Course:FRST370/2022/Buddhist Monks and Indigenous People in Thailand: ecospiritual practices to fight deforestation

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Our Wiki page looks into the impact of Indigenous peoples and Buddhist Monks on forest management practices in Thailand. We briefly examine the history of forest use and tenures and the government of Thailand’s involvement in development. We will then draw from various case studies of community forest management (CFM) in Northern Thailand to explore the ecospiritual practices that local villagers, including Indigenous peoples and Monks, implement to stop deforestation and further forest degradation. This has resulted in a transition into a more sustainable form of forestry and development to ensure a more equitable distribution of benefits. A recommendation to increase the inclusion of ecospiritual practices in policy changes regarding forest management will be suggested to enrich the effectiveness of forestry in Thailand.


Buddhism, Buddhist Monks, deforestation, Community forestry


Thailand Geography

About 32% of Thailand's total land area is forest cover as of 2019[1]. There are a few main tree species locals focus on when they participate in tree planting. The main trees that are planted are pradu (Pterocarpus macrocarpus) and makra mong (Afzelia xylocarpa)[2]. The main forest types identified in Thailand are rubber wood forests and mangroves[1], along with a number of plantations and non-timber forest products (NTFPs).The most common NTFPs growing in Thailand are oil palm, coconut, longan, rambutan, durian, mangosteen, lychee, and longing[1]. Some of the other remaining farmland is used for cassava, rice and maize[3], which the local rural populations rely on for their livelihood.

Thailand Demographics and Migration

In Thailand, there are people who are considered Indigenous, however, the country of Thailand does not recognize these groups as Indigenous and does not recognize their rights in any form of law. The main reason for this being the demographic in Thailand is quite multicultural, with many groups coming from different parts of Asia. There are histories of immigrants from bordering countries which is one of the reasons why the government overlooks Indigenous peoples in Thailand despite their occupancy of the land for time in memorial[4]. The groups referred to as Indigenous in Thailand, by NGOs, locals, and the movement for recognition of title, are those who have lived in Thailand before the establishment of a nation, and the Indigenous groups who have not been assimilated into the Thai culture, but instead uphold their own traditions, language and governance. Simply put, Indigenous people are considered ethnic minorities in Thailand[4]. The most commonly recognized Indigenous groups in Thailand are, the Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Mien, Akha, Lahu, Lua, Thin and Khamu[5].

Some of the other groups that are listed in the case studies are the Lao communities. They are a group that continues to uphold their traditions and language despite the enforcement of Thai schooling systems and Thai influence in their villages[2]. Thai people living in rural areas also continue to teach their traditions, kinship and leadership to the new generations.

Religion is another quality that contributes greatly to the population in Thailand. About 95% of people identify as Buddhist, making it the national religion in Thailand[6]. Within Buddhism, there are forest monks and village monks. Historically, the forest monks did not settle, they were considered wandering monks and would travel through the forest. [3] They did not have many physical boundaries compared to village monks, who established themselves in a village through a temple, where they operated within the boundaries of the village[3]. More recently, forest monks have been forced to settle due to deforestation, they have set up monasteries in forests near villages and protect the forest surrounding the monasteries[3].

History of Land Use in Thailand

Thailand experienced the first intense shift of land use in the 60s, from farming for subsistence into a push for agricultural intensification. [7] Influenced by the western model, Prime Minister, Sarit Thanarat, forcefully pushed for development in the agricultural industry with the goal of expanding and contributing to the global economy.[7] This was motivated by the notion of cultivating forest lands to make it useful for humans, enhancing peoples' will and strengthening their national identity by integrating their traditionally values with Buddhist practices, and achieved through community development and missionary programs. Prime Minister Thanarat intended on creating a centralized "interpretation of Buddhism consistent with Western science" (p.97) so that it could be applied to support their political agenda. [7] While there was abundant growth before the 1997 economic crisis, the disadvantages outweighed the benefits. The rate of environmental degradation in Thailand, including forest loss and pollution levels, was among the highest in Asia, and the transition from subsistence to market farming led to many people to the countryside to work at urban factories which worsened the rural quality of life. [7]Further, the reliance on market farming increased the polarization between the rich and poor, increased consumerism, and the existence of one centralized Buddhism religion devalues local cultural and regional diversity. [7]

Tenure Arrangements

The Legal System on Forest Lands in Thailand

Forest lands in Thailand fall under two groups of ownership: private and public.[8] In 1960, all unoccupied forest land was considered public land and communities would be subject to relocation or eviction at the will of the government.[8] Thailand has a number of laws governing forestry which have inconsistencies that complicate forest management.[9]

