Puginier, Oliver: Hill tribes struggling for a land deal: Participatory land use planning in northern Thailand amid controversial policies


Kapitel 1. Introduction

1.1 A short glimpse of conflicts over the highlands

“The new government must amend draconic forestry laws and recognise the indigenous people‘s constitutional and community rights, to prevent land conflicts from escalating into ethnic violence“ (Bangkok post 2000).

The above refers to the long conflict since the 1980s in Chom Thong district of Chiang Mai over water and land between lowland Thais and highland Karen as well as Hmong living and farming in the Doi Inthanon National Park founded in 1972. Lowland villagers had repeatedly closed access roads and set up roadblocks in the past to force relocation of the Karen and Hmong whom they accuse of water overuse, but in August 2000 they even raided lychee orchards and set fire to houses, and it was luck that no one was killed. These clashes show the increasing competition over natural resources as land and water become scarce or are overused, and epitomises the fate of hill tribes in Thailand caught between recent forest protection laws and lowland Thais moving into the hills, a conflict so severe that it is even dubbed the “Chom Thong Water Wars“ (Ratner 2000,6). It has to be remembered that the Karen and Hmong had settled in these hilly areas long before it was declared a national park. This case demonstrates how a conflict over watershed resources can link to broader conflicts of social values and national policies, and should be seen as a serious warning to finally deal with contradicting highland policies and administration before the conflict deteriorates.

The issue of natural resource conservation with increasing populations is loaded with conflicts in the Asian “Tiger countries“, so named after a decade of seemingly unlimited economic growth in the 1980‘s. The use of the tiger as a symbol of strength, it is after all the largest cat, bears a sad irony, as it is quickly approaching extinction as a price for unlimited land expansion for agriculture as well as logging enterprises. Why the allusion to the tiger? In a larger context, this animal represents the state of natural resources in South East Asia with rapidly degrading and disappearing forests, which after years of logging have been further decimated through two consecutive years of massive forest fires in 1997 and 1998. These were attributed to the natural phenomenon of El Niño, a meteorological process that leads to high temperatures and a much lower rainfall in the rainy season in the tropics and subtropics. Thailand has followed a path of economic success to the point where it was given the nickname of a "small tiger" in the Asian context, yet this success has come at the expense of a massive environmental exploitation. The tiger has nearly disappeared in Thailand and so have most of its forested areas, and now the government tries to cling on to the last remains through contradictory policies of forest conservation and reforestation as well as agricultural intensification. This has brought the previously autonomous hill tribes in remote mountainous areas into contact with government agencies with diverging sectoral development priorities.

1.2 The mountainous north and Mae Hong Son province

The key factor that triggered international highland development was the attempt of the Thai government to eliminate opium (Papaver somniferum) cultivation, first by outlawing it in 1959, followed by the Crop Replacement and Community Development Project (CRCDP) set up in Chiang Mai in 1971 (renard 1997,316). This was the first project funded by the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC), which two years before had been especially founded for that purpose (tan-kim-yong et al. 1994,3). The area it focused on has become world-famous as the “Golden Triangle“, a term created by US Marshall Green in 1971 that designated an area where Thailand, Laos and Burma have a common border along the Mekong river (Renard 1997,308). Opium control was subsequently institutionalised in 1975 with the establishment of the Thai Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control, and a year later the Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) was set up to act as the coordinating agency for drug abuse suppression programmes (Dirksen 1997,331). This meant that one of the oldest European crops for medicinal purposes, exported since the 8th century worldwide, was suddenly declared an evil threat to Europe as it returned in the form of a drug. One should recall that Britain, France and the USA even fought two Opium


Wars (1839-1842 and 1856) against China (which had outlawed it in 1729) to market opium in the name of free trade (broszat 1992,24), and the sudden change of perception may be seen as an irony of colonial history. Thailand had also been forced to allow opium imports by the USA after the second Opium War, though 100 years later and under the influence of US and European priorities of opium suppression, the country was urged to suppress opium production.

Photo 1-1: The root of highland development (Papaver somniferum)

1.2.1 Location and physical environment

The northern part of Thailand is composed of 18 provinces and covers an area of 169,644 km2 or 33 % of the country, and is bordered by Laos to the east and Burma to the west (Figure 1-1). The north lies between the latitudes 15 °N and 21.5 °N, and the longitudes 97.3 °E and 102 °E. The lower north includes alluvial plains and terraces that comprise the upper delta of the Chao Phraya River, while the upper north is more extreme and includes higher terraces, hills and mountains (Doi Inthanon is the highest at 2,590 m). Within the region there exists a series of mountain ranges running north to south that form the catchment areas of the Ping, Wang, Yom and Nan rivers. The area is divided into three major land forms (after buddee 1985,19):

Lowlands; fertile alluvial areas up to 200 m elevation with finely textured, slowly permeable soils (Orthic Acrisols) or medium textured well-drained ones.

