Out of a job and into the forest
In Columbia in the late 1980s, villagers invaded empty land owned by local landlords and began planting crops. Over the last decade, these "land invasions" have spread to Brazil, Mexico, Peru and other parts of Latin America. In recent weeks, protests in Khon Kaen and Kanchanaburi have shown a similar trend
In Latin America, these land invasions were one response to financial liberalisation crises, IMF policies and neo-liberal economics. More people became poorer, and eventually they grabbed land as a last resort. The invasions did not begin until some years after the onset of crisis. These countries had labour movements and some social security which provided a cushion. Only after these social defences had been destroyed by neo-liberal policies did the land grabs begin. But Thailand has no meaningful labour movement or social security. The process will be faster.
Besides, the process of clearing and cultivating new land is built into Thailand’s rural culture. In the past, villagers who lacked land and income simply sought out new land to cultivate. Over 150 years, they cleared around 125 million rai. This frontier movement stopped only about a decade ago. Government banned logging and began to police the forest boundaries better. The urban boom diverted the frontiersmen to new work in the city. But now, between 1 and 2 million people have lost their urban jobs. Many have been away in the city so long they have lost any claim to support from family land. Others have drifted home, but do not want to be a burden on their families. They see little hope of finding another urban job in the foreseeable future. So by the time the rains begin in mid-year, they want land for subsistence.
Several years ago, Chuan Leekpai said there was no land available. But that is a legal definition. There is a lot of land empty, and the landless unemployed can see it.
First, there are large tracts reserved by government agencies and especially by the military, which has blocked 5.3 million rai. Two years ago, government asked the military to surrender land it does not really need. Last October, Chuan repeated the request. But the generals have not been keen to give up this valuable resource. Instead they have launched PR campaigns, cultivating a few plots as part of the King’s self-reliance campaign and displaying this fact on TV.
Second, large tracts have been acquired in land speculation. The stock exchange rules and banking practices encouraged property companies to amass large land banks. The land price spiral tempted many individuals – especially powerful ones – to speculate on land. The declaration of cabinet ministers’ assets gives some idea of the scale. Just among the select group who held office for a few days at the end of the Chavalit premiership, a telecoms tycoon (and wife) had land worth 195 million baht, a technocrat 179 million, a banker 97 million, an academic 477 million, and a young economist 40 million. Drive along any by-road of the Rangsit area and you find strip after strip of valuable land lying idle. Drive through the north or northeast and you regularly come across a grand gateway and billboard fronting an empty expanse once intended for a housing estate or resort.
Academics have urged the government to impose punitive taxes to force owners to release this land, or at least rent it back to farmers. Tarrin Nimmanhaeminda initially responded positively, but has since gone very quiet. The IMF is cool to the idea. It is interested only in tax proposals which will deliver large amounts of revenue to pay back its loans.
Third, there are the degraded forests which were logged out when the forestry department was not paying attention. These are the most obvious target for land invasion. Many settlers are there already. The borders are indefensible. The maps are vague. The morality of ownership is contested.
The protests in Khon Kaen and Kanchanaburi are complex and messy. They are a mixture of demands for land and demands for land rights. In the Dong Larn protest in Khon Kaen, there is a core of farmers who have been promised land as a result of earlier resettlement schemes. But then there are others – often relatives – who have joined them simply looking for land to cultivate. In Kanchanaburi, the local authorities recently announced that aerial surveys showed 60,000 people settled on land claimed by the government. Villagers are protesting because they fear eviction. Some wonder why the military needs to own a million rai in this province alone (fear of another Burmese invasion?). The protests are further complicated by the continuing saga over the Si Nakharin dam. Powerful people who acquired resort land may be encouraging villagers to protest in the hope that they too will benefit.
Kanchanaburi and Khon Kaen are the two places where these land invasions have become public. But it is likely that similar moves are under way in many areas of the country. And that the trend will increase over coming months.
Land issues are never simple because of the competing claims and conflicting moralities involved. Farmers claim land as livelihood. Government and officials wish to defend "forest" areas on grounds of law. Environmentalists worry about watersheds and biodiversity. Powerful people attempt to manipulate law, officials, environmentalists and farmers for their own benefit. The army regularly reasserts its long-standing wish to have a greater role in policing land use.
But this year these disputes may be especially emotional. The unemployed farmers who invade forests will claim they are suffering from a crisis which was none of their making. The government will be open to the charge that it is giving foreigners better access to land while still denying rights and access to large numbers of its own citizens. And if the government uses violence against villagers but does nothing about the urban land-grabbers in Si Nakharin, it will confirm this is a government for the rich and against the poor.