By Lena Buell, RECOFTC Assistant Communications Officer
In late February, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced the government would invest 3 billion baht in reforestation and preservation activities around the country, following an audience with His Royal Highness the King of Thailand in which His Majesty urged the government to focus on reforestation initiatives.
Political attention on Thailand’s forests has intensified due to concerns that loss of forest cover in rain catchment areas may have exacerbated the flooding last fall. As the Thai countryside was quite literally inundated by the worst floods in recent memory, many asked what could have been done to prevent the massive losses in property, jobs, and human life. Restoring Thailand’s forests – 20% of which have been lost in the past fifty years – may be one answer.
However, planting new forests may not be the panacea the government is hoping for. Concerns abound over the potential for mismanagement on the part of government officials, with many worried over the possibility of conflict should local communities not agree with government reforestation plans.
Luckily, forestry officials are keeping these considerations in mind during the planning process. Bangkok Post reports that officials recognize the need for “a drastic change in their approach … as many previous efforts failed because of corruption and lack of local input.” The Royal Forest Department has pledged to learn from past mistakes and incorporate the needs and expertise of local, forest-dependent communities in the reforestation process. RECOFTC’s former Executive Director, Dr. Somsak Sukwong, emphasized the need to resolve land conflicts if such reforestation initiatives are to succeed.
Dr. Somsak also noted that restoring forests alone will not avoid future catastrophes, explaining that forests can absorb some rainwater and contribute to a more balanced water cycle, but extreme weather events can overwhelm the capacity of forests to prevent run-off.
One area in which reforestation initiatives can have disproportionate impact during natural disasters is near the coast. In Trat Province, on the border with Cambodia, local communities are planting and preserving mangrove forests to improve their ability to weather tropical storms. Massive mangrove root systems help mitigate the impact of extreme weather events like hurricanes and tsunamis: according to the 2007 FAO report The role of coastal forests in the mitigation of tsunami impacts, “mangroves can absorb 70-90% of the energy of a normal wave.” Here, too, local involvement has been key to success – the community of Pred Nai is leading a project to restore 5,000 hectares of mangrove forest, and six new community-based learning centers have been founded to help local leaders train one another to manage their resources more effectively.
The Thai government’s ambitious reforestation initiative is exciting and commendable. But involving local people and ensuring their rights are respected will be integral to the success of any forest-based project. To ensure its 3 billion baht investment is used wisely, the government should take into careful consideration the local people who will both have an impact on and be impacted by this initiative.
To learn more about the importance of local involvement in forest management, visit the RECOFTC website.