Firstly, Code law, the Civil and Commercial Code enacted in 1936 attempts to provide communities with customary rights in forests but is ineffective due to inconsistencies with other laws.[8] The code law explicitly recognizes private land as property but does not acknowledge communal lands as privately owned.[8] This law denies communities access and alienation rights as community forests are categorized as state land and that land is under public domain.[8] Hence, communities are denied the right to own and transfer land. Many forestry laws are implemented with the intention to override the rights of local communities to manage forests.[8] Hence, this code of law is not effective in protecting the legal rights of local communities. Moreover, the Land Code gives land ownership to Thai citizens only and rural communities may lack Thai citizenship.[8]

In addition, many forestry laws do not recognize the rights of communities. [9] For example, the Forest Act in 1941 regulates logging licenses and harvesting of non-timber forest products must be permitted by the Royal Forest Department. [8] The National Park Act enacted in 1961 restricts access to forests and it states that these lands are not allowed to be legally owned by anyone except the state.[8] Lastly, the Conservation and Protection of Wildlife Act enacted in 1992 mandates that all access and activities are prohibited in areas identified as wildlife sanctuaries. [8]

The Constitution on Community Rights establishes management rights for communities and protection of their legally binding. [8] However, the above state forestry laws have not been updated to recognize communal rights and despite the constitution binding the government to revise forestry laws, the state laws still take precedence and are not challenged by anyone in power. [8]

Community Forests in Thailand

Community forestry started in the 1980s in Thailand due to a number of protests from forest communities.[10] Ban Huay Kaew, in the San Kamphaeng District, in the Chiang Mai Province was the first officially recognized community forest in Thailand[10]. This was made possible by locals that relied on the NTFPs in the local forests and their protest against a corrupt politician attempting to clearcut the forests to implement commercial crops.[10] Most community forests in Thailand are either not recognized by the government, a pilot program, or an agreement made with the RFD and Tambon Council, Tambon being a local council.[6] Looking at Indigenous inclusion it is written in the 1997 constitution that Indigenous peoples can participate in community forest management[6], however, there is not a lot of mention of them and there is no set definition of who is Indigenous as it is not a recognized term by the government. [10] There is a lack of information on the use of traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge and there are still struggles for Indigenous recognition.

"Forest monastery in Thailand." This work was created by Tevaprapas. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Forest Monasteries Arrangements

It was written into the law and traditional rights that temples can be established on lands administered by the government. Monks can apply for small land parcels and if maintained for a few years more land could be granted[2]. These pieces of land are around 20ha of land, but there are larger pieces of land such as 200ha[2]. Wats are monasteries and they have been given a form of the bundle of rights from the government. [11] However, this does not include the ability to sell their land, it is also inalienable, and under the expropriation act, the land can be expropriated at any time[11]. On a less official level, samnaks are unregistered monasteries that still provide protection to the land, and are built on sacred ground[3].

These forest monasteries are found on slopes or hills above cultivated land and are associated with caves, rock formations or waterfalls[2]. Many forest temples were founded within the last decade but some were founded almost 50 years ago[2]. Forest temples differ from village temples as they focus less on clerical hierarchy and place more importance on contemplation as the forest provides a good place for that[2].

Institutional and Administrative Arrangements

"Seal of the RFD."

The Royal forest Department (RFD) has the most direct contact with the communities managing their local forests. The RFD provides funding and a budget for the activities that community forests would like to implement, but the community forest does the rest.[12] The RFD also provided tree seedlings to some of the community forests for reforestation projects, but often they provided eucalyptus seeds which were not desired by local communities.[6] As mentioned the Tambon Council, a local administrative organization that has members elected by locals also works with the RFD to create community forest agreements and pilot programs.[6]

Affected Stakeholders


The farmers mainly reside in rural areas near forests, they rely on the land for their livelihoods. Some of the farmers harvest NTFPs to make a living and sell the products to the market. Many of the villagers are landowners of farmland[6]. The farmers often do not agree with projects created by the Royal Forest Department (RFD). The RFD wanted to implement replanting projects on the land that farmers farmed on, however, many farmers felt they had gained rights to the land since they traditionally managed the land and applied their own traditional practices to the land[2]. The monks play an important role in implementing realistic goals for forest management and support effective communication with the local farmers, who in turn cooperate with the monks in forest management[2].

Buddhist Monks

The Buddhist monks of Thailand have a turbulent past, but have since overcome past negative views to become highly respected members of society. There is a mix of forest monks and also village monks. The main focus of this case study will be on wandering monks, forest monks, and environmental monks in Thailand and their evolution into forest teachers and leaders in sustainability and forest management.

