Sam Phak Nam villagers learn to co-exist successfully with a neighboring National Park through a training program to resolve conflicts and prevent exploitation of forest resources
Reporting by Xiang Ding
Sam Phak Nam, Thailand, June, 2011: “We want to foster a harmonious relationship between forest, temple, and community,” says the head priest of Sam Phak Nam’s temple, sitting cross-legged in a traditional golden-yellow robe. I had come for a ritual breakfast prepared by the village women and served by their children to a group of 10 monks. Outside, the rising sun outlines the limestone mountains towering above plantation fields and trees. It’s hard not to feel at peace.
In its 15-year-history, the temple has been a common meeting ground for villagers from Phu Pa Man National Park in Thailand’s Northeastern Khon Kaen province. Sam Phak Nam was originally settled in the 1950s, but residents were alternately expelled and welcomed back through a series of resettlement initiatives over the following decades. Villagers were repatriated in 1992 under a national land redistribution initiative called Khor Jor Kor (a Thai acronym meaning ‘Land Distribution Program for the Poor Living in Degraded National Forest Reserves in the Northeast of Thailand’), but discovered that their land had now been designated a National Park.
When the 71 households of Sam Phak Nam returned to find their homes were now in a conservation area, the situation initially revealed an uncertain future for the community. Given the lack of land tenure rights at the time and pressure for a more integrated agriculture system on the villagers’ part, it was clear a compromise and a sustainable way forward had to be identified. RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, was one of the organizations invited in 1992 to help develop a comprehensive land use plan to meet the needs of both parties.
|“It is important to help community forests and representatives of national parks to work together. It can be a long process. RECOFTC worked in Sam Phak Nam for more than a year to hold several trainings and multi-stakeholder meetings inviting everyone from government officials, the private sector, local administration, local residents and civil society. During these consultations and in developing a community forest management plan, the stakeholders began to understand each party’s needs. The communities living within the national park boundaries understand why forests need to be protected and representatives of the national park also grow to understand community needs.”
– Somying Soontornwong, RECOFTC Thailand Country Coordinator
Together with a coalition of partners, RECOFTC initiated a series of sustainable livelihood training programs including participatory natural resource management and community budgeting. Over a period of three years, it supported forest officials and community members to set up a local forest management plan, facilitating workshops and training programs that allowed participants to exchange lessons and experiences with other community forestry networks.
A positive outcome of these exchanges was recognition by the government of the communities’ needs and rights. Sam Phak Nam was able to create a collaborative and community-oriented land management project at Phu Pa Man National Park, including the establishment of the Community Forestry Committee (CFC). “Ever since Sam Phak Nam retrieved its rights from the government, it has been a model of community forestry,” said the priest. The fact that some of the monks are specifically trained in reforestation practices has also strengthened the temple’s role in sustainable forest management.
A shared history with the National Park
As he finishes reminiscing, the priest unlocks the gate connecting village-owned land and the designated national park forest. The temple, set up on grounds that served as a buffer zone between national forest and community land in 1992, retains the original key to the reserve, perhaps in recognition of it’s role as guardian of the forests, while the village has the only duplicate.
Por Uthit, an amiable forester, recalls that when tension was highest during negotiations between Thailand’s Royal Forestry Department and independent village communities, buffer zones sprang up all across the region to mitigate potential conflict. During my visit to the temple’s backyard, another buffer zone, the area revealed little signs of human interference other than various Buddhist structures sprinkled amidst thick woody areas. Using religion as a common ground, it seemed as if buffer lines were drawn across as much sacred and spiritual territory as possible to ensure neutral zones remained peaceful between villagers and Park officials.
While memories of the disruption of Khor Jor Korproject remain, Por Gaw Wong Krai, the chair of the village’s Community Forestry Committee (CFC), reminds me that in Phu Pa Man National Park, villagers were properly and legally resettled after comprehensive protection and utilization agreements were drawn. The temple, buffer zones, and the village’s committee on community forestry all trace their birth to 1992 and the years immediately after.
Today, Sam Phak Nam’s relationship with the National Park revolves around a patchwork of formal land designations and informal arrangements. Formally, the village sits on land marked out for agricultural use, with a small adjacent area known as ‘utilized community forest,’ from which villagers are allowed to draw resources. There is also a large area classified as ‘conserved community forest,’ a protected region marked out strictly for reforestation. Further out lies the national-park-owned section, where no use of natural resources is allowed. Both the National Park and the ‘conserved community forest’ grounds are part of the Thai government’s efforts, beginning in the 1990s, to curtail deforestation and conserve biodiversity in designated national parks.
Given differing priorities on conservation versus resource access, it might seem that relations between the villagers and park officials would be strained. In reality, though, they operate cordially on an informal agreement that shifts the practical burden of looking after the ‘conserved community forest’ region to villagers, allowing them to implement local knowledge and traditional approaches to forest maintenance. RECOFTC’s Thailand Country Coordinator Somying Soontornwong notes, “With Sam Phak Nam, conflict resolution was not the only successful outcome. The livelihoods of the community are better as well. There’s an agreement between the community and the national park that allows villagers to harvest bamboo during certain seasons of the year, which they use as a source of income and sustenance.”
As a result, the CFC plays the lead role in protecting the conserved community forest. “It is the sole body standing against the illegal private harvesting of non-timber forest products,” such as bamboo, which is fertile in the area, says CFC chair Por Gaw. A down-to-earth, strong-willed man under whose direction the community has focused on organic agriculture and natural community forest rehabilitation, he has ensured the agreement with national park officials has led to better conservation results and improved relations between the Park and villagers.
Community forest management to reduce conflict
Por Gaw has been implementing the lessons learned from RECOFTC trainings to reduce conflict within his community. After establishing the committee in 1992, he began campaigning for trespassing restrictions in National Park areas, recognizing the importance of respecting the formal boundaries set during negotiations. The CFC focused next on choosing specific areas to mitigate forest fires. By selectively using forest cuttings, such as dead branches or pruning thick trees, they were conserving valuable plants and trees while improving the landscape’s resilience to wild fires.
This kind of small-scale, selective forest management has helped foster a more robust and healthy ecosystem around the village. Por Gaw says, “Our efforts allowed forest animals—fish, mountain frogs, and deer—to thrive. We made the environment better, the air cleaner, and reduced carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.”
However, thanks to an engaged and passionate group of community leaders, like Por Gaw and the temple priest, working in collaboration with Park officials, forest resources in Phu Pa Man National Park have a good chance against encroachment and overexploitation.
For more information on RECOFTC’s work on people-park conflict and how it has been successfully managed please refer to this case study.
The views reflected in this story are largely from the community perspective as presented by the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests.