The authoritarian state ventures into climate measures

Farmers behind bars in Thailand because they grow cassava

CC Gie Goris (CC BY-NC 2.0)


You should not cry when you go in,’ says Narissara. ‘You can’t cry.’ The glass glow over her carbon black eyes leaves no doubt about it: she knows that she will cry when she is taken to prison where she will be locked up for nine months and ten days. She is not alone. Her mother and two older sisters are already behind bars and there are fourteen of them from Sab Wai, a hamlet in the green rolling hills of Chaiyaphum, a province in the northeast of Thailand.

The crime for which the Sab Wai 14 have to pay is that they grow cassava

The crime for which the Sab Wai 14 have to pay is that they grow cassava. Just like everyone else in the surrounding area — you notice that immediately when you drive to the province and cross it. The soil here is sparse and therefore better suited for a stiff crop like cassava than for sugar cane, let alone rice or the finer crops of Thailand’s vegetable supply. The condemned growers themselves have done nothing else in recent years than all the years and decades before, but the government redesigned the map of the region, as a result of which their land was suddenly in a reforestation area and the cultivation of crops was no longer allowed.

The reclassification of agricultural land was part of the Forest Master Plan and Order 64/2014, which aims to “restore” the national forest land for “sustainable resource management” and should make forty percent of Thailand into forested area. This amounts to an additional forest area the size of the Netherlands, and it is commendable of course. The regulation is — in the official discourse — part of Thailand’s climate efforts. In other words: by creating more forest area, Thailand wants to build up more carbon credits that it can then sell on to Western governments that do not meet their Kyoto targets and want to buy off their own climate failure with green certificates from the South.

No small detail: the “government” that promulgated the new law was the NCPO, as the military junta in Thailand called itself after the coup d’état of 2014: the National Council for Peace and Order. Less than a year after the new law was passed, Narissara’s mother, Nittaya Muangklang, was suddenly visited by 25 agents who intimidated and pressured her to sign a paper agreeing to “return” her own land and that of her youngest daughter to the state. The decisive argument was: the NCPO wants you to sign! That, together with the squadron of law enforcement officers on the cassava field and the threat that she would otherwise not even be allowed to bring in the harvest of that year, eventually turned out to be enough to make Nittaya change her mind.

There is enough evidence that the disputed land was cultivated by the families of Sab Wai, long before the forest area was declared a forest reserve

Narissara was still working in Bangkok at the time. ‘Actually’, she says, ‘the charge against me really doesn’t make sense. My mother had transferred the ownership of that piece of land to me, but I can prove that all those years I rented and worked in Bangkok.’ She says this not to be the only one to avoid the trial and the consequences, but to show that the whole process is built on quicksand. The government goes against its own principles that were formulated in a later decree, which states that the poor should not suffer any disadvantage as a result of the new policy. Moreover, existing agricultural land and methods must be taken into account, and ‘there is enough evidence that the disputed land was cultivated by the families of Sab Wai, long before the forest area was declared a forest reserve’, says Narissara. However, the government is insisting on the papers that have been signed and on the fact that the mitigating measures date from after the indictment of the fourteen farmers.

Narissara patiently refutes argument after argument and substantiates her own defence. She also lists the offices and institutions the families have visited to get a story: the Prime Minister’s Office, the Deputy Governor of Chaiyaphum, the Provincial Prosecutor, the Supreme Court… In between, she indicates how little she thinks logic and commitment will weigh when she has to appear before the Court of Appeal a few days after our conversation, even though they came to an agreement with the services of the province. In the first instance, all fourteen were sentenced to imprisonment and heavy fines. The defendants who appeared before the Court of Appeal in the meantime saw their sentences confirmed or increased one by one.

That’s why I ask what I thought was too delicate at first: does she already know what she’ll do if, as expected, she ends up behind bars after the hearing on Wednesday 3 July? Narissara takes a deep breath. ‘I don’t want to go’, she says. And then, resigned: ‘Don’t cry, because when the other prisoners see that you’re weak, they’re going to bully you.’ She learned that from her older sister, who has been in prison since May. And also: that you have to adapt to the rules, that the evening showers start around 2 p.m., that the food is not good, that you have to pay attention to your steps and your belongings.