Past Views

In the past, the wandering monks or forest monks moved around the forest more often and lived a travelling lifestyle. They were not as respected and often seen as a threat to civilization. They were called paa which is related to meanings of being wild and illegal[3]. In the 60s and 70,s there were other people living in the forest, such as reform-seeking communists, which these wandering monks were often associated with and thought to be followers of communism[3]. For those reasons, people felt that these forest monks were trying to escape and overthrow society. There was much mistrust in those that did not choose to settle in a village, and forests were seen as a home to spirits, "uncivilized tribal people," etc[3]. Slowly, respect was gained for Buddhist monks, and people realized they were protecting the forest. In fact, some monks were invited by villages to open samnaks in forests near villages to protect the surrounding forests.

Present Views and Impact

In the present, views on Buddhist forest monks have shifted to a more positive outlook where they are highly regarded people in society. Now there are fewer forest monks who live a travelling lifestyle, and many have now set up forest monasteries and temples near villages. Many Buddhist monks, along with other locals, joined the movement to implement community-based natural resource management in Thailand, and also contributed to the establishment of a number of Fish Conservation Zones in the 80s[9]. Many of the monks are supported by community members and lead sermons to teach the villagers about conservation and how to take care of the forests[3]. The work of these monks is supported by NGOs, as well as donations from urban centres[2]. With this support from urban areas, forest monks are able to help local communities in creating reserves for animals and protecting the forests that surround the monastery[2], some villages even rely on these forest temples to help support the direct needs of the community[3].


The local villagers are a mix of Lao, Thai, and Indigenous groups, and many other smaller groups of people local to Thailand that uphold their own traditional management practices. Many fall into the category of farmers who own some land, but there are some who are landless[6]. Villagers engage in many types of activities to protect the surrounding forests, such as patrolling the forests to deter illegal loggers, tree planting, and engaging younger generations in learning about sustainable forest management through the schooling system[3].

Interested Stakeholders


The main branch of the government in charge of forestry in Thailand is the Royal Forest Department (RFD). The RFD has the most direct contact with these forest villages[6]. There has been a lot of tension between the RFD, farmers, and villagers because there is poor communication between these stakeholders. Additionally, there are often attempts to take over community forests that have been operating for years or attempts to implement projects without first consulting with locals. In general, the government does not play a large role in the direct management of these local forests and instead passes bills that impact the operations of already existing unofficial community forests.


NGOs help to fund forest temples, and in the case of pilot programs for community forests, sometimes communities will receive funding from NGOs. In the beginning stages of social forestry programs and the movement to officially recognize community forests, NGOs were involved in providing funding to help with community tree planting and management, as well as ensuring the cultivation of healthy crops[2]. Some examples of NGOs that assist in different cases are the Project of Ecological Recovery and the Northern Development Workers Association which is a combination of NGOs[13]. These groups helped with protests, communication with the government, and support through campaigning.


Buddhist Practices in Forest Management

During the 1960s to mid-1990s, simultaneous environmental degradation and increasing rate of forest loss coupled with rapid economic growth, led to tension between environmentalist and the government.[7] The government claimed environmental degradation was caused by poverty, and therefore, argues that economic growth was the solution. [7]While environmentalists revealed that the government's agenda and policies push agricultural intensification and capital growth which promotes forest destruction.[7] Concerned about local people's lives and spirituality, environmentalist monks began to exist when they began to see the connection between Buddhism and conservation, whereby these ecological and spiritual issues were integrated with the local, social, political, and historical situation and context. [7]After witnessing the continual deforestation, monks found the increasing urgency to embed human environmental responsibility into Buddhist teachings. [7]Monks often work directly with village to find our specific concerns and solutions. [7]For instance, monks encouraged the implementation of integrated agriculture and subsistence farming rather than selling to markets.[7] The integrated agricultural model demonstrated the ability for land the regenerate without the use of chemicals fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. It demonstrated to the village the possibilities of natural farming. [7]

There is a connection between fundamental Buddhist concepts and the modern conservation ethic. These fundamentals are frugality, moderation, compassion, harmony, and sacredness of life[2]. Because of these values Buddhist monks have become forest educators and engage communities in tree planting days, which about 82% of forest temples engage in tree planting[2]. Another ritual that has been used to fight against deforestation is ordaining trees. This is a practice where monks bind yellow cloths on trees and this enhances the spirituality of the forest, people fear cutting down these sacred trees, and locals protect these trees[6]. This experience of symbolically ordaining trees brings attention to the threat of deforestation while also teaching the value of conservation.[7] The creation of boundaries and sacred land is another way monks protect forests. If a person is on temple grounds, certain acts such as hunting, and tree cutting or burning is an act of desecration that people avoid doing[2]. Since sacred places are key to biodiversity preservation, when the local people gather together to perform these rituals and ceremonies, it has shown to create a sense of place and a stronger sense of community. [14] When these communities integrate Buddhism with a collective sense of environmental responsibility, there is a understanding of reciprocity to protect the land and water, and by extension, enhance their livelihoods. [14]

Community Practices in Forest Management

Communities that reside in forests rely on plants such as bamboo shoots, fungi, fruits, nuts, and edible plants for subsistence, medicinal plants were harvested and animals were also hunted. [2] To encourage forest regeneration, prescribed burns were used during the dry season to open up space for certain plant species to thrive and grow for humans to eat, such as grasses or edible shoots.[2] It also controlled pests and diseases that were harmful to animals and plants. Further, there have been instances where a forest monk was able to negotiate "a thirty-year lease with the Royal Forestry Department to plant native trees (arranged by the teacher in the villager) on thirty-four hectares of contiguous "forest reserve" previously cleared by villagers" (p.119). [2] This replanting of native trees benefitted the village, and the surrounding forests, and improved the livelihood of indigenous wildlife. [2]

Critical Issues

Illegal Deforestation

Illegal foresters were a big issue in Thailand. Mass deforestation occurred, in 1961 there was about 53% of land under forest cover and later in 1986 those numbers reduced to 25% which did not keep with the governments goal of maintaining half the country under forest cover.[2] With the increased deforestation and degradation a logging ban was put in place in 1989.[6] With the introduction of forest monasteries and community forestry there has been a decrease in illegal logging but the degradation and impacts of illegal deforestation still remains.

Forest Degradation

As discussed in the section about the history of land use in Thailand, the push for agricultural intensification during the 60s led to the rate of environmental degradation being among the highest in Asia. [7] This included both forest loss and pollution levels. While certain forested areas remained intact and healthy, they were often the harder-to-reach places and more isolated from society.[3] The growth of cash crops, such as Eucalyptus which was fast-growing and good for commercial forestry, led to the clear-cutting of forest lands for agriculture and the building of roads to transport goods. [2] This land-use change led to habitat loss for native wildlife that previously relied on the forests.[2] Through the actions of communities and monks, tree planting and other forest care have been able to help regain some of the lost forest cover.

Struggle for Rights

The forestry management in Thailand, struggles to implement Indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge [7] and there is a greater urgency and effort required to do so. Moreover, local communities are unhappy with how the RFD is managing their forests.[2] Tensions between the two parties have led to poor communication and programs that harm the community's livelihood instead of benefitting them.[9] The lack of consultation and participation of Indigenous people in decision-making for the management of natural resources violates their rights. [6] Although there is the existence of customary rights, in practice, these rights can easily be violated through state law. [8] There are changes being made and in 2021 a new draft to recognize rights of Indigenous peoples has been drafted.[5]

Assessment of Power

Currently, local rights have not been fully realized in Thailand's forest management system, although many pilot programs and unofficial community forest management programs exist. [6]While Buddhist monks have a large impact on local involvement and play a very important role in protecting forests from deforestation, there still needs to be greater empowerment of local decision-making.[15]  There tends to be a colonial mentality underlying forest management in Thailand which favours the use of conventional Western scientific knowledge.[9] Therefore, the decentralization of resource control and political power may give rise to local empowerment and transition the ownership and control of the land back to the local communities.[9][15] Further on the idea of land back the recognition of Indigneous peoples and their traditional knowledge need to be recognized by the government. This lack of recognition for Indigenous peoples in Thailand takes away the power of Indigenous peoples over the land that they have lived on for centuries.

