Course:CONS200/2020/History of the Community Forestry movement in Thailand: What are the impacts, benefits and downsides?

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CFM which is officially known as Community forest management has garnered attention globally from governments, researchers, academics and educational institutions over the past years. Many resource regimes, especially those in developing countries, have prioritized over community forest management traditional forest management systems. In Thailand, CFM is not recognized by the legal system; however, there are in fact community forest management practices under regular property resource government. CFM has been practiced here for hundreds of years by local people and represents an important aspect of Thai culture. This study aims at evaluating community forest practice in Thailand in the context of sustainable enhancement and development. The study indicated details through focusing on discussing in groups within various stakeholders: academics, Forest Department staff, and members of the institutions.  [1]


Thailand has seen serious deforestation problems in the past three decades as the country had pushed for industrialization, even if this meant unsustainable methods of economic progress. Many problems have arisen from deforestation. One, the continued logging and deforestation are unsustainable as significant parts of Thailand’s forests have already been decreased. Second, deforestation has negatively impacted rural groups and their livelihood due to problems like damaged soil. To counter this problem, Thailand has adopted community forestry as a method to better manage forests and to help the rural communities that live around them. Compared to some other countries, Thailand’s approach to community forestry differs significantly. Up until recently, there was no legal basis for community forestry as governments overlooked and controlled much of the forest management in the country. This meant that most communities were allowed to help protect their local systems but unable to directly benefit from them. This system of regulation is now beginning to shift as the country’s Forest Community Bill has finally passed after almost three decades of impasse and indecision. The passing of the bill means that Thailand’s rural communities can finally exert more control over their local forests. Overall, we shall look at the situation with Thailand's community forestry, implications of a new policy and what directions the country could possibly take to maximize its newfound approach to community forestry.

The Problem of Deforestation in Thailand

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, Thailand has been facing a deforestation problem as its forests continue to decrease [2].  The main driver for such problem is economic growth. In the early 1960s. the forest area of Thailand amounted to around 273,629 cubic km (roughly 27 million hectares) which covers around 53.3 percent of the country’s total land area [2]. For economic purposes, the Thailand government started to encroach on forest land through a mix “slash-and-burn, shifting cultivation, land resettlement, dam and road construction, land reform for agriculture and others [2]. Due to these reasons, the amount of forest land in Thailand decreased significantly, dropping to 25.3 percent of the total land by 1998 [2]. Findings suggest that the rate of deforestation has increased in recent years and Thailand’s government continues to push economic prosperity at the expense of sustainability. Using LANDSAT-5 to calculate the rate of deforestation, the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization has found that deforestation has occurred at a rate of around 63,000 hectares per year, an increase from the 1990s [2].

The level of deforestation in Thailand since the 1960s and the percentage of land in Thailand that is still forested over since the 1960s.

The rate in which deforestation is occurring in Thailand differs from region to region. Thailand is divided into four primary regions – the North, Northeast, Central and the South [2]. North Thailand is the least affected by deforestation, retaining around 54 percent of its forest land while 26.4 percent has been allocated to farms and another 79.6 to "unclassified" use [2]. Northeast Thailand, by comparison, has been impacted much more by deforestation. Only about 15 percent of the region's forest land remains with 55 percent having become farmland and another 30 percent as unclassified. Both Central and Southern Thailand has seen significant deforestation, but not to the same degree as Northeast Thailand. Central Thailand has 2.1 percent of its forest land remaining with 30.9 percent as farmland and 33 percent as unclassified [2]. Southern Thailand has 22.5 percent that is forest land with 43.4 percent farmland and 34.1 unclassified [2]. Unclassified for all regions refers to “urban areas and peri-urban areas, infrastructure” and also “degraded areas” that use to be forested land (Food and Agricultural Organization, 2009, p. 12). As seen with these statistics, most regions in Thailand has seen significant areas of their lands be deforested. The increased rate at which Thailand had increased deforestation during the 2000s make these findings even more concerning.

Recognizing the impact of deforestation and the unsustainability of such practice, the Thai government has attempted to implement sustainable management measures to reduce the rate of deforestation. There are four attempts identified over the years from 1989 to now.  In 1989, Thailand put a stop to logging practices, an industry that had contributed significantly to Thailand’s deforestation problem [2]. In more recent years, Thailand has attempted to implement management measures that cover three important goals (Food and Agricultural Organization, 2009, p. 15). First, the Thai government has dedicated itself to expand the designated area for protected forests. Second, the Thai government has aimed to implement more sustainability measures by expanding forest resources. This involves planting “substitute wood supplies” so that the economy does not need to rely on natural forests [2]. Third, the Thai government has implemented and developed community forestry to allay the rate of deforestation. This last measure is of particular importance and will be discussed at large.

