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Posts from the ‘Forests’ Category

GUEST EDITORIAL: What Mushrooms Tell Us About Isaan’s Ecological Future

2015 December 7

What do mushrooms and Isaan people have in common? They both flourish in difficult places, and are resilient enough to make those places home. Both have been affected by changes in recent decades that were as much economic as ecological: exploitation of labor and forest lands, migration of working people and the disappearance of mushroom habitats.

By Peera Songkünnatham

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Freshly picked het ko which belong to the diverse fungi family of russulaceae, with over 1,900 known species worldwide.

One thing has remained constant, though – Isaan people’s love for picking edible wild mushrooms. This article is a celebration of the joys of picking mushrooms, but also a warning, as the places one found mushrooms before might no longer be there.

Isaan was where I first learned to pick mushrooms, last year during my ethnographic fieldwork. Somewhere in Khueang Nai District, Ubon Ratchathani Province, some way in from a two-lane asphalt road beyond a temple and some rice paddies and rubber fields, stood a eucalyptus forest. Tall, equally spaced, in orderly rows, left and right.

On one side, a sign read “Forest Industry Organization | 1983 Plot,” and on the other “1984 Plot.” A monopolistic state enterprise, the Forest Industry Organization started introducing eucalyptus plantations in 1975 to rehabilitate national reserve forestlands as well as to accommodate fast-growing demands for fuel wood. In effect, plantations like this one were saved from being cleared, yet at the same time they were slated for logging for state revenue. Thirty years of monopoly, however, did enable thirty years of flourishing of forest undergrowth.

At first glance, you wouldn’t expect a bounty of edible mushrooms in a eucalyptus forest. How could they grow on land devoted to a single species? Yet, there they were – in groups or alone, by termite hills, hidden under a bush or dry leaves, or barely above ground. I would learn to appreciate mushrooms in all their distinct varieties – some aromatic, some more phallic than others, mushrooms of all the tints of the rainbow plus white, grey, and black. There were even het phoeng yu-ka, bitter and crunchy purple mushrooms growing on eucalyptus bark.

We were there as casual pickers, our end goal was to cook a big spicy pot of mushrooms that day to share with our families. It was like an adventure game with our team as tutorial, our eyes as skill, our shovel as equipment, our long sleeves and pants as armor, and a lot of luck as a fun variable.

Het ra-ngok sell for about 120 baht per kilo in the city market.

We were not “professional” mushroom pickers who go in the wee hours hunting for mushrooms in specific spots, walking for hours on end with only brief pauses for rest. By the time we went there, the professionals were already sitting under thatched stands by the main road, showcasing their pricey picks. Het pluak – whose long roots grow from termite hills – were the most coveted, some years fetching 300 baht per kilo. Then there were het ra-ngok, their white shells and orange tips glistening like salted egg. These sold for about 120 baht per kilo in the city market, but half that price or less by the roadside. The friend who took me there estimated that the monetary value of the mushrooms from this forest alone – less than 200 rai –  is about one million baht per year.

Several decades ago, forests stood right next to many villages in Isaan and villagers relied on the forest for food. Whenever they went in the forests surrounding their village, they would come out with baskets so full of mushrooms that they didn’t care when they spilled.

Once home, a couple of elderly villagers would sit and look at the pick and hold them up one by one, shaking their head and throwing away suspicious ones, keeping only those they knew were edible and tasty. Few kinds were “trusted” back then – a large majority was tossed out to rot.

Not so anymore – those forests virtually no longer exist. During the 1980s, many of the remaining forests in Isaan were declared degraded and villagers could then legally clear the land for crops and obtain land titles.

As the region’s population leaped from 6.8 million in 1952 to 12 million in 1970, and to 19 million in 1989, forests were cleared for farming. Northeastern Thailand’s sprawling forests covered 102,667 square kilometers in 1952, but by 1973 the number was halved, and almost halved again by 1982. All this time, despite the deforestation, there was less land to farm per person: the ratio decreased from 1.88 rai per person in 1952 to 1.57 in 1989.

What this decrease in number does not account for is the fact that most Isaan people by then had turned to seasonal labor, often in faraway places, or started up small businesses, sometimes replacing their rice agriculture.

With forests cleared, mushrooms still thrived on the edges of irrigated rows of crops and in the extant forests preserved by monks. Due to the scarcity of forestlands, more people flocked to the remaining forests farther away, ultimately leading to increased local knowledge of mushrooms and local competition in these areas.

The morning we went mushroom picking, we had arrived about 6 a.m. – later than many other groups. Villagers within an hour‘s radius in all directions came here, with license plates from Ubon Ratchathani, Sisaket, Yasothon, and Amnat Charoen provinces.

Sometimes we walked for ten minutes without spotting anything but poisonous mushrooms. Once I came upon a big red mushroom, so big it was falling apart. But my friend’s uncle told me it was already too old I should leave it on the soil so it could spread again.

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The author’s first pick of the morning.

After a couple of hours, we returned to the pickup truck. The most popular question was “man bo? (were you lucky?).” It was a little like discussing the lottery. We showed one another our picks, ate some pork floss sandwiches, and prepared to return home.

This was in mid-2014. When mushroom season came again in 2015, I returned to the forest only to find all the eucalyptus trees logged, felled to feed a burgeoning industry. Minor branches were discarded where they were cut, blocking most walking paths. Only a small portion of the forest was left intact. Most mushroom pickers have now gone elsewhere.

What lies ahead? This uprooted eucalyptus forest will probably be overtaken by nearby villagers in order to cultivate cash crops. But things may turn out differently. A growing number of Thais embrace the cause of forest conservation. Many times, however, conservation is framed as a struggle between non-human nature and (urban) human greed, a frame which excludes foraging and other indigenous uses of forests. If picking mushrooms becomes a “cool” hobby like it has in the U.S., how would young Thais’ imagination of forest conservation be reconfigured? I hope that young conservationists cultivate a nuanced kind of understanding of forests, one where humans are neither greedy encroachers or scrupulous conservers.

Foragers’ relationship to forests will still remain strong. Picking mushrooms is still very much associated with the traditional, rural way of life in Thailand. This year, Matichon Online reported on luk thung star Pai Pongsathorn’s mushroom picking trip with his mother, indicating a loyalty to his cultural origins.

This sense of rootedness is not only good for nostalgia, but also food for imagining a future. Conservationists, for example, could translate their cause in ways that resonates with this sense of rootedness in order to develop better demands of environmental protection policy.

Maybe one of the traits Isaan people possess that mushrooms lack could help us both flourish, and that is memory. Villagers told me that many ecological resources might soon become things of the past: tasty marsh-dependent bullfrogs, lowland buffers for seasonal floods, precious hardwood now being stolen overnight to meet Chinese demand.

But there is hope. Villagers I met have made local agreements to not disturb the village’s san pu ta (ancestral shrine) forest area, and to not smoke out one particular kind of wasp nest, for example. Memory, inherent in these initiatives, forms the basis for reaching community solutions to upcoming ecological scarcity. When we realize that the places we found mushrooms before are no longer there, we may mourn. But we may also remind ourselves to make a place – or rather leave a place – for the mushrooms to flourish.

Peera Songkünnatham was born and raised in Sisaket City. After studying Anthropology and Sociology at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, Peera is now striking out a path as a freelance writer and translator based in their hometown.

 

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GUEST NEWS CONTRIBUTION: Sakon Nakhon Court Jails Villagers For Forest Encroachment

2015 October 22
by The Isaan Record

By Anne Sadler and William Lee

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Residents of Jatrabiab village and one of their lawyers gather for an Isaan-style lunch in the shadow of the Sakon Nakhon courthouse. Relatives and friends of all ages flocked to the scene of the day’s proceedings in a show of support.

SAKON NAKHON – The ongoing clash between the government’s forest reclamation policy and community land rights in the Northeast came to a head on October 21st. Standing before the provincial court in Sakon Nakhon Province, nine villagers from Jatrabiab village — each convicted with encroaching on protected forests — listened as the judge handed down their sentences.

For six of the nine villagers, the verdict was disheartening. Each must abandon their land, pay a fine ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 baht, and submit to a form of probation for at least a year. Still, they fared much better than three of their neighbors.

Mrs. Kong Phongsakbun, Mr. Bunsom Phongsakbun, and Mrs. Surat Srisawat share 40 rai of land in an area the government has deemed “reserve forest.” For working on this land, Mrs. Kong and Mr. Bunsom received a sentence of three years in prison, while Mrs. Surat received two and a half years.

Wednesday’s sentencing is the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2012, when Thai authorities arrested 34 Jatrabiab villagers — largely rubber farmers—for trespassing in a reserve forest.

Prosecutors’ initially lacked the willpower to take substantive action against the accused. The villagers’ court cases lay dormant for some time, but were revived after the 2014 military coup thrust into power an active junta bent on pushing its “master plan,” which includes a commitment to swiftly increase Thailand’s forest cover to 40% — up from the present nationwide proportion of 33%.

