Thailand indigenous
After the forest near their village was declared a 'special cultural zone', Karen community members needed to clarify their living areas with national park rangers. Photo: Deepunu DeporBand.

Indigenous people in northern Thailand face an unlikely enemy: conservation

Just like his ancestors have long done, Somchat Raksongplu —a leader of the Karen indigenous community in northern Thailand— went to collect logs from the forest to build a shrine near his village of Baan Klang. But in a matter of hours, national park rangers threatened to arrest him for theft of natural resources.

“For 300 years, we’ve taken care of this forest,” said Raksongplu, headman of Baan Klang village. “Now [the rangers] accuse us of drying the watershed, contributing to climate change and creating air pollution.”

Like Raksongplu, hundreds of indigenous people in Thailand have been negatively affected by conservation efforts, in some cases because of a lack of consultation and in others because of direct intimidation from authorities.

Now, experts are warning that —in spite of their importance to mitigate the climate and biodiversity crisis— conservation measures must take into account the human rights of indigenous people living in protected lands.

Somchat Raksongplu, headman of the Baan Klang village, has been fighting for the community’s rights to utilise natural resources on their ancestral lands. Photo: Deepunu DeporBand.

That is specially the case for one of the latest proposals by the UN Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), which includes a goal of safeguarding at least 30 percent of the planet. More than 50 countries supported the initiative ahead of the global biodiversity summit at the end of the year.

But many of these areas overlap with indigenous ancestral lands. This is something that could lead to conflict in some countries, experts say.

“Up to 300 million people could be negatively and seriously affected” by this 10-year strategy, stated a letter signed by 128 indigenous rights experts and organisations. “Protected areas have led to displacement and eviction of Indigenous Peoples and other land-dependent communities”, the letter added.

Indigenous lands all over the world cover up to 22% of the world’s surface and are home to 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. “If we can’t utilise the forest, we’d be no different from a disabled person,” Raksongplu said.

Lack of consultation

Conservation projects in Thailand often lack consultation and leave the indigenous communities unprotected, Raksongplu says. According to him, the legal frameworks of these projects often miss safeguards to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

“We did not know [that they were declaring a national park] until they put up signs and concrete posts around our homes,” Raksongplu said.

Since 2011, for example, Thai authorities forcefully evicted a number of Karen communities living in the Kaeng Krachan national park. They took this measure in order to nominate the area for a UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

After almost a decade, official park rangers have burned many houses down, and some community leaders have disappeared after showing opposition. A 2018 court ruling agreed that the eviction was an abuse of power.

According to Chawapich Vaidhayakarn, Climate Change Consultant for environmental justice NGO EarthRights International, this is an example of “fortress conservation”, the idea that exclusion of human settlements is the best way to protect nature.

“The mindset is that people and forests cannot co-exist,” said Vaidhayakarn.

Thailand indigenous
Like many indigeous groups around the world, the Karen are vital to protecting their ecosystem. Photo: Deepunu DeporBand.

A global threat

Governments all over the world have evicted indigenous people from their lands, mainly to exploit natural resources. In these cases, corruption is frequent for the benefit of commercial interests, said Vaidhayakarn.

As an example, in 2020, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro proposed a bill to open up protected indigenous reserves in the Amazon rainforest to legal mining. The bill also planned oil and gas exploration, agribusiness and hydroelectric dam projects. 

But even exploitation of renewable energies can come with human rights violations. In northern Colombia, the expansion of solar and wind farms is encroaching on the lands of the Wayuu people, without any protection of their rights.

“Compared to the average citizen who might end up in prison for foraging food from the forest,  corporate entities with good political ties are spontaneously given easy access to these protected areas [in some countries],” Vaidhayakarn said.

However, involving indigenous people in conservation efforts is an effective way to protect nature and mitigate climate change, studies show.

Calculations in the Project Drawdown report suggest that securing forest tenure for indigenous peoples can potentially reduce and sequester up to 13 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (based on a 2020-2050 model). 

For this to work, consultation and human rights will have to play a central role, Raksongplu said. “We’re not protesting against the declaration of a national park. We just want them to involve us, hear our needs and tell us the truth.”

This story was edited on August 3 to clarify that Karen communities were evicted from Kaeng Krachan national park.