What is Community Forestry?

As an operation managed by the local regimes, the community forest is considered as part of the macro idea of forestry. With their significant roles to the community, groups including First nations, community-held corporation contributing to the entire community. For sustainable development in social, economic and ecological sustainability. From this point, it focused more on locally control over and benefits offered by natural resources.[3]

History of the Community Forestry

Community forestry was originally conceived as a way for local communities to be more intimately involved with the forest land around them. In particular, community forestry allows rural communities of farmers and their families to be involved with the trees around them. This goal can be accomplished in a variety of ways. For example, farmers can plant and grow trees around or in their farmland to better provide for local needs [4]. Families can grow trees and use the wood for small business needs like providing artisan products for the local community. However, the rising population of community forestry is always intertwined with economic and environments. The need for community forestry came from certain economic and environmental developments during the 1900s [4]. Though these factors are largely dependent on economic and geographical developments of certain countries and regions, they can still be generally applied to different communities and economies. Overall, the distinction between forestry and agriculture had continued to widen as many countries continued to industrialize. As a result, the distinction between farmers and loggers grew, and many rural communities were not heavily involved with the forest lands around their farmland [4]. Instead, governments typically allocated designated woodlots that rural communities maintained under governmental guidance [4]. But by the 1950s and 1960s, this kind of management was slowly being eroded in favour of industrial forestry [4]. National governments eventually realized that an industrial outlook on forestry was unsustainable given the environmental costs and diminishing resources, which led them to consider community forestry, thus reintegrating rural communities with the forests around them.

Principles of Community Forestry

The purpose of community forestry during its initial stages was threefold [4]. All three aspects intend to benefit the rural communities. The first was to provide rural families with a means to meet their fundamental needs, allowing them to procure fuel and other items to help them live and survive. The second was to help rural communities and the general economy to provide food and environmental stability so food production could continue without major setbacks or future problems. Lastly, community forestry aimed to provide opportunities for employment and new sources of income for people and families within the rural community. Despite these principles, community forestry encountered some stumbling blocks as governments struggled to adequately implement policy. Early implementation was rather myopic with its approach, focusing on the most pertinent of needs instead of considering the wider relationships between rural communities and trees [4]. When the policy was first implemented, problems with fuelwood was particularly pertinent to rural communities. Fuelwood accounted for around 20 percent of energy needs in Asia and Latin America and 50 percent in Africa [4]. As a result, early policy aimed solely at creating new woodlots and plantations for rural communities to access more fuelwood. Soon after these policies were implemented, governmental officials realized that their measures did not match the principles set out for community forestry. Rural communities were not as concerned with fuelwood as governments thought, a shared sense of community responsibility was not fostered, and the planting of new woodlots ended up creating economic, agricultural and environmental difficulties for many countries [4]. It then became clear that community forestry policies had to be rethought so rural needs were respected. This meant better assessment of each community and how they relate to the trees around them.

Community Forestry in Thailand

Thailand participated in community forestry early on in attempts to curb its deforestation problem. But these attempts face some challenges and receive some political criticism. In the 1970s, recognizing that policy must be implemented to preserve its forest, Thailand officially recognized community forestry to do so [5]. Thailand managed to recognize around 8000 sites as protected forest land by 1989; by the 21st century, Thailand possessed over 10,000 sites recognized as protected land [5]. To formalize community forestry as a key component of its economic and sustainability measures, Thailand decided to draft a bill titled the Community Forest Bill [5]. Despite these efforts, the bill faced significant standstill for nearly three decades, only being passed in 2019 [6]. The primary reason for the extended delay on the bill stems from values clashing [5]. Conservation groups in Bangkok want as little human interference in forest land as possible. Fundamentally, they aim to sustain forests in Thailand and combat deforestation by stopping people, institutions, corporations, and communities from using trees for whatever needs they have. Conversely, the very purpose of community forestry is to help rural communities use forested land – in a sustainable manner – for their economic and environmental livelihood. Making matters worse is the contradictory nature of Thailand’s policymaking. Policies like the Decentralization Act of 1988 gave local governments the power to guide and unite local communities towards sustainable management of local resources [5]. At the same time, bills like the National Park Act of 1961 forbade rural communities from using wood products that were within a park’s borders [5]. But now that the bill has been passed, around 14,000 rural communities are now being empowered to work with local forest resources for their needs.

Actors Within Thailand’s Push for Community Forestry

National Government and Rural Communities

The effects of fertilizers and pesticides on the soil. The damaged soil cannot adequately sustain new crops.