Uplands; older alluvial deposits in terraces up to 500 m elevation with podzolic soils (Orthic Acrisols) and loamy red latosols (Dystric Nitosols). Most soils are relatively infertile with organic matter levels below 2 %, a low base saturation and usually acid with a pH of 5.0-6.5, with moderate to rapid permeability.

Highlands; ranging from 500 to 2,500 m altitude, consisting of flat plateaus to steep mountains with loams overlaying clays. Highland soils cover about 80 % of the north and are extremely complex and diverse (referred to as “Slope Complex“), moderately fertile (organic matter 3.5-5 %), acidic (pH 5.3-5.6) and are phosphorus and sulphur deficient. The rock types include limestone, shale/schist, granite and sandstone.


Figure 1-1: The mountainous north of Thailand

The climate of northern Thailand is monsoonal with 3 distinct seasons: a wet season (May-October), a cool and dry season (November to January and a hot and dry season (February-April). Most of the rainfall (90 %) comes with the passing of the inter-tropical convergence zones during April-May (moving north) and August-September (moving south). The rainfall pattern is bimodal, as rainfall decreases a bit in June-July, and between November and April there is only little rain. Temperatures in the wet season are around 27-30 °C, while in cooler months from 20 to 30 °C, with a mean monthly minimum of 12-17 °C. The north has a mean monthly rainfall of 1,100-1,500 mm (rfd 1999,website). In Mae Hong Son there is a broader temperature range from mean monthly minima of 9 °C in January and maxima of up to 42 °C in April, with an annual mean of 25.8°C. Over the last years, the monthly rainfall ranged from 934 mm (1998) to 1,435 mm (1994). Most of Mae Hong Son consists of steep mountains (90 %), while the lowland area only covers 10 % of the province (rfd 1997,1).

1.2.2 The hill tribes

The mountains of Thailand were populated from the lowlands upwards in a time sequence, whereby the earliest settlers were northern Thais who occupied the lower areas (up to 1,200 m), followed by a number of Tibeto-Burman mountain peoples moving south from China. Thailand has regularly experienced migration from ethnic minorities over time, yet particularly since the 2nd World War the majority of migrants have fled wars in neighbouring countries. Highland peoples have been classified according to ethnicity and the elevation they live and are spread over 20 provinces, with 90 % living in the Upper North. (adb 2000,4). Six major distinctive ethnic groups represent more than 90 % of the total hill tribe population in Thailand: Karen (46.3 %), Hmong (17.9 %), Lahu (10.5 %), Akha (6.9 %), Yao (5.8 %) and Lisu (4.7 %). The White Karen (subdivided into Sgaw and Pwo) came up to 300 years ago and settled between 600-1600 m, followed up to 100 years ago by Yao, Akha, Lahu (two groups: Black Lahu with subgroups of Lahu Nyi, Lahu Na and Lahu Sheleh, and Yellow Lahu subdivided into Ban Lan and Ba Keo) and Lisu at 800-1,800 m, and up to 80 years ago by the Hmong (subdivided into White and Blue) at 1,000-2,000 m (kunstadter et al.1978,9 and ganjanapan 1998,75).

Current population figures for hill tribes are estimated at 1 million, but need to be seen with reasonable doubt, particularly since by 1988 only 65 % of the hill tribes had Thai citizenship (aguettant 1996,65), and


at least 15 % of the population has not yet been registered. The hill tribe population for Mae Hong Son province is over 123,000, with the highest national hill tribe ratio of 50 % (Table 1-1), while Thai citizenship figures have reached 73 % in 1996. Hill tribes have a higher growth rate than Thais (3 % compared to 1.5 % for Thais) and due to the ongoing Burmese-Shan civil war there is in-migration (rerkasem and rerkasem 1994,6). Nevertheless, they still amount to only 1.6 % of Thailand‘s population that has also grown rapidly over the last 40 years to nearly 62 million. The north still has a relatively low population density of 71.3, while Mae Hong Son continues to have the lowest national population density with 18.3 people/km2 and hosts 13 % of Thailand‘s hill tribes.

Photo 1-2: Karen women cooking

Photo 1-3: Hmong flute player

Table 1-1: Population growth over 40 years in Thailand and Mae Hong Son


Population of Thailand

Mae Hong Son Population

Total (million)

Density (people/km2)

Hill Tribes (thousand)

Proportion Hill Tribes (%)

Total (thousand)

Hill Tribes (thousand)







No record






















Area of Thailand 513,115 km2

Mae Hong Son hosts 13 % of Thailand‘s hill tribes

a Data from Kunstadter et al. (1978,27) and Young (1962,5); b Data from Rerkasem and Rerkasem (1994,6); c Data from ADB (2000,6).