A primary government strategy to reach this goal has been to reclaim illegally used forestlands, though villagers across Isaan argue that the forests are being used legally. They say the borders of reserve forests, national parks and protected areas, which the government mandates must be free of human activity — were drawn with people’s livelihood inside them.

Holding back tears, 51-year-old Mr. Phakdi Srisawat, the husband and son-in-law of the trio facing jail time, was overcome by the judge’s ruling. “It is unfair, I don’t know what to do,” he said, struggling to find words. Mr. Phakdi now faces the daunting task of collecting a total bail of more than one million baht, without a job or land to leverage, since his land was also confiscated.

While distressed about the fate of her grandparents and mother, 27-year-old Ms. Saowalak Srisawat fears most for her father. “Without my mother, my father is broken-hearted,” she said. “In this way, he suffers more than my mother.”

Mr. Thanomsak Rawatchai, one of the three lawyers representing the villagers, expressed disappointment with the verdict. “What the judge gave to the villagers, it’s too much,” he said.

Though nearly all of the villagers pled guilty to avoid harsher sentences, they maintain their arrests were unjust. By their account, they have owned the land in question for decades, and have the tax records to prove it. Mr. Phakdi asserts his wife’s parents had lived on their land for at least 34 years.

In a narrative difficult to substantiate, villagers claim that the Royal Forest Department (RFD) — a government agency responsible for managing forest resources — agreed to provide them with land titles in 2012. It turned out to be a deceptive ploy, they allege, as the RFD collected and submitted their signatures to the police. The police then arrested all those listed as “trespassers.”

RFD officials emphasize that the target of the reclamation policy are investors: wealthy landowners exploiting the forests for personal gain. Furthermore, NCPO Order 66 requires that poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to June 2014 not be adversely affected. However, evidence suggests the reality is the reverse.

Even considering Thailand’s ever-changing political system, the legal definition of an “investor” is remarkably inconsistent. In an interview earlier this month, Sakon Nakhon RFD officials stated that those with more than 50 rai of land qualify as investors. Some villagers claim it is 30 rai. On Wednesday, for the judge, it was 25 rai.

“What law does the judge use to send people to jail for 25 rai of land?” said Mr. Laothai Ninnuan, an advisor to the Isaan Farmer Association who has worked with the Jatrabiab community for over 30 years. “The law states that they can have 50 rai. The judge just made that law up,” he claimed.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, all but one of the 34 villagers involved, a juvenile at the time of his arrest, have received sentencing. Most of those facing jail-time are in varying stages of the appeals process.

Mr. Thanomsak stressed that judges have the wrong attitude about the relationship between villagers and forestland. While judges think of villagers as catalysts of environmental destruction, Mr. Thanomsak explained that, in reality, their communities have been able to sustain themselves and the land for decades.

Throughout the day, dozens of Jatrabiab villagers sat in an outdoor structure adjacent to the courthouse, gathered in solidarity for the nine awaiting their sentences. When asked about the large turnout of supporters, Mr. Phakdi choked out just one word —“happy”— before succumbing to silence.

For now, the trio remains behind bars, awaiting bail. “We will continue to fight; we will find a way to get them out,” said Ms. Saowalak. “But today, I don’t know what to do.”

The State Prosecutor’s Office was not available for comment, citing official business.

Anne Sadler studies English Literature at Davidson College (North Carolina) and William Lee majors in Environmental Science at Tulane University of Louisiana.

The Master Plan: Solving Deforestation or Yet Another Strategy to Remove and Evict People?

2015 January 8
by The Isaan Record

The NCPO claims to be reclaiming forest land from investors, but the poor continue to suffer. Junta policy introduced under martial law destroys livelihoods of thousands of forest inhabitants.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has set out to end a long-standing history of land rights conflicts between the Thai state and communities living in national forest reserve areas. Despite junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha request for citizens’ “Participation and Honesty” in the matter, the NCPO’s strategy has been less about collaboration and more about amputation when confronting forest communities. 

The NCPO began its campaign in June with the release of Order 64/2014. The order enables government agencies to put an end to deforestation by removing any encroachers on national reserve lands. In August the NCPO followed up with a Master Plan describing how to implement Order 64/2014. The end goal is to increase forest cover in Thailand to 40% within ten years.