The principal actors within Thailand's community forestry implementation are rural communities, governmental institutions (local and national), and conversation groups. Community forestry practices and the newly passed bill will have significant impacts on all three actors. To have a fuller picture of how these actors patriated in Thailand’s community forestry implementation, it is important to discuss them separately. First, it is important to discuss the national government and its role in Thailand’s community forestry implementation. Much has already been said of how the government’s push for industrialization has caused much of the deforestation through the 20th and 21st centuries but focus also needs to be placed on how rural communities have been directly impacted by national policies. Besides deforestation, the national government has also negatively impacted local communities by implementing unsustainable means for agricultural production [7]. To bolster agricultural production, the Thai government introduced and pushed for chemical fertilizers and pesticides to be used by farmers. As a result, Thai farmers saw their soil be eroded as chemicals destroyed its natural fertility [7].

Along with the impact on their soil, farmers also saw significant water shortages because of deforestation [7]. The implementation of community forestry is then a way for the Thai government to make amends and support rural communities that have been negatively impacted by prior economic pushes. Furthermore, the newfound implementation of Community Forest Bill will help shift control from the national government to local governments and rural communities, another amends being made given Thai farmer’s prior difficulties. The national government seems to understand that notions of public land use and governmental ownership have to change if community forestry is to be successful [8]. For example, the Thai government had decided at one point to give some additional rights to rural communities illegally presiding in state-owned forests [8].

Conservation Groups and Activists

As mentioned in the prior section, not all actors are supportive of Thailand’s choice to implement community forestry measures. Conservation groups and activists are actively against the implementation of community forestry as a means of sustainable development [8]. These groups advocate for sustainability meaning that forests should be protected from all people and institutions, local communities included [8]. This contrasting perspective and approach had delayed the Community Forestry Bill and cause numerous changes over the years as policymakers tried to draft clauses that appealed to both sides of the debate [9]. For example, in 2001, Thailand's House and Senate came to a long impasse on how the various different articles, with the House offering measures that would expand the powers of rural communities and the Senate rejecting these propositions in favour of fewer powers given [8]. One especially contentious point was Article 18 which dictated how many community members would be needed to apply for community forestry. The House tried to push for 50 while the Senate pushed for 100, a number which would have excluded many communities as they would not have had the numbers needed to obtain community forestry permission [10].

Local Governments

One final actor to consider is the local governments that work with rural communities to implement community forestry measures. As the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization have noted, empowering rural communities also means giving local government expanded powers to help with regulation [2]. Local governments can promote necessary or preferred procedures for rural communities to go about their community forestry management [2]. Furthermore, local governments can bridge the gap between rural communities and the national government, being an effective mediator and fostering a shared “democracy and peaceful coexistence” between all levels of governance [2].

Benefits of Thailand Community Forestry

Impact of Community Forestry: Pred Nai Village

Thailand has already seen significant benefits from the implementation of community forestry measures. Findings suggest that sustainability measures can be met if certain requirements are met. For instance, in Pred Nai, a village in Thailand, local residents partook in mangrove forest management [11].

Map of Pred Nai village and its surrounding mangrove.

Around 58 percent of the village’s land consists of the surrounding mangrove and the remaining land consists of the village’s farmland [11]. In 1987, the Pred Nai locals formed the Pred Nai Community Forestry Group (PNCFG) to better manage their surrounding mangrove after logging companies were banned from the local area. Afterward, the local community started to better manage the village's trees, allowing them to build resources and economic opportunities while also practicing environmental sustainability. For example, the PNCFH has implemented measures to ensure that mangrove is not only protected but also that trees be replanted so the forest can regenerate [11]. Due to these efforts, the mangrove has been repopulated with trees.  

Example of a repopulated forest in Thailand. The woodlot looks almost indistinguishable from a natural forest, but the trees and plants were planted by Thai farmers.

Not only do these actions provide the village with a more sustainable method of accessing wood for their needs, but it also helps restore the overall ecology of the mangroves. The local mud crab population has been restored alongside the repopulation of the mangrove’s tree [11]. Depending on local forests for survival, the mud crab population saw drastic changes as the village’s mangrove was being deforested. As the trend has reversed, the mud crab population has prospered which has helped local households that depend on marine resources. Before the implementation of community forestry measures, about 6-7 villagers would enter the mangroves to collect mud crabs every night. That number has jumped to around 70 villagers as the population of mud crab has grown substantially [11].

Barriers to Benefits

Despite the success that Pred Nai found, not all rural communities necessarily found the same success before the passing of the Forest Community Bill. Pred Nai found success because its locals could actively participate and form groups and measures to better manage its resources. Participation from those who are especially in need of sustainability measures is a key reason for Pred Nai’s success. At the same time, Pred Nai’s level of participation was predicated on freedom of access to forest resources, a privilege not all rural communities have. Contrasting Pred Nai is another village called Cahng Tok Tay. Like Pred Nai, Cahng Tok Tay organized itself to protect its surrounding forests from active interference and abuse, but unlike Pred Nai, the benefits have not been as direct [7]. The primary reason for this is the lack of community access to the resources within the forest as the land is protected by the government and overseen by the Royal Forest Department (RFD) [7]. Ultimately, the lack of access defeats the purpose of community forestry as conservation and sustainability should also come with ready access to resources so that rural communities can benefit and prosper. In this sense, the potential benefits for both sustainability and rural benefit are high, but the Thai government has restricted such opportunities for several decades, but this pattern should shift seeing as the Forest Community Bill had been passed last year.

Implications for Community Forestry Going Forward

Overall, the change in policy should open opportunities for rural communities. Looking forward, different rural communities should aim to replicate the successes of villages like Pred Nai. There are many benefits to be with Pred Nai’s model of management. For the most part, rural communities can start to recover from the government’s previous policy implementation, and the communities can also move towards greater autonomy and self-regulation as they can control and foster their own resources instead of relying on governmental regulation to determine how they go about managing local forests. By doing so, the forests should gradually recover and repopulate, while locals can benefit from improved ecology and have more ready access to resources through careful management.

Downsides of Thailand Community Forestry

Potential Conflicts

Though community forestry has an overall net benefit for Thailand’s rural communities, it should also be noted that not all rural communities are the same. Fundamentally, rural communities each have different circumstances as determined by geographic influences. These differences could potentially produce conflict and power imbalances as different communities vie for resources. This is particularly true if we look at one example of such conflict that arose when the Thai government established the Nanthaburi national park in 2006, a decision that affected two communities that depended on local forests [12]. The competing interests of the two communities with regards to resources created rifts as both communities spread misinformation about the nature of local resources and the national park. Also, within these communities, different kinds of residents exist, with some families being highly dependent on collecting resources from the local forests; other groups could depend on their farmland or other ventures to help sustain themselves [12]. Different distributions of these groups within communities can mean each community can possess different interests. Community forestry could potentially exacerbate these conflicts, as instead of governmental control of resources, the two different communities will need to determine how they will share resources from the same source.

Problems with Decentralization

Some findings have also suggested that by devolving forest management to local groups, certain inefficiencies are introduced into forest management systems. Like Thailand, Ethiopia had decentralized its forest management in favour of community forestry, a decision made to assist the country’s largest agricultural population [13]. In Ethiopia, many local leaders have used decentralized forest management as a chance to manage forests in their favour [13]. Furthermore, such management systems can worsen social inequality instead of improving them in rural communities. One of the cases in Ethiopia saw the richer families within the community obtain private woodlots while those who were classified as poor or very poor did not have the same kind of benefits, with much fewer numbers possessing woodlots for themselves. Such a situation could potentially result in Thailand as more authority is given towards rural communities due to policy changes. Though, it should be noted that much of Ethiopia’s problems with decentralization stems from the inefficacy of local authorities to help implement and regulate management strategies [13].

Woodlot inequality in Ethiopia.

Policy Considerations for Potential Downsides

All in all, the two potential drawbacks that come with community forestry should be solvable with greater oversight measures. Conflict can occur because of unequal competition for resources between different communities and in-community inequality can result from power indifferences from within. If local authorities and governments help unite and oversee forestry management, differences between and within communities can be reduced. As mentioned before, local governments are key actors in implementing effective strategies for forest management, meaning a strong role given can help reduce conflicts for rural communities as a whole.


Altogether, Thailand’s local communities are experiencing an important transitive stage as the Community Forest Bill has been implemented the previous year. Deforestation has been a serious problem for Thailand for many years, and community forestry has been implemented to help rural communities to combat the effects of deforestation. Overall, this means that more power and efficacy will be given to local communities to manage their forests, but some potential implementation issues can arise. The policy has to ensure that local groups are directly benefiting from the new measure, allowing rural communities to find new economic opportunities while also allowing them to maintain the continued sustainability of their local forests and trees. Part of this means giving local communities enough powers to regulate and use resources, ensuring that both economic and sustainability measures of community forestry are met. At the same time, certain oversight measures must be also implemented to reduce the chances of conflict and unequal access between and within communities. Altogether, these new policy measures and some of the potential steps for future implementation should help Thai rural communities actively participate in community forestry. This will help Thailand meet its two important goals when setting out to integrate this approach about three decades ago. Thai rural groups will finally have a chance to use their surrounding forest land for whatever benefits they need. Then, the country’s major deforestation problem can be accounted for and reduced.


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