And of course it’s too early to think about April 2020, when she’ll normally be out again. But still: is she considering returning to Bangkok? ‘No’, it sounds well-considered. ‘I returned to Chaiyaphum for a medical intervention, because in Bangkok there was no one to take care of me. I have now returned home and found my roots again. My friend came to live in the neighbourhood. And I don’t want to leave my mother and her battle for the land behind. We will continue ploughing, planting and harvesting.’

CC Gie Goris (CC BY-NC 2.0)


The trouble is, the government would probably want to do the same, say the lawyer and coordinator of the Isan Land Reform Network, which has supported the case of the farmers from Sab Wai. After all, this is not the first time that a military junta has set itself up as defender of the forest in Thailand. And by the way, military power is worryingly common in Thailand: the NCPO is the twelfth military government since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

‘This is the pattern: what is announced with much display of environmental awareness and climate necessity, must ultimately always serve the interests of well-connected companies.’

Plamoth Phonphinyo of ILRN: ‘In 1985, the government already launched a forestry policy that would result in forty percent of forested land. It would do so by protecting existing forests (75 percent of the total) and by planting additional ones (the remaining quarter). The latter amounted to massive planting of eucalyptus plantations. Also in 1991, the junta pursued a forestry policy in which up to 1.5 million hectares of forest area were earmarked for the cultivation of eucalyptus. This is the pattern: what is announced with much display of environmental awareness and climate necessity, must ultimately always serve the interests of well-connected companies.’

‘There are three reasons why there are so many conflicts over land ownership in Thailand,’ adds lawyer Thanomsak Rawadchai. ‘There is the concentration of land ownership, which means that some companies have enormous land holdings, while at least one and a half million families in rural areas do not own any land. There is a lot of corruption in the awarding of land titles and in disputes about them. And there is the arbitrariness with which the government can impose and enforce laws, without taking into account the opinion of or the impact on the local population. The latter is the biggest problem.

The famous forest protection law that threatens the existence of the families in Sab Wai, does provide for the possibility that investors and companies remain active in protected areas. And the department of nature parks cooperates with the Petroleum Authority of Thailand. Not surprisingly, I don’t meet anyone who believes in the generals’ green intentions.

CC Gie Goris (CC BY-NC 2.0)


In Bo Kaew, a hamlet in the Khon Khaen province, Rainroth Detbumtong looks angry in the lens when I ask if I can take a picture. He is not angry with me, I think, but with his own government, that decided years ago that the hamlet would have to disappear to make way for forest. He points to the trees at the margins of the hamlet: eucalyptus. We are not made to move for the forest, but for the paper industry’, says Detbumtong.

‘We are not made to move for the forest, but for the paper industry’

He was sixteen when the news came of the eviction. I ask him if he remembers that day. Like yesterday, of course. There were about 270 families living in Bo Kaew then, today there are still 41. Everyone reacted calmly. Not left apathetic, but determined. We were sure that Bangkok could not just do this to us. People were motivated to fight for their land and were willing to go to prison for it. But what does a hamlet in the deep interior of the northeast of Thailand have to say if no one writes about it and it is not made into a national or international case? A visit to the administration in Bangkok, consultation with the Forest Industry Organisation, which claims the land, it all turned out to be a waste of time. In the meantime, the Supreme Court has ruled definitively against the villagers. The village must be evacuated.

And now, I ask. What are the villagers going to do? ‘We are waiting for the rain’, is the translation of his answer. Detbumtong says it without emotion, without sounding cynical. He means exactly what he says: they are waiting for the rain to come, to be able to plant rice. They stay, because they have nowhere else to go.

That’s almost literally what Narissara Muangklang answers to the question what comes after the convictions, the prison sentences and the sky-high fines, for her and the thirteen other accused: ‘We stay.’

At the end of the afternoon in Sab Wai, she takes me to the cassava fields just before and just inside the national park. When we take a few pictures, I suddenly notice that she is wearing a tourist-t-shirt, emblazoned with the slogan: I (blood-red heart) Thailand. I ask whether she can, after all that has happened and that is coming, still say that out loud. She shrugs her shoulders. ‘I love Thailand. It is my country. But I can’t explain that’, she shyly smiles.

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