Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Environmental conservation efforts in Thailand have long been characterized by conflict between the state and the people. Ethnic minorities inhabiting some of the most valuable forests of Thailand and Southeast Asia have been particularly affected by these conflicts.
The Western Forest Complex, encompassing a Natural World Heritage Site and nearly 18,000 km2 on Thailand’s western border with Myanmar, is the largest remaining continuous forest in Southeast Asia. Located at the juncture of four biogeographical zones, the Western Forest contains unparalleled biological diversity—at least ten different types of forest ecosystems, one-third of all terrestrial vertebrates in mainland Southeast Asia, and many endemic and globally-endangered species. Some 10,000 inhabitants who practice swidden (rotational) agriculture also populate this forest, a tradition that has endured for at least 200 years.
Contrary to common perception by Thai government officials and the general public, this traditional form of agriculture preserves both forest areas and biological diversity. Swidden agriculture, or shifting cultivation, involves clearing a patch of forest for cultivation and, after the growing season, leaving the land to lie fallow for six to ten years, until a secondary forest grows back and nutrients return to the soil, at which time the farmer returns to cultivate the same field. However, government authorities view all types of human activity and settlement as a threat to forest protection. Accordingly, swidden farming has been denounced by various government departments, mass media and popular discourse as “slash and burn agriculture,” practiced by backward “hill tribes.”
In an attempt to protect the Western Forest, the Thai government has established 17 legally-protected wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. By law, any form of agriculture qualifies as forest invasion, thus leading to crop destruction and daily arrests of forest inhabitants. In return, indigenous communities view forestry officials as enemies. Swidden farmers are compelled to clear more land than they might otherwise need, in case of government confiscation. Some farmers burn and cultivate watershed forests in vengeance. In short, it has become an open battle between conservation officials and indigenous communities, with the Western Forest Complex held hostage.
The construction of road networks within the Western Forest for convenient government access has, ironically, introduced an even more powerful threat to forest protection. Roads have become important trade corridors, encouraging swidden farmers to switch to marketable crops and chemical-dependent monoculture. Nearby communities also have convenient access to the fertile soil of the Western Forest. In short, there are now growing threats of true slash-and-burn farms, owned by some forest inhabitants and many outsiders. The common perception, however, is that indigenous communities are the enemies of forest conservation.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Sasin is changing the consciousness of forestry officials and turning indigenous people into potential partners, rather than enemies. He has employed a series of conversation starters to create mutual understanding with inhabitants of the forest and the forestry department. Top-level bureaucrats and field officers alike now recognize indigenous mechanisms of forest and wildlife preservation and, despite legal limitations, have revised conservation practices on the ground to include the local forest community.
Sasin is also reuniting forest communities who had previously been under threat by conservation officials. He is reviving old community networks—such as watershed neighborhoods, community doctors, and barter and trade channels with low environmental impact—thus developing alternative models of low-impact communal infrastructure and services. More importantly, these networks are creating and strengthening mechanisms for the community to voice its concerns.
As a result, whereas arrests of forest inhabitants were a common practice in the Western Forest Complex, these have practically ceased to exist. In addition, over 100 forest communities have agreed to common land use regulations and together guard against forest encroachment. Sasin is replicating this collaborative conservation approach in well over 100 other communities along the forest borders, to ensure lasting protection of forest, wildlife, and the right of indigenous communities to coexist with nature.