Book Review: Local Control of Land and Forests: Cultural Dimensions of Resource Management in Northern Thailand

In International Review for Environmental Strategies (IRES) Volume 3 Number 1(Summer 2002)
Peer-reviewed Article

Book Review "Local Control of Land and Forests: Cultural Dimensions of Resource Management in Northern Thailand" by Anan Ganjanapan, Faculty of Social Science, Chiang Mai University, Thailand
Publisher information: Chiang Mai: Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD), 2000.
ISBN: 974-657-355-1, 235 pp. (pbk).

Reviewer: Tongroj Onchan, President, Mekong Environment and Resource Institute (MERI), Bangkok.

This book is a collection of seven articles that focus on the cultural dimensions of resource management, mainly of land and forests, in northern Thailand. The author is a well-known anthropologist who has conducted major research on this important and very complex issue over the past two decades. His work has contributed considerably to a better understanding of how and why community culture and rights are important for improving natural resource management. In fact, in Thailand, community rights, especially over the forests, is still rather ambiguous (to say the least). By law, all types of forests (conservation, production, and/or community) belong to the government, and hence, are to be managed by the government. However, the complexities of forest issues must be recognized if efficient and sustainable management of the country's forests is to be realized. The academic work of Dr. Anan on community rights is particularly relevant and timely, considering that the draft of the Community Forest Act has been under consideration by the Thai parliament for several years. In essence, he argues that the people in the community should have the right to manage the forests and that the security of land holding could be improved by granting community land rights. Today, the public debate on this issue remains vigorous.

As an introduction, Chapter 1 discusses the concept of culture in development in Thailand. Over the past several decades, despite the achievement of rapid economic growth, poverty is widespread, especially in rural areas. There is clearly a need for a new pattern of development and this, it is argued, has to take cultural dimensions into consideration. The author discusses the role of Buddhism in the early stages of the development process, from the early 1960s into the 1970s. This was generally known as the Buddhist approach to development. Then came the period of the 1970s and 1980s, during which the community culture approach was predominant; when cultural values were argued to be the most crucial driving force behind community development. Finally, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, the "community rights approach" emerged and was considered to be "essential for the successful development of a human, equitable, sustainable, and democratic way of life" (p. 5). It is also argued that this last approach is a more dynamic concept of culture, which can be reproduced and articulated with the changing environment and society-at-large. The lack of community rights also creates conflicts and disputes between the local people and the government regarding natural resources management. Furthermore, the customary rights and practices of local communities should also receive more attention from the government in an effort to avoid social and economic conflicts.

In Chapter 2, written jointly with Dr. Mingsan Kaosa-ad, a well-known economist at Chiang Mai University, the author uses anthropological and economic concepts to analyze the mobility of forest communities in terms of, for example, migration and community establishment, state power and local power in utilizing and holding lands, and community modes of production. This historical approach is used to interpret the relationships between villages and forests. Three communities (villages) in three provinces in northern Thailand were selected for the study of different types of conflicts (e.g., the definition of forest, customary rights, and legal systems, policies and procedures, and competition for forest resources among villages, businessmen, and the government). Findings from the study are relevant and should be applied, especially for formulating more acceptable conservation policies (particularly from villagers' points of view). Recommendations derived from the opinions of villagers include three area-specific suggestions for conserving forests: (1) the boundaries of forest reserves should be modified in response to local cultures and production systems, with participation by local organizations, in classifying patterns of land use; (2) the security of land holding could be improved by granting communal rights, in exchange for communities taking responsibility for maintaining forests, specifically those in protected areas; and (3) the government should develop, support, and guarantee the legal rights of potential organizations in conserving forests on a community forest basis. In addition, the conflicts regarding community forests are discussed, and suggestions for an appropriate community forest law are given.

Conflicts over control of land and labor in commercial agriculture are discussed in Chapter 3, which focuses on the problems of tenancy, landlessness, and subsistence in the province of Chiang Mai, organized resistance by poor farmers in the mid 1970s, an emerging class of capitalist farmers, changing forms of tenancy, and labor markets. Significant changes have occurred in agriculture and land and labor market arrangements over the recent decades. In concluding, the author states, "Despite a general tendency towards land accumulation and landlessness and the employment of wage labor, prevalent forms of share cropping tenancy constitute a complex array of meaning, by which landowners capture more of the surplus labor of tenants and acquire greater control over agricultural decision-making without taking on an increased burden of management" (p. 113).

