By Samira Hassan & Sahnaz Melasandy (New Naratif)
Pongsak Tonnampeych—or Bang, as his family and friends call him—had just finished his breakfast on the morning of 5 March 2021 when the helicopters touched down and forestry authorities came to evict him and his family from their homes. Their shoddily assembled home on the upper Bang Kloi River could barely be called a house, Bang recalls.
“It’s [more of] a shelter. We had just moved back to upper Bang Kloi, so there was no house. We built something very simple. Just enough to stay the night,” he says.
Together with dozens of family members from their Karen community, Bang had returned to upper Bang Kloi in January 2021. It was the first time they had been back since 2011, when they were first evicted from their ancestral land, which is now part of Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan National Park.
The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in July 2021, making it a popular tourist attraction—much to the dismay of the indigenous Karen community who have lived in the area for generations. Some of the villagers had been relocated to lower Bang Kloi, while others were forced to find jobs in nearby towns. Many who previously relied on subsistence farming and fishing had been pushed to take up daily wage work in urban areas. They eventually lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic and had to return to their ancestral homes in Kaeng Krachan National Park, only to be arrested for “trespassing”.
“There were 87 people who were all arrested and put in several helicopters. But only 27 of them were charged because there were also the elderly, children and babies,” says Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, an organisation that documents human rights abuses in Thailand. “The police officer had some names of the leaders, like [some of the] youths, men and women. Most of those who were arrested were outspoken.”
The more vocal members of Bang’s community are no strangers to such targeted harassment and violence. Prominent Karen activist Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, also known as Billy, disappeared in April 2014 after being detained by state officials for allegedly collecting wild honey from the national park. At the time of his disappearance, he was helping a group of Karen file a lawsuit against Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, the then-superintendent of Kaeng Krachan National Park. Bang, together with other Karen villagers, was evicted in 2011 in a “secret operation” led by Chaiwat, involving forest rangers, police and the military. Several villagers’ houses and barns were burned down, according to the Cross Cultural Foundation.
The Thai government established the Kaeng Krachan area, comprising the upper Bang Kloi and Jai Pandin areas, as a national park in 1981. Under Thai law, national parks are to be preserved in their original state without any human interference.
“It’s the facade of a national park,” says 23-year-old Thanatorn Vitayabenjang who co-organised protests in support of Bang Kloi villagers in Chiang Mai in March 2021. “The [state] discourse is [to] leave the forest to be the forest without the people.”
Indigenous people like Bang and his family have been living off the land in this park for centuries. Nonetheless, their connections to the land are being severed by state-backed evictions. Across Southeast Asia, when national parks are created and maintained under the guise of environmental conservation, they often end up violently displacing indigenous communities, who have historically been forests’ primary guardians.
Same Story, Different Country
About 2,000 kilometres away from Kaeng Krachan, in Sumatra’s Bukit Duabelas National Park, third-year university student Mijak Tampung is struggling to juggle his class assignments while trying to secure land rights for his people.
Mijak comes from the semi-nomadic Orang Rimba community, who are indigenous to the western part of the once forest-rich area of Bukit Duabelas—an area they call Makekal Hulu—which the Indonesian government designated as a national park in 2000. Two decades later, the Orang Rimba community have found it increasingly difficult to protect their traditional adat, or customs.
The adat and accompanying social order of the Orang Rimba are rooted in their ancestral land. Historically, they allocated plots of land for giving birth, burials, cultivating crops and as sacred areas prohibited to enter, based on the type of land and topography. The conservation policies of the Indonesian government, however, imposed a new set of zones onto the forest, failing to take the Orang Rimba’s customary land uses into account.
“The existence of the Bukit Duabelas National Park management plan [from 2004] was a problem. Our aspirations were not included in the policies,” Mijak says, adding that the plan was modified in 2018 to align with their land categorisation demands. The current agreement allows more flexibility in land use.
There were also plans to relocate the community to a buffer zone in the outer rim of the park, uprooting the semi-nomadic forest-dwellers from their livelihood.
“We obtained a copy of the [2004 plan],” recalls Aditya Dipta Anindita, a co-founder of the Sokola Institute, an education NGO that has been working with the Orang Rimba community since 2003. “We read it together, and many from the community were shocked.”
“The existence of the Bukit Duabelas National Park management plan [from 2004] was a problem. Our aspirations were not included in the policies.”
The Orang Rimba struggle to maintain their traditional livelihoods as farmers and foragers. In the past, each family only needed a hectare of land to grow enough rice, cassava and other seasonal produce. By the 2010s, many in the community had abandoned subsistence farming and foraging in favour of more profitable crops such as rubber. In order to maximise their profits, they are more likely to purchase less healthy food from nearby markets using the money they earned from selling commodity crops.
