the nomination of Kaeng Krachan as a World Heritage Site was rejected last year.

Give them the right to take part in park management, the ministry was told. Resolve land rights conflicts and gain their consent for the World Heritage registration.

We already did that, the ministry reported to the World Heritage Centre in January. Public hearings were held, farm land and occupational assistance was provided, the Karen are now members of the Protected Area Committee to ensure inclusive park management, and they now support the registration, says the report. Wut Boonlert, chair of Karen Network for Culture and Environment, scoffed at the report.

"The world nowadays is open and interconnected. Authorities cannot just make up things and think other people outside the country won't know the truth," he said.

The network, he said, has sent the World Heritage Centre their opinions and demands through the International Union for Conservation of Nature: Allow indigenous communities to continue traditional land use and farm rotation managed by community committees.

Kaeng Krachan forest dwellers also sent a separate petition, calling for the right to return to ancestral land, to continue traditional farming, for their citizenship to be recognised and their community rights guaranteed.

"These demands show that authorities have not yet resolved conflicts in the park nor addressed forest dwellers' rights," said Mr Wut.

"When state authorities talk, always beware of the gap between actions and words," he cautioned.

That is why he questions the mainstream media which, more often than not, judges newsworthiness based on rank and social status. "They often believe state authorities' words too readily."

Urban backgrounds and an education system that fosters ethnic prejudice also make many blind to ethnic discrimination, he noted.

"I wish the media question authorities and try to find out what is really going on more. If not, they end up serving the powerful. I don't think it should be that way."

Source URL: Bangkok Post