A discourse surrounding the Master Plan is that commercial investors’ exploitation of Thailand’s natural resources is responsible for deforestation and must be stopped. The NCPO appeared sincere in its intentions to target only wealthy investors after releasing Order 66/2014, which states that a supplemental directive government operation must not impact the poor and landless who had lived on the land before the enforcement of Order 64.

Yet, as the NCPO has implemented its Master Plan, it has repeatedly identified many impoverished villagers who have lived in the forest for decades as “investors.” As a result they have lost the protection of Order 66. In some cases the NCPO has made allegations with scanty evidence that villagers are part of production ring funded by wealthy investors.

Village communities in the Isaan region have been impacted directly. At present, the NCPO is charging 17 villagers for trespassing and has seized the farmlands of 70 families in Samchai District, Kalasin Province. Similarly, they are charging 37 villagers for trespassing Phuphan District, Sakhon Nakon Province, and have already destroyed upwards of 383 rais of villagers’ rubber tree farms. If the villagers are found guilty of these charges, they could be imprisoned for up to two years. In Khon San District, Chaiyaphum Province the villages of Baw Keaw and Khok Yao are facing forced eviction from their homes and farmlands, and have receive notices demanding they evacuate. The NCPO evicted at least 1,000 villagers from their homes and land in Kao Bart village, Non Dindaeng District, Buriram Province.

In November the NCPO reported successful prosecution of over 500 forest encroachers and the seizure of over 300,000 rai of land throughout Thailand. Currently, the National Human Rights Commission has received 32 complaints regarding land rights violations but expects more exist.

The NCPO’s crusade has been terribly efficient. Instead of democratically resolving a conflict between the two sides, it has physically and politically removed the villagers from the conversation on land tenure altogether. Martial law has silenced protests from people’s movements on all levels of society, and villagers are left waiting for the day when they can demand their rights and return to their homes.

Produced by Paul Sullivan, Bowdoin College & Wilder Nicholson, Bowdoin College.

Contact: Isaan Land Rights Issue Study Group  (NGO-COD) Northeast
six hundred and eighty-six fifths Soi Wuttaram, Namunag Rd., Muang District., Khon Kaen 40000
Tel. / Fax. (66) 043-228-
992/322267

Isaan Poor Targeted by Junta’s Forest Policies

2014 October 19
by Evan Gershkovich

Guest contributor, Evan Gershkovich, reports on how the government’s new forest policy impacts the poor far more than the rich landowners and resort operators the government claims to be targeting.

SAKON NAKHON-On October 1, 37 villagers of Jatrabiap village were arrested and held on bail for charges of illegally reclaiming and occupying a section of Phu Phan Reserve Forest. This past June a task force of park officials, soldiers, and police cut down 18 families’ rubber tree farms totaling 383 rai (151.4 acres), in Non Jaroen village in the same reserve. According to a local activist, officials plan to clear-cut a total of 10,000 rai of rubber trees in the area by the end of the year, a move that could deprive 700 households of income.

These actions are in line with a policy of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) which came to power through a coup in late May. According to Laothai Ninuan, an advisor to the Assembly of the Poor and to the Northeastern Network for Development of the Poor on Land-Forest Issues based in the area, state authorities are in the process of evicting more than 50 Northeastern communities from forest areas.

The increasingly aggressive attitude on the part of state authorities is part of a trend that has either removed or aims to evict more than 50 Northeastern communities from forest areas and threatens the livelihoods of what one forestry official has estimated to be as many as two million people throughout the country.

A Jatrabiap villager surveys the remaining and destroyed rubber trees; authorities plan to cut down the rest by the end of the year.

A Jatrabiap villager surveys the remaining and destroyed rubber trees; authorities plan to cut down the rest by the end of the year.

In June, the NCPO issued Order 64, which calls for an end to deforestation and forest encroachment. The order aims to regulate corrupt and large-scale commercial operations in reserve forests. Order 66, issued three days later, requires that the poor or landless people living on reserve land prior to Order 64 not be adversely affected.

The attorney representing Jatrabiap villagers, Tanom Sakrawaschai, does not believe that Order 66 has actually functioned as an effective check on Order 64.

“In practice, Order 64 has mostly been enforced against common villagers rather than large-scale investors,” says Mr. Tanom.

Villagers have little way to respond to evictions. With the help of Mr. Laothai, Non Jaroen villagers sent a petition to the Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) demanding the NCPO call off plans to destroy the remaining rubber trees. The NHRC has received over a dozen of such petitions.

A meeting in Bangkok with the NCPO and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on August 10 where the NCPO was urged to change its policy regarding forest encroachment.