In response, local youth collective Kelompok Makekal Bersatu has since tried to revive behuma betanom, the Orang Rimba’s farming traditions. In June 2020, the group raised funds to support a pilot garden inside Bukit Duabelas National Park and began documenting the Orang Rimba’s farming traditions in the hope of inspiring the community to start farming food crops again. However, this effort poses its own challenges.
“There are chances we may not be successful [at farming] because there are more pests [now],” Mijak says.
Although they have managed to live off the forest sustainably while protecting it for generations, with the world around them rapidly changing, the Orang Rimba have had to adjust to survive.
The Karen community in Bang Kloi face similar issues. After being relocated to lower Bang Kloi, where another indigenous Karen community had also been relocated to, once-important fish sources like the Phetchaburi River have proved insufficient to provide for all the villagers in Bang Kloi.
“Two villages for one river. So more population, but only one river. It’s not enough food for us,” Bang says.
After they were forced to resettle in lower Bang Kloi, Bang found the soil too arid to cultivate traditional crops like rice. The Karen community also found their new lands to be unsuitable for rotational farming, and malnutrition grew rampant. Community members face an array of health issues, from stomachaches to chronic headaches. As a result, many of them have to rely on external donations for food, which may be restricted.
“Sometimes, when villagers face hunger, outside people who understand their issues tried to send them food and other materials [but got stuck] because the officers [at the checkpoints did] not allow for those food to [be transported to] affected villagers,” says Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri from the Indigenous Peoples Foundation for Education and Environment, based in Chiang Mai. The area is heavily policed, and journalists and researchers are often not allowed entry, Kittisak adds. “From my experience, that’s really strange for me because everywhere in the country you can go in, except that area.”
Everyday Harassment, Everyday Resistance
According to Kittisak, Kaeng Krachan National Park remains difficult for Karen people to access due to a heavy military presence at entrances to the park and throughout the interior. A notoriously strict checkpoint in the park’s north is where Billy, the missing Karen activist, was detained and last seen. The infamous guard post continues to be a source of anguish for many villagers.
“There is a checkpoint in between the village and the outside world. Billy was abducted [at] that checkpoint, and you know, every villager [has to] pass that checkpoint. It is traumatising to pass through that checkpoint, [knowing that] one of your family members, one of your friends, had been abducted there,” says Pornpen, of the Cross Cultural Foundation.
The Karen community is routinely harassed by state and park officials within Kaeng Krachan National Park, Bang says. When he heard the helicopters coming on the morning of 5 March 2021, he knew it was the authorities.
“We knew it was them because they have patrol units around,” Bang explains. “The helicopter did not [just] come once…from January until March. The helicopter came many times in order to negotiate and ask us to [leave].”
When the community refused to move from their ancestral land, they were arrested.
“They tied up my hands in the back. Not everyone [had their hands tied]—only men,” says 18-year-old Chaiyoth Mimi, who was part of the group of Bang Kloi villagers who were arrested by authorities last March.
“I’ve met people whose family members have been put in prison for going into the park to pick a few chillies even, and then they are arrested by the park authorities,” says Signe Leth, an adviser at the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. “So it’s a huge problem for them, especially since [the government is] not giving any alternatives to survive.”
“I’ve met people whose family members have been put in prison for going into the park to pick a few chillies even, and then they are arrested by the park authorities.”
Violent harassment against the Orang Rimba by people outside the community is also common, though it remains underreported.
“Gun violence, rapes, killings happen almost every year,” Mijak says. “When there are criminal acts or human rights violations—physical or verbal violence against Orang Rimba—they are frequently resolved according to adat laws.” Customary laws are not legally binding, which typically means perpetrators face no real consequences.
Despite the odds stacked against them, the communities in both Indonesia and Thailand are trying to secure land rights in their own ways. In Bang Kloi, Billy’s disappearance spurred the Karen community to continue their fight to return to their ancestral land.
“When Billy disappeared, it gave me strength to continue our struggles,” Bang says. He has since taken over Billy’s role, handling much of the public-facing work for his community. When speaking with New Naratif in December 2021, he was preparing to travel to Bangkok with other Karen people from his community to file a petition against Thailand’s minister of natural resources and environment, whom Bang claims has failed to protect their land rights and food security. Bang is now waiting for a response to the petition.
Meanwhile, the Orang Rimba community were granted co-management rights over the national park in 2018, after more than a decade of advocacy efforts by Kelompok Makekal Bersatu, which Mijak chairs. The collective held discussion forums, practiced civil disobedience, such as removing official land boundary markers, and did “counter-mapping”—creating alternative maps that counter the official boundaries and assert the community’s land sovereignty. They have expressed their concerns to the Balai Taman National Bukit Duabelas—the national park management office—and various other state institutions, including the Executive Office of the President.