1.2.3 Vegetation and land use

Northern Thailand‘s endemic vegetation consists of tropical evergreen and deciduous forests, further subdivided by altitude and species composition (Anderson 1993,39):

Tropical Evergreen Forests

Deciduous Forests

Thailand has experienced a drastic disappearance of forest cover (tree canopy density greater than 10 %). It is estimated that at the turn of the century 75 % of the land was forested (McKinnon 1997,118), decreasing to 60 % in 1938 and 53 % in 1961 (rfd 1993,9). The decline further continued to 26 % in 1991 and pessimistic figures place it as low as 15 % (maxwell 1997), or 12 % in terms of closed forests (tree canopy density greater than 40 %; unep 2001,6). The north fared comparatively better with a forest cover decrease from 68 % in 1962 to 43 % in 1998 (Table 1-2). The main reasons for deforestation since 1960 have been, first the conversion of forest for agriculture, followed by national security strategies encouraging forest clearance for economic growth in the 1970s, and to a certain extent hill tribe farmers in the forest (suraswadi et al. 2000,4). The forest figures for Mae Hong Son province (area 12,681 km2) show a rather stable situation with 74 % forest cover in 1985, which declined to 69 % in 1998 (rfd 1999).

Table 1-2: Evolution of forest cover decrease in northern Thailand

Area of northern Thailand: 169,644 km2. Forest cover area (km2)

Mae Hong Son

Forest type









Tropical evergreen









Mixed deciduous









Dry dipterocarp













































a Data from Rerkasem and Rerkasem (1994,12); b Data from RFD (1999,website)


The forest farming systems in the highlands were based on shifting cultivation, whereby families cleared and burned a part of the forest for cultivation. It was practised by both lowland Thais as well as hill tribes in different forms (rerkasem 1998,2). Rice has always been the major crop, supplemented more recently by various cash crops like vegetables, fruit trees, cotton, maize, beans, manioc, sorghum, taro, chillies and herbs, as well as poppy and extensive livestock production. Wherever possible, wetland rice cultivation supplemented the production of lower yielding upland rice (Photo 1-4). The annual cycle of cultivation was similar for all systems, starting in February with the cutting of swiddens and forest burning, planting in May-June, and regular weeding till harvesting in October-November.

Photo 1-4: Wherever possible, paddy fields are established in Mae Hong Son

There was a great variety of land use systems among ethnic groups, and the types of forest farming have been classified on the relationship between cultivation and fallow periods, with historically three types of swidden cultivation (kunstadter et al. 1978,7):


Photo 1-5: Burning of swidden fields by Karen in Mae Hong Son

Photo 1-6: Emergence of highland rice on Karen swidden fields


As a general picture, mountain settlement in Thailand has been a combination of ethnicity, altitude and vegetation represented in a transect (Figure 1-2).

Figure 1-2: Mountain settlement transect (after kunstadter et al. 1978,8)


A comparison between rotational and pioneer swiddening reveals the differences with regards to soil cultivation and forest fallow (Table 1-3). Recent studies have found that pioneer shifting cultivation has now largely disappeared, but rotational shifting agriculture can still be found in areas of relatively low population density. Areas under pioneer shifting cultivation have experienced forced resettlement or “voluntary village relocation“ to lower lying areas by the government in the name of national security (1960s) and forest conservation (1970s), accompanied by a strong discouragement of traditional farming (rerkasem 1998,4). Pioneer swiddening was thus replaced by very short rotations with one- or two-year fallows (ganjanapan 1998,75), so nowadays their systems resemble that of the traditional northern Thais. In consequence, the middle zone (600-1,500 m altitude), mainly inhabited by Karen, experienced a rapid population increase as a result of this migratory flow as well as Thais from the lowlands. It has become very difficult to maintain traditional Karen rotational systems with long fallows, and with the inflow of people from all areas the competition for land has become so intense, that it was dubbed the “Middle Zone Crisis“ (tan-kim-yong 1993,73).

Table 1-3: Traditional pioneer and rotational swiddening (after rerkasem 1998)

Pioneer Swiddening

Rotational Swiddening

Altitude 800-2,000 m, limestone soils and practiced by Hmong, Yao, Akha, Lahu, Lisu.

Altitude 700-1,600 m, red clay or lateritic soils and practiced by Karen as well as Lua.

After burning, a field is cultivated for 4-5 years till declining soil fertility or too much secondary growth. Farmers move on to look for new areas and grass fields are abandoned.

After burning, an area is cultivated for 1 year only and left to fallow for 6-15 years to rejuvenate before farmers return, a cyclical pattern ensuring rich biodiversity.

Trees are cut and uprooted, deep hoe cultivation and clean weeding, tree regrowth not possible and fields covered by Imperata.

Trees are cut at breast height, but not uprooted, to allow regrowth, mulching, fodder and seed production, there is no hoeing.

Rice only is grown in the rainy season followed by opium, crop rotation.

Mixed cropping of rice with vegetables and cash crops, but no opium cultivation.

Very scattered fields, when abandoning an area the whole village moves to new place.

Joint cultivation of larger field clusters and permanent settlement in an area.

1.3 The controversy over land degradation

“Nomadic hill tribes practise shifting cultivation by reckless clearing of forests“ (banijbatana 1962,5; Deputy Director General of the Royal Forest Department).

