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Community agency and democratic resource conservation: Case of Baan Thung Yao forest community in Thailand

Top-down management of forest areas exacerbates social injustice and conflicts over resources. Prioritizing stronger local community participation and gender-equal decision-making can ensure ecological and human dignity in resource conservation.

Pimolporn Jintarith, Jenny Yi-Chen Han, Camille Pross / Published on 28 January 2022

Across the world, state-led conservation efforts commonly fall under “fortress conservation” approaches, which enforce the idea of humans as threats to nature. This approach is rooted in settler-colonial ideologies, justifying the enclosure of nature to protect resources from human activities, including from local communities who have historical and cultural bounds with their environment.

Such approaches not only overlook the empirical knowledge of their environmental resources that these communities possess, but also limit local access to resources via evictions and zoning that threatens Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty over their ancestral territories.

A critical question is how alternatives to “fortress conservation” can understand ecological preservation and local communities’ livelihoods, resource rights and dignity as two sides of the same coin. A decolonialized approach to conservation recognizes the colonial dynamics embedded in conservation projects, including the underlying power structures that drive conservation efforts and knowledge, and calls for a rethinking of ecological protection as a community-based outcome, rather than an exogenous intervention.

SEI Asia researchers under the Gender, Equality, Social Equity and Poverty (GESEP) Initiative are working to better understand dominant and alternative models of conservation, as well as their outcomes in terms of gender and socio-environmental justice in Thailand. Three case studies are being undertaken: the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex, home to the ethnic Karen community, which has recently been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site amidst controversy, Mo Koh Surin National Park, home to the Moken Indigenous People, whose lifestyles have been considerably altered by national park rules, and the Baan Thung Yao Community in Lamphun Province, Northern Thailand.

In this piece, we highlight the case of Baan Thung Yao as a model for best practices in community-led and gender-equal forest conservation. As opposed to the fortress conservation models of the Mu Koh Surin National Park and Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex, the case of Baan Thung Yao has demonstrated strong community participation in forest protection and exhibits a promising case of gender equal decision-making structures.

Women’s roles in managing natural resources and preserving customary rights at Baan Thung Yao

Baan Thung Yao currently comprises of 286 households, with a total population of 1044 that manages 400 hectares of forest land. The lives of the Baan Thung Yao community are strongly interlinked with their natural surroundings, where they are dependent on both timber and non-timber forest products for their livelihoods. The community called these Kong Na Moo or “common resources”.

Unlike many other community-based natural resources management systems across Southeast Asia, Baan Thung Yao emphasizes women’s roles and participation in natural resources management. The local women’s group takes part in all decision-making processes and can meaningfully influence community regulations for natural resource management. Women are also the main managers of the community’s finances through the local savings group, community bank and village fund.

Raweewan Kanchaisak, a senior committee member and former head of the Baan Thung Yao women’s group, stressed the importance of equal participation of women in decision-making.

“During village meetings, there is a need to have both men and women committees,” she said. “If women can’t make it, the meeting will be cancelled since we all need to discuss and find solutions together.”

In the 1980s, the Thai state attempted to take over local conservation efforts by establishing a forest park in Baan Thung Yao. Initially, the men in the community were reluctant to oppose this decision since they had developed relations with local decision makers and were worried about losing these connections. However, the women in the community, who had better knowledge of the actual socio-economic benefits from the forest due to their roles in natural resource management, noticed that the compensation offered by the state was largely insufficient to make up for the loss of their customary rights, livelihoods and lifestyles that would occur if the forest park went ahead. The women convinced the community to oppose this decision and went on a protest led by Mae Pakee, the head of the women’s group at that time. Faced with strong local resistance, Thailand’s Royal Forestry Department canceled the announcement of the Thung Yao Community Forest Park in 1989.

“If the area became a forest park, the community would be completely banned from access to the forest,” said Subanan Wannasak, the head of Baan Thung Yao community. “We couldn’t even take a single leaf from a tree. And if we register as a ‘community forest’, we need to report every forest-related activity. This type of regulation is too homogenous and not practical.”

At the same period, protests in Baan Thung Yao gained larger public attention including from media, scholars and policymakers who recognized the merits of a locally-managed conservation approach. Building on this example, the Thai government launched a Community-Based Forest Act in order to both upscale and take control over such initiatives. While some members of the Baan Thung Yao community, including Mae Pakee, were involved in the drafting of the policy, they noted that their input was disregarded by the policymakers and they did not approve of the final version of the policy. As a result, Baan Thung Yao still strongly resists the officially registering of their community forest and instead continues the self-management of their natural resources.

Lessons from Baan Thung Yao

Several factors have contributed to the community’s success in resisting the state’s conservation approaches and retaining their rights to their land and sustainable management of resources under their customary rules.

  • Strategic co-management. While the Baan Thung Yao community forestry system gained interest from various groups in society offering their support, they always maintained their community legacy by deciding collectively who they want to engage with, and what kind of support they would want to receive from external actors. For instance, the Thai NGO Committee on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development has been a long-time partner of the community, but operated as an advisor, supporting the community in protecting their identity and customary rights of natural resource management. This allowed the community to take full ownership and responsibility, be independent and adaptive to policy and project implementations. The community learned to integrate their customs, traditional knowledge, and viable regulations of their local context with any external support they received.
  • Community governance. Democracy and participatory approaches are the principles underlying community management. Each community member is responsible to attend village meetings and comply with the community rules. The rules could be amended over time when there is the need to adapt with changes in context under the vote of the community members.
  • Representation and meaningful participation of women. Within the community, the use of natural resources remain gendered, with women being responsible for food security and collecting non-timber forest products while men are involved in more physical tasks. However, women are the main manager of the communities’ financial resources and their knowledge and experience with the forest ecosystem and its benefits are recognized by the community. This contributes to making women’s participation mandatory in community meetings and in establishing community rules. Their power of influence has further been demonstrated as they successfully led the community to overturn the state’s decision to convert Baan Thung Yao into a forest park.

In contrast with Kaeng Krachan Forest Park and Mo Ko Surin National Marin Park, strong local institutions have allowed the Baan Thung Yao community to protect themselves against state intervention in local conservation efforts. Interestingly, the system established by Baan Thung Yao also reflects aspects of a fortress conservation approach, with strict rules for when, where and what forest resources can be taken and by whom, as well as repercussions for those who do not follow these rules. However, a key difference is the existence of a local democratic process of establishing these rules, which are based on local aspirations and their own knowledge of how resources should be protected. This self-determination is crucial towards protecting both ecological systems and human dignity.

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