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close this bookAgricultural Expansion and Pioneer Settlements in the Humid Tropics (UNU, 1988, 305 pages)
close this folder4. The forest colonization process: case studies of two communities in north-east and south-east Thailand
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View the documentThe problem
Open this folder and view contentsCase study 1: history of settlement and in-migration
Open this folder and view contentsCase study 2: history of settlement
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The problem

During the past 20 years Thailand has achieved considerable growth in its agricultural sector-5 per cent per annum in terms of the value of production.

FIG. 1. Location of study areas (Uhlig 1984) (Map by L. Dreher)

This has contributed to the overall economic status of the country. The main reasons for the growth are: (1) the shift from almost exclusively rice to rice plus other higher value export crops, and (2) the expansion of agricultural land through the opening of new land, particularly forest areas.

But this growth has extracted a price in terms of the alarming rate of natural resource depletion. During the period of the Third Development Plan (19721976), characterized by the maize and cassava boom, forest areas were heavily destroyed. The government, being aware of this problem, expressed its concern in the Fourth National Economic Development Plan (1977-1981), stating that the proportion of land under forest in Thailand had fallen to only 38.6 per cent, which was lower than the targeted 40 per cent for the end of the Third Plan (1972-1976) as compared to 53 per cent in 1961.

FIG. 2. Forest land as a percentage of total land area in Thailand (Forest Management Division. Royal Forest Dept.. Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Bangkok)

FIG. 3. Percentage of forest areas and the rate of deforestation by region in Thailand during 1967 and 1978 (Klankamsorn and Charuphat 1981)

Consequently agricultural land had increased rapidly from 49 million rai (7.84 million ha) to 109 million rai (17.44 million ha) within 15 years (1960-1975), an average increase of 6 per cent per year. By 1984 it was estimated that about 147 million rai (23.52 million ha) of forest land had been cleared and converted to agricultural use whilst the forest area had declined to less than 30 per cent of the area of the country (Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board 1982, 52). The north-east region has the highest rate of forest depletion, at about 5,136.5 km2 per year, or 12.38 per cent, of the forested area in 1976. The south-east, on the other hand, ranks second with 797 km2, or 6.31 per cent, of forest depleted per year (Klankamsorn and Charuphat 1981) (see figs. 2 and 3).

Apart from the two factors mentioned, population pressure and land fragmentation in older settled areas have contributed to rapid forest colonization. The number of farming families has steadily increased, from about 3 million in 1970 to almost 4.5 million in 1980 (Office of Agricultural Economics 1981, 65), an increase of 19 percent.

The introduction of commercial crops such as maize in the 1960s and cassava in the 1970s encouraged more farmers to seek new land for cultivation as they were regarded as a good source of income with least cost and high profits. Planted areas of maize increased by 125 per cent (from 4.1 to 9.3 million rai) from 1967 to 1980, while for cassava the increase was almost 400 per cent (from 1.4 to 6.9 million rai) from 1970 to 1980 (Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives 1980).

This expanding frontier has absorbed a considerable portion of the increasing farming population. Each successive government has recognized this and some have used it as a strategy to reduce tension or to win popular support by approving the existence of squatters in forest reserve areas. For example in 1975 the prime minister issued an order to the Ministry of Agriculture to tolerate the presence of farmers who had already settled in the reserved areas. The lack of firm or a national policy from the Government to protect forest and natural resources has indirectly encouraged spontaneous land clearing and, at the same time, created conflicts between ground-level officials in the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Interior.

The government's efforts in trying to solve the problem, that is, by setting up self-help land settlements and land-reform schemes involving at least seven agencies, have not proved very successful. The schemes have not fully achieved their goals in helping the landless or needy farmers. Ironically, these schemes paved the way for the opening of more forest areas. This fact has been recognized and one of the Fifth Plan aims of conserving natural resources calls for a review and improvement of existing landsettlement schemes instead of establishing and expanding new areas.