“For us, the main problem is the change in policy or leadership,” Mijak says. “Usually, every five years, the head of Balai would be changed, so the policy would also change, and how we present ourselves and voice our concerns would also change.” The current leadership, he adds, is more responsive to the Orang Rimba’s critiques and suggestions.
“The current head of Balai indeed responds to [our requests for] revising the zoning system very well. He prioritises the indigenous community. Basically, he considers that the national park will not run well without [the involvement of] the Orang Rimba.”
Sustainability for Whom?
The role of indigenous communities in these national parks remains vital—yet they were historically vilified by officials for their traditional practices, and subsequently evicted from their ancestral homes. One such disparaged practice is rotational farming, an agricultural technique where various crops are planted sequentially in the same plot of land over time. The method has been criticised by the Thai government as a cause of deforestation.
Concerned by increasing rates of deforestation, the Thai government banned shifting cultivation in 1960 and demarcated large forest areas as “reserve forests” through the 1964 National Forest Reserve Act, according to a 2021 paper published in the journal Land Use Policy. The government had blamed dwindling forest reserves on rotational farming methods, like slash-and-burn and leaving fields fallow, which are practised by indigenious minority groups in northern Thailand. As a result, many groups were relocated from protected areas. By 1988, 5,000 people had been evicted from national parks in Thailand. The Karen Bang Kloi community continues to face harsh penalties under the 2020 National Parks Act, including up to 20 years in prison and fines of 2 million baht (US$60,000) for those convicted of encroachment and other offences.
Similarly, in Indonesia, representatives from the governmental Jambi Natural Resources Conservation Center informed the Orang Rimba community in a 2007 forum that their swidden-farming practices—rotational farming where land is cleared by fire—were threatening the sustainability of forests, according to an unpublished 2011 paper by anthropologist and Sokola Institute co-founder Dodi Rokhdian.
However, research shows that these claims are not true when fire-cleared fields are left fallow for a sufficient period and population pressures are low.
“The way that these communities cut its crops and trees is in a sustainable way—a way that is not exploitative and that lets the crops regrow,” says Thanatorn, the protest leader.
“A lot of the indigenous communities practise slash-and-burn cultivation, or rotational farming, which is actually documented to be a sustainable practice,” adds Leth, of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. “It’s a problem that occurs all over Asia, not only in Southeast Asia, and actually all over the world. We see how indigenous peoples are criminalised and harassed and kicked out and accused of being against development or being destroyers of natural reserves and protected areas rather than the custodians that they actually are.”
Part of the solution, indigenous activists say, would be to push for a more inclusive approach in understanding what constitutes conservation. “[Policymakers] should involve the community as [active] subjects, not objects,” says Anindita of the Sokola Institute.
“That is what we need to establish—a way to ensure the livelihood of Orang Rimba and conservation [efforts] go hand in hand to protect the forest,” Mijak adds.
“We see how indigenous peoples are criminalised and harassed and kicked out and accused of being against development or being destroyers of natural reserves and protected areas rather than the custodians that they actually are.”
As forest-dwelling communities who have lived off the land for centuries, the Karen and Orang Rimba peoples, along with activists, demand their governments not only include them but also ensure that they are the main decision-makers in forest conservation efforts.
“If possible, at least half of the staff at the [governmental] Balai [should be] Orang Rimba, that would be better. Granted they should be the ones who decide over their own ancestral land,” says Dedi Gustian, a participatory mapping facilitator for CAPPA Foundation of Ecological Justice.
Ultimately, both indigenous communities want to “peacefully live” on their ancestral lands, says Kittisak. For that to happen, the government needs to ensure their basic rights.
“What [the Karen community] wants is really basic: enough land for farming. Can the government allocate enough land for them for farming?” Kittisak says. “[The government] says they have already allocated land to them, but didn’t elaborate that the land is not good enough.”
With concerns over forest sustainability, indigenous activists say there needs to be a community-led effort to acknowledge indigenous practices as sustainable and critical to the preservation of forests. In doing so, Southeast Asian countries can work toward national park policies that respect and support the work of forests’ traditional custodians.
“It’s our home. It’s our ancestors’ home. We have been cultivating the natural biodiversity for a very long time,” Bang says. “If what the government said is true, if we were destroying the natural heritage of these forests, we would not have such rich biodiversity. Kaeng Krachan would not have been recognised by UNESCO without us protecting this forest life.”
This article is a report produced under the Southeast Asia Forum for Reporting (SEAFORE), supported by Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR).