INTERVIEW-Thai minister vows to make resolving land claims in forests 'top priority'

By Rina Chandran, Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, Aug 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Thai government will review conflicting land claims in the country's national parks, the environment minister said on Wednesday as he announced plans to set up a group this month to try to resolve such cases involving indigenous people.

Hundreds of indigenous people have been charged with trespass and evicted under the forest reclamation order of 2014. A new National Parks Act aimed at boosting conservation imposes strict penalties on forest dwellers.

"Resolving the issue of conflicting land claims in national parks is a top priority," Varawut Silpa-archa, minister of natural resources and environment, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in a Bangkok hotel.

"But as much as I would like to expedite all the cases, we want to do this in the right manner, by reviewing the cases, verifying the claims, bringing all stakeholders to the table, and tailor-making solutions for the communities."

Varawut, 46, the son of a former Thai prime minister and former banker educated in Britain and the United States, was banned from politics from 2008-13 when his former party was one among many dissolved by the constitutional court.

He took office in July under a new government led by junta chief-turned civilian Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The military government in 2010 had vowed to "take back the forest" and pledged to increase Thailand's forest cover to about 40% of the total surface area from about a third.

But land rights activists have voiced concerns that the government's policies have hurt indigenous people who had lived in the areas long before they were declared national parks.

Globally, as authorities prioritised conservation, more than 250,000 people were removed from protected areas in 15 countries from 1990 to 2014, according to Washington D.C.-based advocacy Rights and Resources Institute.

In Thailand conflicts may arise from a multiplicity of maps, said Varawut, after meeting with civil society members and indigenous community representatives in Bangkok.

"There are military maps, land department maps, and forest department maps. There are slight differences between them, so there are overlapping claims," he said.

"We are looking to reconcile these maps, and verify the claims. But it will take time," said Varawut, who is also president of a local football club.

He said a group would be set up by month-end to review land claims. After they are verified, land would be returned to the people on condition that they lived there and support conservation efforts.

Earlier this month, a special report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the first time recognised indigenous land rights as important for curbing global warming.

In Thailand, a regional court in June upheld an encroachment verdict against 14 villagers related to the Sai Thong National Park in the northeastern province of Chaiyaphum.

In a similar case, 110 residents of Bo Kaew village, also in Chaiyaphum, have been ordered to leave their homes by Aug. 27. Villagers from Bo Kaew met Varawut on Wednesday and handed him a petition to recognise their land rights.

"I have listened to recommendations from various communities, and I will consider them," he said.

"I am in favour of people living in harmony with forests, and forests being in harmony with people." (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)