Towards the late 1960s considerable concern began to be expressed about the impact of economic growth on the environment and the degradation of natural resources. A landmark in this context was the report “The Limits of Growth“ produced by the group of mainly western scientists called the Club of Rome. This concern has led to the First United Nations Conference on the Environment (UNCED 1) in Stockholm in 1972, and twenty years later to UNCED 2 in Brazil, where the document Agenda 21 was formulated as an action plan for human development in relation to the environment (UNCSD1997). In this context there emerged a continuous debate on resource degradation, where degradation is defined as “a process leading away from an optimum“. Land degradation includes land loss to non-agricultural uses (urbanisation), desertification and soil degradation, and is caused by erosion, salinisation, burning, pollution and deforestation. Critical voices on the other hand claim that degradation is a term that has been formulated as a theory for the Himalayas to explain accelerating deforestation and soil erosion that eventually lead to ecological collapse. The extent to which such claims are supported by facts remains controversial, to the point that policy objectives might be supported by “what one wants the facts to be“ (forsyth 1996,376), thus requiring more scientific proof for justification. This criticism implies that little effort has been made to formulate objective indicators to measure degradation and that the few existing


ones ignore the awareness of local people, based on which they develop strategies to cope with problems.

In northern Thailand rapid changes in land use were a complex matter driven by internal forces like population increases as well as commercial agriculture with increased productivity, and external forces related to government policy such as nationalisation, enforcement of forest and watershed conservation, suppression of opium production, and improved infrastructure. These had impacts on traditional land use like diversification and spatial distribution, to the point that shifting cultivation in northern Thailand is nowadays characterised as “degraded“ (sombatpanit et al. 1993,310; suwannarat 1996,46; renaud et al. 1998,345; Schmidt-vogt 1998,135). Land degradation is a somewhat unclear term in Thailand and needs to be examined from various perspectives of land use.

The two main criticisms hill tribes are exposed to refer to their swiddening systems, said to cause deforestation and erosion mainly due to rapid population increase, yet there have only been few scientific studies carried out to verify that claim. It is therefore important to note that a correlation between forest loss and population does not support that (rerkasem and rerkasem 1994,33; ganjanapan 1998,75). In one of the few surveys, it was shown that for the years 1982-1989 the loss of forest cover correlates more strongly with annual population increases of lowland population (R2 = 0.83) than with the size of hill tribe population in 1986 (R2 = 0.37) or 1993 (R2 = 0.51), or with annual hill tribe population increases (R2 = 0.65) over the same 13 years (rerkasem 1994,13). Hence attempts to save the forest cover that focus only on hill tribes and their agricultural practices are doomed to fail, since most of the damage comes from other sources.

In relation to forestry, degradation either occurs by disturbance like selective felling, burning or grazing without destroying the forest, or the emergence of secondary vegetation as a result of forest destruction (Schmidt-vogt 1998,136). Therefore an assessment of shifting cultivation needs to include ecological, geoecological and economic functions in order to give justice to the complexity.

Ecological functions refer to species loss and reduction of structural complexity. Secondary forests have greater species diversity than mature stands, though they have a lower stand structure, but are denser than natural forests (SCHMIDT-VOGT 1998,145). Pioneer swiddening causes the slowest forest regrowth, with the lowest amount of trees, crown cover and tree height. Rotational swiddening (by Karen) allows fast tree regeneration, creates biodiversity, high crown cover and tree height. A rare positive statement from a forest official on rotational swiddening admitted (Kanjunt 1995,30):

“This system does not contribute to further deforestation in Thailand“.

Geoecological functions refer to a reduced capacity to regulate hydrological processes, microclimate and denudation. As far as water is concerned, an analysis of the stream flow has shown that land use practices in the highlands have not altered hydrological regimes or have contributed to an increase in sediment load of rivers since the 1950s (alford 1992,267; enters 1992,178). The mountain catchments have a very low “runoff efficiency“ of 20 % (i.e. water leaving a basin as surface runoff), so that catchments in northern Thailand are among the most arid on earth. This is possibly due to high evaporation or human land use like irrigation in the lowlands, but has not been confirmed.

As for sediment flow, northern Thailand also has one of the lowest worldwide with an average of 100 t/km2. Erosion is a very hot topic in Thailand, with figures ranging from slight erosion of 5 t/ha/year (turkelboom et al. 1996,27) to severe erosion of 300 t/ha/year (seetisarn 1996,28) in the highlands, though more accurate figures showing moderate erosion of 28-64 t/ha/year were obtained using Cesium-137 (forsyth 1994,229). There is a widespread awareness of erosion among hill tribes and generally the most important problem of land shortage results in an increased frequency of farming on flat slopes instead of steep slopes (durno 1996,6). Declining soil fertility is thus more the result of over cultivation than nutrient removal by erosion (salzer 1993,225). It has to be added that erosion is a very site-specific


problem and it is rarely possible to directly link erosion and soil fertility (van keer et al. 1998,72).

