“I have already gone to jail twice. I am not afraid to go again. I will continue to fight for my land till I get full ownership. This is the only asset I have. With this, I was able to earn a living and educate my two daughters,” Ms. Kham Sagleng told me when I met her in Bann Pae Tai Village of Lamphun Province in Thailand. Tears rolled down as she spoke.
Her community has been fighting a land case, fending off harassments by officials, police and big landlords since 1997. It is caught up in a legal battle with a landlord to reclaim rights of their own land which actually had been allocated by the government.
Land is a highly contested issue in Thailand with huge inequality in its distribution and ownership. A recent study has found that the top 10 percent of the country’s total land owners hold up to 60 percent of land (excluding state/government land) in the country. “These issues are much more complex in Northern provinces as the communities have to fight with conflicting laws and policies on forestry and land administration.
Though communities have been tilling their land for a living for generations, they are unable to secure tenurial rights which would allow them to escape poverty and constant stress from possible eviction and displacement . In contrary, private companies and big landlords have managed to get ownership and threaten and intimidate poor people with legal cases, said Mr. Prayong Doklamvai of Northern Development Foundation (NDF), an Oxfam partner of more than ten years.
So far, the CSOs have documented 6,700 such cases in the area. For the last 20 years, Mr. Prayong, along with the community network leaders has been working with around 200 communities in the region to defend their land rights. He and fellow activists also took me to meet with members of three such communities.
“One of the major issues is that communities are not able to define and demarcate their land and forest areas. They have to depend on the records of land administration or forest administration which is sometimes misleading. We took upon the challenge and trained ourselves to develop maps based on GIS information. Now we have maps demarcating land use, community forest and other forest areas. We use these maps to protect our land and conserve the forest,” said Ms. Thikhamphon Kongson, a civil society leader in Na Noi sub-district in Nan province.
She explained how communities and local officials (especially the locally elected sub-district heads) are mobilized and committed to this mission. This has become a model in many communities whose members are not only developing data to demarcate the land use but also to develop community development plans. When there are legal disputes, the local people use this map as evidence to argue their case and make plans for community land titling and forestry management. They have successfully advocated local authorities to endorse it through local legislation.
”Using the evidence, we succeeded in influencing the government to order the Prime Minister’s office to proceed to issue community land titling. Two communities have officially received land titles and 58 community requests have been approved, with 50 communities now ready to submit a formal request, Mr. Prayong added.
But without a national legislation, they are unable to get legal documents. So this policy could not be pursued further. Constant political upheavals in Thailand in the past years haven’t helped to address the fundamental and structural issues of land and inequality either. After long discussions, everyone agreed a campaign is needed to push the agenda ahead for direct benefits of at least 15 million people.
“The campaign will focus to legalize the community land titling, development of a land bank, creation of justice fund and implementation of progressive land tax in Thailand. We know that this is ambitious but there is no other way to fight this inequality. We have the support of many national organizations, media, academics, students. We are also linking up with other land movements at regional and international level through Land Watch convened by Oxfam,” Mr. Prayong explained.
A recent report from Thailand Future Foundation also points out the growing disparity in Thailand in other areas as well. According to the report, out of the 22 million households, the bottom 10% earns an average of only 4,300 baht (138 USD) per month. Whereas the top 10 percentage, earn an average of 90,000 baht(2900 USD) a month.
The ongoing political deadlock in Thailand might be resolved in the interim. But it will be a short-term solution. Thailand needs to address the fundamental problems of governance and find long-term solutions to political governance. Unless Thailand urgently tackles the massive disparities and ensures prosperity for all through structural reforms and decentralized governance, it will be difficult to retain the international acclaim of ‘land of smiles’.