On a Tuesday morning at 7:30 a.m., we boarded the CIEE van for our first community visit to the Baw Kaew protest village in Kon San district. Located two hours away from Khon Kaen University, the village was given an eviction notice for that day, August 27, for “trespassing” on a national forest reserve. However, the problem is much more complicated than it seems.
The villagers living in the Kon San district had originally occupied the land since 1953. However, in 1978 the Forest Industry Organization (FIO) designated 4,401 rai of land in the area to the Kon San Forest Project, a eucalyptus plantation. The FIO claimed that no one was living on the land since no one owned any land titles, although more than 100 families had been living and working on it. Thus, between 1978 and 1988, the FIO evicted more than 1,000 residents from their homes.
In 2002, the Land Reform Network of Thailand (LRNT) learned about the issue and informed the villagers about their violated rights. As a result, the villagers from nine communities in the Kon San district formed the Cern River Preservation Network (CRPN) in order to claim back the land they had lost to the FIO. After various protests and meetings with government committees that produced no result, on July 17, 2009, over 100 villagers illegally constructed and moved into a protest village in Kon San forest. This village came to be known as Baw Kaew.
In 2011, the authorities gave the Baw Kaew village an eviction notice. The villagers decided to fight back by marching to Bangkok and protesting for a month. They eventually met with the director of the FIO in Bangkok, and both parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding that the FIO would drop all charges.
However, one month ago the FIO posted a notice that they would enforce eviction of the Baw Kaew community. Thus, we eight Development and Globalization (DG) students and our two CIEE teachers, Ajan John and Ajan Tony, went to Baw Kaew to interview villagers and NGOs to learn more about the situation.
When we arrived at 9:30, we were one group among many journalists, student activists, and villagers from neighboring communities who all came to support Baw Kaew. We learned that the Minister of Natural Resources had visited the day before and postponed the eviction, but people were wary eviction would still occur. The authorities had to arrive by noon to legally evict the village, so we all waited in anticipation. Some older women folded strings to construct a pah kwan, or flower tray, used for a good luck ceremony. We sat on bamboo matts under a constructed wooden and steel frame covered with a tarp, listening to community members from all different villages tell us about the problems they were facing.
In one village, 14 people were just released from two months of prison for “trespassing” on national park property, even though they had always lived on the land. In other villages, rock query and gold mine companies took land from the villagers and polluted their environment and food supply. We learned that these mineral companies were supposed to hold public hearings open to everyone to get approval from the villagers to use their land, but many times they blocked the villagers from attending.
A lawyer with gray-streaked hair explained that many recent eviction issues are a result of the government’s Forest Master Plan to increase forest cover to 40% of Thailand. Since they are still lacking 25.5 million rai of land to hit their target, the government, with their armed military, is surveying different areas of land and demanding it from the villagers. This creates a catch-22 situation: if the people refuse to let their land be surveyed, they will lose their right to it, but if they let their land be surveyed and pictures be taken, they will be sued by the government for trespassing.
As the time approached noon, two politicians arrived to speak who were both middle-aged men. The representative from the Community Party, which is not currently represented in parliament, spoke about the unfairness of the land situation. He said there is a lot of abandoned land that rich people bought and do nothing with, while the poor don’t have any land. An MP from the Future Forward Party spoke idealistically about his party’s efforts to amend the 16 laws relating to land to make it easier for people to manage their own land. By the time he finished his speech, it was already 12:20pm. It looked like eviction would not happen for at least another 30 days.
The atmosphere lightened, and soon a village leader invited everyone to lunch. We joined the crowd moving to the wooden tables further down the road. While the meeting was happening, the women of the village had been busy preparing dishes so by lunchtime there were huge pots of cooked food ready for us. The hosts were very welcoming and encouraged us to try everything: rice, noodles, fried egg, sweet potato, chicken, spicy bamboo, and stir-fried vegetables. We all agreed it was one of the best meals we’ve had so far.
In the afternoon, while many were still eating and resting, we interviewed village leader Nit Torun. Nit is an old man with a square cut hairstyle and serious demeanor. Nit told us that the villagers just wanted 800 rai of land for a community land title. They would grow rice and vegetables for their food and use some of the land for cash crops. Even if they don’t grow anything to sell, they would at least no longer have to buy food for consumption.
In 30 days, the villagers could face another eviction. They will be fined 10,000 baht per day if they refuse to leave. Nit said that if anything happens, they will have to march to Bangkok again. Even though many elders passed away after their last march and even though they have no money, they know that going to Bangkok is the only way to solve any problems.
We left the visit with the mission from Nit to spread the news of the villagers’ struggle against the government and the laws. We all hope that Baw Kaew will continue to exist and that their fight will lead the government to reform land laws.