'For the first time, there is legal recognition of the right of local communities to manage their forests, so this is significant'
By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK, Feb 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new community forest bill that aims to give Thai villagers more say in managing natural resources is too limited in its scope and risks further marginalising those living outside areas covered by the act, land campaigners said on Thursday.
The bill - which was first drafted more than 30 years ago - was approved by Thailand's National Legislative Assembly last week, according to forestry department officials, and is expected to become law within 180 days.
The bill defines community forests as those that sit outside conservation areas managed by the state, and allows villagers living in these forests to use and manage its resources after they have registered their communities with the government.
"For the first time, there is legal recognition of the right of local communities to manage their forests, so this is significant" said Warangkana Rattanarat, Thailand country director at the Centre for People and Forests (RECOFTC).
"But the bill limits community forests to those in reserved forests and not those in conservation areas such as national parks, so it does not benefit all forest-dependent communities," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Thailand has more than 12,000 community forests benefiting about 3 million indigenous and rural families, according to government data. Few have legal ownership of the land their ancestors lived in.
Forest-dependent communities have frequently clashed with authorities and are often charged with trespassing or evicted.
Land rights groups say evictions have risen since the military government passed a forest reclamation order in 2014, which authorities say is essential for conservation.
The new community forest bill will do little to protect hundreds of communities that live in conservation areas, said Prayong Doklamyai, director of land rights group Northern Development Foundation.
"These communities depend on the forests, but also help sustain them. The law should not disqualify or discriminate against them," he said.
Globally, indigenous and local communities own more than half of all land under customary rights. Yet they only have secure legal rights to 10 percent, according to Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.
In Thailand, large areas of land in the provinces have been designated as national forest reserves over the years, depriving many communities of their customary rights.
The new bill will allow communities to develop forest resources and encourage greater conservation efforts, said Warangkana at RECOFTC.
But because Thailand's forest department has control over utilisation of resources, the law may not promote stronger land tenure or significantly boost the incomes or food security of communities, she said.
"For the law to have real impact, the forest department needs to engage with the communities as equal partners."
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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