Bulldozers seized by the DNP following the alleged encroachment of Alro land plots on Khao Yai National Park. Credit: DNP

State agricultural reform land encroaches over 200,000 rai of national parks nationwide

Irregular reform land allocations over the overlapping boundaries and territories between the two types of state land are subject to examination nationwide following a fresh order by the Agriculture Minister

Agriculture Minister Capt Thamanat Prompow has issued a lightning order, instructing officials of the Agricultural Land Reform Office (Alro) to examine the recent Alro land allocations undertaken over the claimed overlapping boundaries and territories between agricultural reform land and forest areas including national parks nationwide to see if they are irregular or unlawful in a fresh bid to settle the recent controversy having exploded at Khao Yai Nationa Park, part of the World Heritage Site of Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex. The site is already under threat from a series of dam development projects.

If the allocations or landholders subject to those allocations are unlawful, the minister wants his Alro officials to strictly enforce the law against the wrongdoings and wrongdoers. The examination will also be undertaken the same way in Alro land plots at Khao Yai, which are claimed by forest officials that are unlawfully overlapping with Khao Yai National Park’s territory, according to the minister’s order.

Alro land boundaries and land plots overlapping with state forests nationwide will be subject to Alro’s new designation as “buffer zones” and there must not be any Alro land allocations taking place there, according to the minister. However, his order issued on Friday did not touch upon investigations into the claimed overlapping boundaries and territories to make them clear.

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) has examined 140 national parks and 32 forest parks nationwide this week. It learned that its 67 national parks and seven forest parks have territories and boundaries encroached upon by Alro land. This roughly accounts for over 201,543 rai, as reported back by park officials nationwide to the DNP on Wednesday. In Khao Yai alone, the alleged encroachment is nearly 3,000 rai.

Last week, high-ranking officials from the Agriculture Ministry and Natural Resources and Environment Ministry were called in to settle the controversy. The meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, Mr. Srettha Thavisin, resolved to invite the Royal Thai Survey Department to help examine the issue in Khao Yai using “One Map” or a new delineation of overlapping state land boundaries using a more detailed map with a ratio of 1: 4000 as a prime approach to clarify the overlapping boundaries and territories. This is expected to be completed within three weeks.

However, DNP’s National Parks Director, Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, who led forest officials to examine the controversial plots in Khao Yai last week, said he did not believe that One Map could help resolve the problem as it’s still unclear how the new boundaries or territories could be reshaped as a result of the use of the new map. 

National Parks, he said, have clear boundaries delineated and survey markers in place following the aged park designations, while Alro land plots in the overlapping boundaries have not, meaning they come later than national parks and eat up the parks’ areas. According to the agreements made between forest agencies and Alro, Alro cannot allocate land plots that are forests and it has to return those areas to the forestry agencies. 

Alro received more than 30 million rai of forest areas more than 30 years ago to help allocate them to the poor or landless farmers following the government policies at that time, but they must be degraded forests beyond reforestation capacity only.

Mr. Chaiwat suspected that the new Alro policy that turns land use rights certificates (Sor Por Kor 4-01) over Alro land to “title deeds for agriculture” is a key driver of this fresh encroachment. If left continued, protected forests could further be encroached upon by unlawful Alro land plots, he remarked.

“Our dedication to protecting the forests would become nothing,” said Mr. Chaiwat of the forest officials’ forest protection efforts.

Mr. Srettha chaired the meeting to settle the controversy. Credit: Srettha Thavisin FB Page

Alro land

Agricultural land reform is acknowledged widely as one of the country’s most progressive policies as it attempted to address inequalities among the citizens, especially the poor or landless farmers, who had lost their farmland and become rentees of their own land that changed hands to the rich since the country expedited its development in the 1950s with rice growing for export.

Promulgated in 1975, the Agricultural Land Reform Law addressed this critical issue of the country and came up with a prime approach of purchases of land from the rich or expropriation of state land in order to allocate them to the poor.

However, Alro had not accomplished in doing this mission. In the mid-1980s, the governments at that time handed over more than 30 million rai of forest reserves to Alro to help allocate them to the poor, given a number of them had already lived in the forests. Along with other types of land it had acquired, Alro has managed to allocate over 40 million rai. Of these, over 1.6 farmers have occupied 2.27 million land plots for more than five years, sized around 22 million rai in total.

Alro previously set the prime conditions that landholders must be the poor or landless farmers and they would be given 50-100 rai each with a land use rights certificate issued for them and this certificate can be passed on to their children only. Last but not least, Alro land plots must be used for agricultural purposes.

Following the new government policies of the Srettha government that would like to boost opportunities and security in life for the citizens, turning land use rights into title deeds becomes one of its prime purposes. 

As he entered the office, Capt Thamanat did not hesitate to announce the new policy to turn land use rights of Alro land into “title deeds for agriculture”. The new conditions have changed the definition of landholders, the purposes of use of Alro land, and transferability, prompting the public to question whether Alro still sticks to its prime mission of preserving the land for the poor and landless farmers and reducing inequalities among the poor and the rich. Those subject to the new policy are landholders holding Alro land for over five years, or over 1.6 million of them.

Over the years, Alro land plots have been reported of changing hands extensively. According to the examination made known shortly after the coup in 2014, at least 440,000 rai of Alro land plots were reported to have changed hands already. This is critically due to the weak enforcement of Alro law, which was designed to be promotional rather than enforcing.

The fresh encroachments on the protected forest areas just remind those concerned of the new wave of changing hands of Alro land to land developers following the new conditions and policy changed at Alro.

Khao Yai conservation groups submit their petition to concerned officials calling on a thorough investigation into the alleged encroachment in Khao Yai as they fear this could further dampen the site’s World Heritage status. Credit: DNP