Recommendations and Gaps in Knowledge

Rituals and religion can be powerful tools for social change, as demonstrated in Sitthisuntikul, K., & Horwitz, P.'s (2015) paper, Buddhism helped villagers better understand why conservation is important and also fostered cooperation and unity within the community.[14] Moreover, the work contributed by the monks has received positive responses from the local communities.[16] This collaboration has resulted in the regeneration of forests and the recognition that religion has the potential to increase villagers' sense of community and garner greater collective action.[14] Nonetheless, more research must be done to evaluate how Buddhism can be incorporated into forest policy.[9] There is an opportunity for amendments to laws and policies to be made to recognize and acknowledge the rights of monks and their role in community forest management.[8] Therefore, we suggest further incorporating Indigenous and traditional local knowledge with scientific knowledge to enrich technologies and methods used in community forestry.[7] Study shows that effective forest management improves ecosystem services and is closely linked to human well-being.[3] Since community forest management (CFM) is a multi-faceted "method of sustainable forest resource management that provides a wide range of social, economic, and environmental benefits" (p.2), increasing community participation in management and decision-making will empower local communities to directly influence their future.[15] CFM can be accessed by examining whether benefits are shared in a transparent way if programs implemented can support local income, the level of local knowledge incorporated, and how much the community understands the principles of sustainable forest management. [15]

Much of our research and case studies have focused on the villages in northern Thailand, it will be valuable to also look at community forestry in southern Thailand. Although we investigated the benefits of religion in forest management, further research is required to assess how policies can be created or amended to enrich local decision-making and contribute to the recognition of local rights.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Preechachareoensri, Chonlanet; Manassrisuksi, Korn; Promchot, Passarasorn; Pungkul, Sukan (2020). "Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020 Report Thailand" (PDF). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved December 7, 2022.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 Wester, Lyndon; Yongvanit, Sekson (Fall 2005). "Farmers, foresters and forest temples: conservation in the Dong Mun uplands, Northeast Thailand". Geoforum. 36 (6): 735–749 – via Elsevier Science Direct.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 Taylor, J.L. (1991). "Living on the Rim: Ecology and Forest Monks in Northeast Thailand". Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. 6 (1): 106–125 – via JSTOR.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Leepreecha, Prasit (2019). "Becoming Indigenous Peoples in Thailand". Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. 50 (1): 32–50 – via Cambridge University Press.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Rattanakrajangsri, Kittisak (2022). "The Indigenous World 2022: Thailand". The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). Retrieved December 7, 2022.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 Salam, Md. Abdus; Noguchi, Toshikuni; Pothitan, Rachanee (2006). "Community Forest Management in Thailand: Current Situation and Dynamics in the Context of Sustainable Development". New Forests. 31: 273–291 – via Springer Link.
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 7.13 7.14 7.15 7.16 Queen, Christopher (2003). D. Keown, & C. S. Prebish (ed.). "Buddhism and development: The ecology monks of Thailand: Susan M. Darlington". Action dharma: (pp. 96-109 – via Routledge.
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 8.11 8.12 8.13 Kongcharoen, N. (2012). "Community forest management in Northern Thailand: perspectives on Thai legal culture (Doctoral dissertation)". University of Victoria.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 Phromlah, W.; Martin, P. V. (2011). "Reforming Governance for Sustainable forest management in Thailand". In Society of Interdisciplinary Business Research (SIBR) 2011 Conference on Interdisciplinary Business Research. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name ":9" defined multiple times with different content
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Wittayapak, Chusak; Baird, Ian G. (2018). "Communal land titling dilemmas in northern Thailand: From community forestry to beneficial yet risky and uncertain options". Land Use Policy. 71: 320–328 – via Elsevier Science Direct.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Boonjubun, Chaitawat; Haila, Anne; Vuolteenaho, Jani (2021). "Religious Land as Commons: Buddhist Temples, Monastic Landlordism, and the Urban Poor in Thailand". The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 80 (2): 585–636 – via Wiley Online Library.
  12. Chankrajan, Thanyaporn (2019). "State-community property-rights sharing in forests and its contributions to environmental outcomes: Evidence from Thailand's community forestry". Journal of Development Economics. 138: 261–273 – via Elsevier Science Direct.
  13. Zurcher, Sacha (2005). "Public participation in community forest policy in Thailand: The influence of academics as brokers" (PDF). Danish Journal of Geography. 105 (1): 77–88 – via Department of Geography and International Development Studies, Roskilde University, Denmark.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Sitthisuntikul, K., & Horwitz, P. (2015). "Collective rituals as meaningful expressions of the relationships between people, water and forest: A case study from Northern Thailand". 36(1): 88–103 – via Journal of Intercultural Studies. External link in |journal= (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Thammanu, S., Han, H., Ekanayake, E. M. B. P., Jung, Y., & Chung, J. (2021). "The impact on ecosystem services and the satisfaction therewith of community forest management in Northern Thailand". Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland). 13(23), 13474.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. Thammanu, S., Han, H., Marod, D., Zang, L., Jung, Y., Soe, K. T., Onprom, S., & Chung, J. (2021). "Non-timber forest product utilization under community forest management in northern Thailand". Forest Science and Technology. 17(1): 1–15.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

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