By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK - Thailand's new national parks will impose stricter penalties to further limit the rights of Thai farmers and indigenous people, land rights activists and analysts said on Friday, after a series of convictions highlighted their vulnerability.
Under the National Parks Act, which was unveiled by the government last week and will come into effect in six months, those convicted of encroachment and other offences could face up to 20 years in prison and 2 million baht ($63,755) fines.
While the new law allows people who have traditionally lived in or near parks to access them and use some resources, the power to give permission rests solely with authorities, said Emilie Pradichit, director of human rights group Manushya Foundation.
"The law is meant to protect and empower the communities who have always lived in these areas. Instead, it gives all the power to the national parks department," she said.
"These are poor people who have lived in these areas for generations, and depend on the forest resources for their life and livelihood. The new law will hurt them even more," she said.
Globally, indigenous and local communities own more than half of all land under customary rights, but only have secure legal rights to 10 percent, according to Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
As authorities prioritised conservation, more than 250,000 people were evicted from protected areas in 15 countries from 1990 to 2014, RRI estimated.
In Thailand, communities who farm in the forests or gather firewood and mushrooms, are often charged with trespassing and evicted.
A forest reclamation order passed in 2014 led to hundreds of such evictions, according to research organisation Mekong Region Land Governance.
The new national parks law will make concessions for those who have lived in the area, while conserving forests better, said Songtam Suksawang, director of the national parks department.
"We will allow locals to continue their traditional way of life, provided it does not damage the environment. We will allow forest resources to be used for their daily living," he said.
Earlier this week, a regional court upheld an encroachment verdict against 61-year-old Srinuan Pasang, who was among 14 villagers charged with encroaching the Sai Thong National Park in the northeastern province of Chaiyaphum.
The encroachment verdict against Nittaya Muangklang, a villager and land rights activist, was also upheld.
The villagers said they had been farming the land well before the area was designated as a national park.
The new law will make such rural communities even more vulnerable, said Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director of the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development in Chiang Mai.
"The Chaiyaphum case illustrates how the law does not protect them," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The new law ignores their customary practices and goes against the accepted wisdom of indigenous communities being the best caretakers of forests," he said.
($1 = 31.3700 baht)