Economic functions are assessed in terms of loss of economically useful species and sizes. Swiddening (particularly rotational) increases species diversity, and the proportion of plants used for specific purposes varies with successional stages (Photo 1-7). In early stages herbs and grasses are found, later food products like fruits and bamboo, and eventually firewood and timber trees. In swidden systems there is a large number of useful species and most trees are multipurpose trees (Anderson 1993,83).

Photo 1-7: Regenerating forest fallow after 1 year (Karen swidden)

An intensification of swiddening leads to the replacement of forests by grasslands and bamboo groves, as well as to retarded development of species poor secondary forests. A policy of replacing swidden cultivation by permanent farming is only possible with high fertiliser inputs and pesticides, cash crops and good management (enters 1992,167). If cash crops are widely spaced, they become more conducive to soil erosion than rice. Reforestation in Thailand is usually done with a limited number of species and produces inferior forests (Schmidt-vogt 1998,148). The issue of degradation has even prompted an international workshop on the rehabilitation of degraded forests with a focus on policy in November 1999, at which participatory land use planning and the roles of communities in forest management were highlighted as the main unresolved issues (Gilmour 1999,9).

The above discussion shows that land degradation has become a more clearly defined issue over time, moving beyond deforestation and erosion due to population growth as the only parameters. Yet while the understanding has broadened to also consider ecological, geoecological and economic factors, there are to date no universal guidelines with indicators to assess land degradation. As this proof is lacking, one is forced to accept that swiddening does not necessarily cause degradation, even with increasing population densities, and it would thus be important to include logging as a main contributing factor. If one examines the governments‘ efforts to eliminate shifting cultivation, describing it as something destructive, then


perhaps there is no need for scientific proof, as it would not be accepted by policy makers anyway. What is clear is that all extension initiatives by the Department of Agricultural Extension (DOAE) or the Department of Land Development (DLD) do not include shifting cultivation as a viable option, not even in intermediate forms in transition towards permanent farming. Policy is complemented by the regional Alternatives to Slash and Burn (ASB) initiative of the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), yet with a variety of intermediate steps towards permanent agriculture. The debate may thus one day cease altogether once shifting agriculture becomes a system of the past, as it is already rapidly declining in extent.

1.4 The Thai-German Highland Development Programme

With the onset of highland development in the late 1970s, northern Thailand was divided into spheres of influence of donor-assisted development projects, coordinated by the specially set up Thai Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB). This shows the emphasis at the time on drug control, and although other government departments were later included as implementing agencies, ONCB remained the main line agency right till most project were phased out by 1998 (dirksen 1997,333). The Thai-German Highland Development Programme (TG-HDP) was the longest running Regional Rural Development Project (1981-1998), with a multisectoral approach that included:

The original project concept of the TG-HDP in 1981 stated that:

“The goal of the Thai-German Highland Development Programme is to devise and implement a strategy to solve, as far as possible, the socio- economic and ecological problems of the three project sites in the northern hills of Thailand...“

This was subsequently modified for its final phase (1995-98) to:

“The quality of life of the highland population is improved, the drug abuse problems are reduced and the ecological balance is maintained better“ (anonymous 1998,vol.1,4).

Shifting cultivation was to be replaced with “stable agriculture“ (though “stable“ is a term that was not defined), consisting of cash crops, the conservation of natural resources and the improvement of social services by means of a multidisciplinary work approach. The three project sites of the TG-HDP were (Figure 1-3):


Figure 1-3: TG-HDP project areas in northern Thailand

Like the entire TG-HDP project, the agricultural/forestry component can roughly be categorised into three phases that resemble a trial and error approach in the search for a solution to a complex situation: Crop Substitution or Replacement, Soil and Water Conservation (SWC), and Community based Land use planning and local watershed Management (CLM) as summarised below (anonymous 1998,vol.1,23).

1.4.1 Crop Replacement (1984-1987)

Following in the footsteps of other projects like the Royal Project (since 1969), the Thai-Australia Highland Agricultural and Social Development Project (TA-HASD, 1980-1993) and CARE Mae Chaem (1983-1994), the first approach employed by the TG-HDP in the agricultural sector was “crop replacement“ of opium poppy by alternative cash crops such as coffee, passion fruit, red kidney bean and tomatoes. This phase was dominated by the perception that hill tribe shifting cultivation was in “a vicious circle par excellence“ (salzer 1987,5) that required an immediate remedy. New crops were introduced via researcher managed demonstration plots, the provision of seeds/seedlings and training given in cultivation techniques. Extension was carried out by government employed field workers. The impact was moderate, as farmers were concerned about maintaining the yields of subsistence crops and, more important, the issue of marketing sustainability had not been sufficiently considered. At first new cash crops were successful, but as the supply increased the prices dropped, and lowland Thais began cultivating the same crops concurrently on lower lying areas with more input facilities and less erosion as well as irrigation constraints, thus outclassing the marginalized hill tribes. This somewhat simplistic approach did not consider the agricultural and marketing complexities prevalent in the highland areas, let alone the indigenous knowledge that had led to the swidden cultivation systems. As this approach proved unsuccessful, the next phase of subsidised soil and water conservation as an alternative package started.


