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

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Kapitel 7. Conclusions

The timing of this research project towards the end of the longest development project in northern Thailand is controversial, depending on the perspective for assessment. In terms of development, it was important to witness and document the changes beyond project duration, such as the Cabinet resolution of June 1998 revoking forest settlement rights and more locally, the confiscation of land by RFD officials, and the arrest of hill tribe farmers cultivating more than two upland areas by the Governor‘s office in Mae Hong Son. A petition by Tambon leaders to the Parliament in Bangkok for the recognition of their livelihoods as part of the Assembly of the Poor demonstrations, supported by Thai versions of digitised land use maps to show forest conservation efforts, failed to assuage the difficult and highly political situation. From the viewpoint of the TG-HDP, which expired before results were available, the research project should have been conducted three years earlier in order to integrate results into project work. Yet had the research been completed earlier, the impact of policy inconsistencies would not have been so clearly noticed and some aspects even completely overlooked. The breakdown of a seemingly established participatory land use planning approach like CLM also led to a reorientation towards the political situation and the realisation of the absence of a legal framework for planning. Given these conditions the question arises whether land use planning is a suitable tool to address the complex problem situation in the highlands.

The clearest conclusion that can be drawn from the research is that land use planning needs a political foundation upon which a participatory process can be built. Without such a foundation it is very difficult to carry out a participatory process, for top-down policies will overrule any proposed alternatives to land use, thus not reaching a point of a jointly agreed land use plan for implementation. In the examined cases, differing priorities could not be unified and compromises were difficult to reach, taking the form of tolerance by government agencies as long as a foreign funded project existed. Agricultural zonation was carried out based largely on village demarcations, yet without agreement from the Department of Land Development and the Royal Forest Department. Hence land use maps at village and Tambon level were only of limited use, as the land demarcations were not recognised by authorities. As long as this state of land insecurity persists, hill tribes will resort to strategies to keep enough land for agricultural production, like the declaration of up to twice the number of upland fields under cultivation, and the interplanting of hedgerows in fallow areas to indicate that the land is used. Such a situation is what led to the term of a struggle for a “Land Deal“ in the constant fear of land confiscation. Linked to this is the absence of government extension services to provide advice to villagers on improved crop management and the supply of seeds as well as fertiliser to raise mainly rice yields. From the point of view of the Karen and Lahu, this left them in a situation where extension support was provided as long as the TG-HDP operated in the area, and once the project closed, they not only had to resort to land securing strategies, but were also left alone in the management of new crops as well as soil and water conservation.

The relevance of land use maps and their digitised form can be questioned as well. Placing a village on a map has the advantage that it exists for outsiders, thereby creating a reality that is difficult to remove subsequently. Not only is the village placed on a map, but its land demarcation is also displayed and can be monitored, showing an effort to comply with the government‘s aim to ensure the existence of forest in every village. This leads to the issue of a fixation with forest cover to stay within the limits of what the government has declared, yet without further considerations around the management of a forest area and possible specific purposes. The incorporation of land use data into a GIS remains a largely extractive process in this context, but may also serve to show that hill tribes make an effort to plan their resource use. Yet the potential of a GIS goes far beyond land demarcation, as it extends to data on land capability, slope, crop requirements, soil quality and water availability. In the context of hill tribe villages that are only gradually integrated into Thai society, such factors could not be included for the present thesis. For the previously autonomous hill tribes, the whole idea of mapping and planning with outside agencies was new and requires time to get used to. The digitised maps produced during the field work will probably have little relevance for the target villages in the current planning process, as there are to date no agencies that will continue to work with this approach and update land demarcations, just like topographic models are unlikely to be updated. Yet the factor that was very relevant to villagers was the inclusion of boundaries by the Department of Local Administration (DOLA) at the time of village registration, for it exposed discrepancies graphically and created more transparency.


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Under the given circumstances, the research may seem to have been premature or not appropriate for the capacity of local agencies, for issues like land use map production and updating remain open for reasons of a lack of capacity and relevance under the current inhibiting policy situation. While this is true to a certain extent, it exposed some flaws and inconsistencies in the planning system and pointed to the agencies that would need to modify their approaches to rectify the situation. This means that tools for illustration and display of present as well as potential land use are not readily available to accompany written land use plans, should they be formulated. The current state of 1-year and 5-year plans at Tambon level cannot yet be described as land use plans, for they have the form of a list of requests for improvements like road construction, irrigation and public facilities, with proposed budget requirements. However, the recent restructuring of the Ministry of Agriculture, of which the proposed establishment of Technology Transfer Centres (TTC) at Tambon level are a part of, may provide an opportunity to expand the request lists to actual land use plans accompanied by respective maps for intervention areas. A lot depends on whether the past supply-driven attitude of line agencies can really change towards demand-driven approaches. When embracing a participatory approach, the institutional level that best creates a link between the state and society in Thailand is the Tambon or sub-district. Hence it will be at the Tambon that the viability of land use planning will be decided.

By first committing agencies to become a part of the Tambon Administrative Organisation (TAO), the key government actors would have to be brought to the negotiating table, an exercise that previously had failed. If the political will then extends to participatory planning, the achievements of the CLM approach may be recalled and digitised land use maps employed for planning at village and Tambon level. This is not an element of wishful thinking, but instead should be seen as a potential to address the situation, and the software as well as land use maps are accessible at the ICRAF office including the ArcView programme if it is required for further activities. The simple application of GIS in the context of this thesis could later be incorporated into extensive databases that could even extend to decision support systems should they be developed. This is still speculation and as yet far from reality, and policies first have to clearly define goals and implementation steps for a highland master plan that extends beyond village registration with boundaries, permanent settlement and Thai nationality to include natural resource management with emerging changes in mandate and governance. For the time being such a unified approach does not exist yet, but a stage of debate and expression of community rights has been reached in northern Thailand, including those of minority hill tribes, that the process of institutionalisation will continue as the country follows a path to democracy.

Overall it seems that the research has raised more questions instead of answering them, but perhaps this is what good research results in. The impact of framework conditions led to a redefinition of the proposed planning model, as it became very difficult to apply a universally defined land use planning approach of FAO, and the surveys were accompanied by questions like the direction natural resource management would take and for whom results would be useful. In this context the combination of a research project with a development programme was very positive in that it enlarged the scope of research to include political and practical realities of implementation. The breakdown of a defined approach with land use planning teams by the TG-HDP raised more doubts about the viability of a participatory approach. This is also the reason why the proposed approach was formulated carefully and should not be seen as a blueprint of how to go about it, for there are many more factors playing a role, including those that have nothing to do with land use planning, like the future and viability of Tambon Administrative Organisations themselves. Now that most highland development projects with foreign support have withdrawn from Thailand, the future of planning approaches will be shaped by local formal and informal institutions. The participation of hill tribes in this process will increasingly occur within the public debate of community rights over forest resources and the power struggle over the required Community Forestry Act. As hill tribes are more and more integrated into Thai society, their previously specific livelihood problems will merge into problems of resource scarcity and land security also faced by Thai marginalized farmers. The resolution of problems and sustainable land use planning will turn into a testing ground for the application of good governance at the local level.


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