Chapter 4 deals with a change in land inheritance and the security of land holding. This, it is expected, will help understand their impact on development, particularly of the Land Titling Project. As inheritance is the most important means of land transfers in northern communities, an analysis of the conflicts in land inheritance was conducted by using three different cases. In the past, it was believed that "land holding was secure under the system of traditional practices that were used continuously for a very long time" (p. 137). Land demarcation often depended on natural features such as streams, rivers, and irrigation ditches. No land documents were ever issued until 1954, when the Land Act was officially proclaimed. Land titling has caused land disputes among heirs, families, and relatives. Moreover, contradictions were found between traditional practices and legal principles in relation to inheritance, demarcation of land boundaries, and buying and selling of land. Finally, it is concluded that land titling does not necessarily help guarantee security of land tenure, nor does it necessarily promote greater efficiency of agriculture.

The problems of land use and land tenure in the highlands, especially of the northern region, have been the subject of debate and concern for a long time. Deforestation has been widespread and serious, resulting in topsoil erosion. Moreover, commercial farming, especially vegetable growing, has also caused water shortages and pollution in downstream areas, causing conflicts between highland and lowland peoples. The author argues that the problems in the highlands of northern Thailand are very complex and involve conflicting relationships between the various ethnic groups living in hill communities, and between hill people, the market, and the state. The results from a case study of a sub-district in Chiang Mai reveal that "the conflicts and contradictions?are clearly the outcome of state and market interventions" (p. 179). These have also caused significant insecurity in the land tenure of hill people. Finally, the author argues that land tenure security (which is crucial to the development of the highlands) is possible only if ethnic customary land tenure systems are recognized, along with ethnic participation in the control of resources.

In Chapter 6, based on case studies, the author tries to evaluate the potential of community forests as forest management alternatives for the protection of forest resources. It is argued that community forestry is an integral part of a system of peasant subsistence farming and that northern farmers, who live with the forest, perceive the forest as a complex, whole cultural system. "Living in forests is to put oneself under the spirits' control, which is the last choice for survival" (p. 193). The communities have also established customary rules to conserve and utilize resources and to try to defend their exclusive customary rights to control and manage community protected forests. However, at present, they have no legal rights to protect their community forests, as these are legally national reserved forests or conservation forests. While recognizing that community forestry has a cultural and moral basis for collective rights of subsistence, legal recognition of customary land tenure and rights of control of forest resources is important for future development of community forestry.

The issue of rights in community forests is also discussed in the last chapter of the book. In recent years, it is argued that "villagers have reproduced their cultural and moral values into more formal practices, in an effort to defend their exclusive customary use-rights of the forest as communal property" (p. 210). In fact, there have been social and local struggles for legal recognition of community rights by marginal farmers and ethnic minorities (the hill people) who, in recent years, mostly resort to rituals (like forest ordination), which have also become a common practice. As the draft of the Community Forest Bill has been approved by the Cabinet and is being considered by the Parliament; if passed, it will be the first time that collective rights are recognized in local control of community forests.

As land tenure security and its effect on agricultural productivity and equity have recently been the subject of systematic research by economists (see, for example, Feder et al. [1986], Besley [1995], and Carter [2001]), Dr. Anan's work provides different perspectives and sheds useful light on understanding the complex issues of land and forest management and policy. Hence, this book is highly recommended, especially to those economists who, theoretically, have focussed their analysis mainly on economic aspects. The concept, the research methodology, and the conclusions contained in this book should help economists to better understand the complexities of the land problems, particularly regarding the rights to land and forest resources from a cultural perspective. Moreover, as natural resources are a major part of the country's very complex environmental problems, understanding requires a holistic approach that takes into account all aspects concerned. This book under review can at least partly show how complex the problems can be and how research can help to understand them. In this sense, "Dr. Anan has brought us to the new terrain of cultural dimension of resource management," as Chayan Vaddhanaphuti writes in the book's preface. More of this type of study should be encouraged.

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Tongroj Onchan