1.4.2 Soil and Water Conservation (1987-1990)

Extension of a Soil and Water Conservation (SWC) package was a means to achieve semi-permanent production from sloping land. Vegetative strips, legume rotation, reduced burning, mulching etc. were the main technical elements demonstrated and extended with project provision of incentives in cash and kind (seeds, seedlings, fertiliser) for both field workers and farmers (anonymous 1998,vol.1,18). The approach was summarised in a Highland Agricultural Extension Handbook, with a complementary socio-economic component of Modern Thai Highland Communities. There was rapid adoption of soil and water conservation initially, which dropped off markedly once the subsidies were discontinued. Assessments of the lack of adoption first concentrated on purely economic cost-benefit analysis, which showed that SWC had little economic benefits to farmers (renaud 1997,17), while a more detailed study revealed the limits to economic evaluations and called for the consideration of other factors (enters 1992). The SWC package generated so-called “token lines“ of alley cropping near villages ready for display to government officials who promoted them (enters 1996,423), while elsewhere they were stopped. Similar results in other projects led to more farmer inclusion in extension work (turkelboom et al. 1996; sombatpanit et al. 1993). A very counterproductive method was a shift from positive incentives to negative ones like the threat of resettlement and the confiscation of identity cards by officials (enters 1996,419).

1.4.3 SFS and CLM (1990-1998)

At the end of the SWC phase, adoption rates dropped from 300 (1987-90) to 35 improved plots (1991-92), while in the same period 61 and 75 farmers cancelled SWC respectively (anonymous 1998,vol.1,19), clearly showing that it was not suitable to local conditions. As a recognition for the need to modify the SWC package, combined with possible resettlement of highlanders by the government, the longest phase of TG-HDP assistance was based more on traditional practices of ethnic groups (enters 1991,26). First a concept of Sustainable Farming Systems (SFS) was introduced in 1990 with optional SWC measures, perennial and annual cash crops, livestock production and small-scale irrigation, thus evolving from a package to a basket of options. A subsequent impact survey stressed the urgent need for more interaction between extension workers and villagers (bourne 1992,50). The SFS approach was much more suited to the needs of gradual agricultural diversification and the integration of local technologies (Photo 1-8).

Photo 1-8: Hillside pond for irrigation built by the interpreter on his field


By 1989 the positive effects of the UN-Sam Muen Highland Development Project (SMDP, duration 1987-1994) with its Participatory Land Use Planning (PLP) approach (tan-kim-yong 1993) were exerting their influences on the TG-HDP, and the readiness for a similar approach was assessed in 1989 as:

“Watershed management strategies must be built on highland farmers‘ existing motivations for sustaining their highland environments through increasing the value, renewability, security, manageability and equity of resources“ (mohns 1989,42).

Perhaps the fact that the SMDP had RFD as its counterpart agency (the only donor assisted project to do so) was sufficient encouragement to think that controversial forest policies were shifting towards participatory conflict resolution. Thus the SFS approach was expanded to include a shift towards the conservation of natural resources with the aim of full participation of the hill tribe communities through a concept of "Community based land use planning and local watershed management" (CLM), initiated in 3 villages in 1990 and which has spread to 30 villages in Mae Hong Son province. The aim was an improved sustainable use of land, water and forests, a rehabilitation of watershed catchment areas and an intensified agricultural production on suitable land. Three-dimensional topographic models became the key visualisation tool, to demarcate highland areas under shifting cultivation, permanent farming, community forest areas and conservation/watershed forest areas for protection (Photo 1-9). The TG-HDP defined the main objective in its CLM guidelines as (BORSY and v:ECKERT, 1995,3):

„The CLM approach should be seen as integrated in the whole process of development, with the focus on people organisation and self-reliance. Sustainability can only be achieved by the land user, and a project, government organisation or implementing agency can only facilitate the process.“

Photo 1-9: TAO Secretary of Tham Lod shows land use to visiting village leaders

The TG-HDP has concentrated the CLM approach in Pang Ma Pha district, and in Huai Poo Ling sub-district (Tambon). Furthermore, “Outer User Boundaries“ were demarcated beyond which no activities are permitted, and these in turn were meant to be used as village boundaries when the village is officially registered with the Department of Local Administration (DOLA). By mapping the areas on land use maps


to a scale of 1:8,000 and displaying this information on three-dimensional land use models made of cardboard or styrofoam, it was possible to measure areas and display land use to outsiders at the same time (Box 1-1 and 1-2). This could then be used as a basis for discussion to increase the size of conservation areas and demonstrate to government authorities that villagers can manage and protect forests themselves. The whole participatory planning approach was meant to operate via Land Use Planning Teams (LUPT) from various implementing agencies as a holistic, though slightly idealised, process (v. Eckert 1993,26).

Box 1-1: Steps in land use planning (anonymous 1998,vol.1,30)

Preparation of base maps from ONCB 1:8,000 aerial photos.

