June 28, 2018 / 12:52 PM / in 5 months

Thai campaigners urge change to forest law after indigenous verdict

BANGKOK, June 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Campaigners are calling on Thai authorities to amend a law they say violates the rights of indigenous people, after the country’s top court ruled that a group of Karen evicted from a national park had no legal right over the land.

It is the latest case of indigenous people being evicted from land they consider theirs by birthright, with the rush to develop - or protect green space - leading to clashes worldwide over who owns land when deeds are unclear.

Authorities had removed nearly 400 Karen from the Kaeng Krachan National Park, saying they were encroachers. When some returned, officials burned down their shelters.

Six of the Karen people - led by their spiritual leader, who is said to be 106 years old - filed suit in 2012, claiming compensation, and asserting their right to land they say belonged to their ancestors.

A lower court held that authorities had acted within the law, while ordering compensation of 10,000 baht ($302) to each of the plaintiffs. The Karen - a hill tribe people thought to number about 1 million in Thailand - appealed the verdict.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Administrative Court ordered the plaintiffs be paid 50,000 baht each, but held that they had no proof of ownership - and therefore no claim - of the land.

“We are disappointed,” said Surapong Kongchanthuk, head of the Karen Studies and Development Centre, who represented the Karen.

“They have lived there for generations, yet their right to their traditional land is not recognised,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As they cannot appeal the verdict, they will campaign for the government to follow a 2010 cabinet resolution to respect the culture and traditions of indigenous people, and allow them to live even in areas demarcated as national parks, he said.

LANDLESS

Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ lands cover more than half the global land mass, yet governments are not ensuring their rights and protections, according to Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.

From India to Indonesia, laws aimed at conserving forests are leading to evictions of indigenous people, activists say.

In Thailand, protests have erupted, as evictions from forests and farm land have risen to make way for mines, power plants and national parks.

Campaigners have long called for amending Thailand’s 1961 National Park Act in consultation with indigenous communities.

The Ministry of Culture in 2010 proposed a plan to protect the traditions of indigenous people.

But a “take back the forests” order passed by the military government in 2014 has led to more conflicts, activists say.

The National Human Rights Commission, a government agency, has suggested amending the National Park Act and designating areas for indigenous people within protected forests.

“The right to land must extend to indigenous people even though they may only have customary rights,” said Tuenjai Deetes, at the NHRC.

“They should not suffer for their way of life,” she said. (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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