Land capability classification maps prepared mainly on the basis of slope steepness and soil conditions. Capability classes:

  1. Annual cropping: < 35 % slope, > 30cm soil depth
  2. Perennial cropping: < 60 % slope, > 15cm soil depth
  3. Unsuitable for permanent cropping: > 60 % slope or shallow soils
  4. Remnant natural forest
  5. Susceptible areas: landslides, gullies, stream banks etc.

Provision of arable land for permanent cultivation and off-farm resources (pasture, forest areas).

Identification of future access roads.

Box 1-2: Steps in CLM implementation (anonymous 1998,vol.1,31)

Monitor present land use; enter land use onto topographic model and later onto baseline map.

Identify problems and conflicts; villager discussions resulting in indications which land is suitable/unsuitable for different uses.

Planning of land use changes and local watershed management measures; based on the optimisation of land use facilitated by government officials.

Implementation of local watershed management measures; a community self-help activity with minimum assistance from government agencies.

Identification of an “outer-user-boundary“; delineation of an area most suitable and needed for the villagers‘ permanent use.

Reviews of the CLM approach in 1993 (v. Eckert), 1995 (borsy and v. Eckert) and 1998 (anonymous) pointed out problems of farmers‘ adoption of the approach and difficulties encountered by the planning teams. Villagers were seeking to achieve lands use rights, opposed the outer user boundary and felt that insufficient attention was paid to their priorities, while the participatory approach was hindered by top-down attitudes of officials and the absence of forestry officials at planning meetings. This was attributed to the inappropriate watershed classification coupled with insecurity of land use rights and perceived as not conducive to planning team - community interaction (anonymous 1998,vol.1,33). An additional factor weakening participatory land use planning was the government policy of village relocation out of protected forest areas, and the TG-HDP formulated a warning of its consequences (anonymous 1994). Nevertheless, the inhibiting effects of a controversial policy framework were not taken seriously enough and not clearly identified as the main stumbling block to the operation of the Land Use Planning Teams, perhaps out of diplomacy so as not to offend government agencies.


The TG-HDP then moved away from land use planning based on land capability and watershed classification to what it called “Area Approaches“, in response to controversial village boundaries and conflicts over land allocation. Problems with forestry officials were acknowledged and a direct access to the target group was favoured (Box 1-3). In the final phase (1995-1998), the TG-HDP focused on the aggregation of land use data at Tambon level and on the support of the Pang Ma Pha Hill Tribe Network Organisation, which emerged from attempts to resolve conflicts between three neighbouring villages over the collection and sale of forest products in 1996 (jantakad 1998,vol.2,54).

Box 1-3: Factors leading to CLM “area approaches“ (anonymous 1998,vol.1,21)

Permanent village settlement had led to the need for recognition of community land boundaries.

Increasing conflicts between neighbouring communities on land allocation recognition and use.

Conflicts between villagers and the Royal Forest Department (RFD) over definitions of forest and agricultural areas.

The need to consider linking production and conservation, particularly in mini- or micro-watershed areas.

Increased recognition of indigenous resource management systems, such as those practiced by the Karen or Lua ethnic groups.

Increasing use of participatory working approaches.

The final assessment of the CLM approach stated (jantakad and Carson 1998,8):

The experiences of the TG-HDP have shown that a land use planning approach based on land capability in combination with hill tribe priorities, in spite of the absence of a clear legal framework, can be successful to a certain extent, yet unresolved policy issues will endure beyond the lifetime of a project. The situation may be compared to the effects of a “Project Model“ (van dam 2000,13), whereby a project usually responds to a particular way of looking at reality and knowledge that is often perceived differently by the target group it is working with. Reality often only exists as long as it relates to the project, with little flexibility to readjust objectives according to external changes, such as an attempted watershed management without modifying the main counterpart agency to include other organisations besides the ONCB with its focus on drug control. The same can be said about local counterpart organisations in relation to forestry. Trees are often seen as isolated from the rest of nature and farming systems, so that a holistic view of trees as part of a larger livelihood system is missing. Project periods are fixed and are imposed on communities that have little to do with their notion of time. As important as participatory methods may be, they are also part of a larger power relationship between different actors, and in this context national policies will prevail over well-intended project interventions.


1.5 Problem situation and thesis structure

1.5.1 Stakeholders and development priorities

The controversies over the negative environmental impacts of shifting cultivation reflect the different perceptions of hill tribes (as the primary stakeholders) and government agencies with mandates to administer the highlands. As for hill tribe priorities, it is useful to look at the main problems in TG-HDP project areas (anonymous, 1998,vol.1,51):

Another project examined the importance of erosion in relation to other farming problems, and weeds as well as insects were mentioned as more urgent problems than erosion, though soil conservation is practised if perceived as a threat to livelihood (turkelboom et al. 1996,77). In other areas, measures to avoid erosion included an increased frequency of cultivation of flatter slopes rather than steep slopes (forsyth 1996,385; durno 1996,6). This means that hill tribes are first looking for food sufficiency and land security to meet their subsistence needs as well as village registration in order to gain access to government support, prior to modifying their traditional farming systems.

On the government side, after an initial focus on opium suppression from the 1970s to the 1990s, three divergent policies regarding forest settlement and farming have evolved:

The large number of donor-supported projects had at least some influence on policies. These include the First Master Plan for Highland Development and Narcotic Crops Control (1992-1996), as well as a Second one (1997-2001), a Thai Forestry Sector Master Plan (RFD 1993) that was never implemented due to a lack of participation of key stakeholders (Jantakad and Gilmour 1999,98), a Community Forestry Act debated since 1991 (though not yet passed by Parliament), and the Tambon Administrative Organisation Act in 1995 (Nelson 2000,5). A step forward in the resolution of forest settlement were the cabinet resolutions of 19, 22 and 29 April 1997, which allowed villagers who had been living in forests prior to 1993 to remain there on the condition that they take part in forest conservation (EKACHAI 1998,11). These three resolutions suddenly created an openness, in that hill tribe villagers revealed their extent of land use in the renewed hope for land security, while forestry officials became more open towards community forestry as their protective mandate was softened. Unfortunately, policy decisions are short-lived in


unstable political conditions, and on 30 June 1998 the three resolutions were cancelled (JANCHITFAH and CHINVARAKORN 1998,2). On the positive side, the current national five-year plan encourages participation (NESDB 1997,109):

“Local people and community organisations should be urged to play an increasingly active role in the management of natural resources and the environment.“

The application of the plan reveals gaps between national policy targets and criteria for implementation at local level, particularly for forest protection and settlement. There are national reforestation targets, but these have not been defined at district or sub-district level, nor is there a process for their implementation. This also extends to the agricultural classification of highland villages in the sense that the communities themselves are not involved. To help deal with such confusing and inequitable treatment, hill tribes have often sought support for their issues from the wide range of foreign-funded highland development programmes - which peaked with a total of 168 organisations, supported by 49 international donors (ganjanapan 1997,205). The resulting situation for hill tribes resembles a struggle for a “Land Deal“, in the sense that they have to gradually reduce the forest areas for periodic cultivation to shorter fallow periods on lesser numbers of fields. Parallel to this they have begun to adopt agroforestry systems and plant cash crops to meet their livelihood needs. In exchange, such modifications are tolerated or officially recognised by government agencies up to the point of permanent settlement, and the government provides extension support for general infrastructure. This situation is highly volatile and subject to change depending on who is in power, so that farmers still have no security on which to base their land use decisions.

The problem complex has thus evolved from the mere application of forest protection laws and planning for agricultural intensification to a multidimensional one calling for mediation and conflict resolution to overcome two sets of congruent dichotomies:

  1. Forest protection and agricultural sustainability
  2. Centralised policy definition and local implementation

The highlands of northern Thailand are therefore a prime example for a contradictory situation arising when a centralised government system with conflicting interests of forest preservation and social integration of ethnic minorities extends its control to the remote areas, where traditional shifting cultivation practices clash with centralised planning. The range of issues indicates that forest degradation and natural resource management in Thailand are complex and highly political, particularly when focussing on the highlands. In order to simplify and stratify the problem analysis, it may be helpful to differentiate the interlinked problematic issues into distinct problem categories as suggested by NAGEL and FIEGE (1998,11) in their concept of Action and Development oriented Research (ADR):

  1. “The problem at target-group level (societal problem);
  2. The problem of an organisation, e.g. a development project at whose instigation the study is being carried through (organisation-related problem);
  3. The information problem (i.e. the information deficit, - this may also be a methodological deficit), which is to be solved by means of the field project (knowledge problem).“

The above dichotomies may further be subdivided into problem complexes that can apply to more than one problem level. The assignment to problem levels in brackets is purely based on the author‘s perception and is not a universal classification:

1.5.2 Structure of this thesis

With a consideration for the multitude and intensity of development initiatives that taken place in northern Thailand, this thesis applies land use planning theory at communal level with the TG-HDP as a case study. The rapidly changing farming systems of the hill tribes are linked with the policy environment in order to assess their impact on the participatory CLM approach and to identify remaining key controversial issues to be overcome under the current process of decentralisation. The following structure was therefore selected:

Chapter 1 is an overview of the complex livelihood systems in the highlands, a description of the TG-HDP and the identification of main problem areas.

Chapter 2 is a review of land use planning theory and tools in general, with possible applications to the highlands of Thailand.

Chapter 3 presents the research framework and gives an overview of the research methodology for this specific case.

Chapter 4 summarises the changing policy framework and institutional setting.

Chapter 5 presents planning results for individual villages, but also assesses informal and formal developments at higher level like the Hill Tribe Network and Tambon (sub-district) for planning.

Chapter 6 analyses remaining key planning issues at village and sub-district level and reviews the methods employed, followed by a proposed planning approach.

Chapter 7 draws conclusions of the research.

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