Apparently unsuccessful, four days after the Bangkok meeting, Mr. Palinchai Sonsoe, the head of Phu Phan District, issued an order for Jatrabiap villagers to vacate the land they used to grow rubber trees. When they refused, Mr. Palinchai issued a warrant for their arrest.

There is question as to who benefits from the rubber trees. Local authorities claim that investors hire the farmers to tap the rubber. Mr. Palinchai does not believe that the villagers can afford to grow rubber trees on their own.

“Growing rubber trees is not done by the poor,” he said. “It is done by investors who hire the villagers to work for them.”

When asked for evidence that investors had hired the villagers to work for them, Mr. Palinchai could not produce any.

Local villagers used to grow cassava and sugar cane. In 2001, local authorities introduced rubber saplings into the area as part of the agricultural policy of the first Thaksin Shinawatra administration.

Contrary to government claims, villagers say they own the trees and now the income of many families depends solely on rubber.

Ms. Sunan Singwong, a 28-year-old farmer in Jatrabiap village, says that families started with one rai and then gradually added one rai at a time. Ms. Sunan claims that relatives working in other provinces provide money to help grow more rubber trees.

According to Mr. Laothai, an average family in Jatrabiap village has a modest holding of about 15 rai. Each month, a family typically makes about 1,000 baht per rai from the harvest of rubber. With two people working the average of 15 rai of trees, they can expect to earn less than 300 baht a day.

While not the poorest of the poor, these families are not getting rich either. It is for this reason that Mr. Laothai argues that villagers are by no means the wealthy landholders that NCPO Order 64 aims to target and ought to be protected by Order 66.

Although the Non Jaroen and Jatrabiap villagers claim to have been living on their land for generations, the area was named Phu Phan National Park in 1972. After negotiations with villagers and NGOs in 1993, cabinet ministers issued a resolution allowing the Agriculture Land Reform Office to allocate land to villagers.

But now the government seems to be revoking that resolution. Mr. Palinchai insists that he will follow the NCPO’s order. “I have to seize all reserve forest area,” he says. “The rubber trees must be cut and destroyed.”

The NCPO policy, though, has made land tenure uncertain and threatens the livelihoods of two million people throughout the country. Ms. Sunan has little doubt about the resolve of the government. “I think the government will cut down more of our trees and seize our land,” she says. “But we are poor. From what I’ve heard about [the NCPO] order, they say that if we are poor we should be able to keep our land.”

Dr. Komsan Rueangritsakul of the Royal Forest Department’s Bureau of Community Forestry Management acknowledged the problems with the NCPO order in a previous interview.

“This problem is an old, old problem, but our first priority is to ensure that no more forest land is converted for commercial use,” he told Khao Sod English. “There are two million people in protected forested areas in Thailand, and they are not criminals, they are farmers.”

Mr. Laothai fears that the criminalization of villagers in the Northeast will continue. He also worries that he himself might be arrested.

“It’s not that I’m scared for myself,” says Mr. Laothai. “I’ve been fighting dictatorship for a long time. We’ve had a lot of coups in Thailand. But if I go to those areas, the villagers will be in even more trouble than they already are; the military will think that I’m trying to spark a political movement in the area.”

His fear is not uncommon in the climate of martial law. The ban on discussion of politics in groups of five or more and the frequent “summons” of other AOP leaders has given many like Mr. Laothai pause.

“I just need to be careful,” he says.

Dr. Sataporn Roengtam, a professor of Public Administration at Khon Kaen University, believes that the targeting of villagers by district officers will continue unless the government’s policy is clarified and protects the rights of the poor.

“In Isaan, there are a lot of poor farmers who only plant a few rai of rubber trees, but the local authorities don’t make a distinction between the poor and the large-scale businesses run by corrupt people who are taking land from the state – that’s who the policy was meant for,” he said in an interview.

Like villagers, Dr. Sataporn feels there is a disconnect between policy makers and people on the ground. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this, and I really do think that higher government officials really mean this policy for large commercial operations; it’s the lower level government officials who are using this policy to take advantage of poor people. And this is a big problem in Thailand right now.”

The first court hearing in the case against Jatrabiap villagers is scheduled for November 21. The attorney, Mr. Tanom, is uncertain about the outcome of the case; Ban Jatrabiap is located in Phu Phan National Park, he notes, and the 1993 Cabinet resolution does not allow the growing of rubber trees.

Mr. Tanom worries that the court may decide to issue severe penalties, which could include up to fifteen years in prison, confiscation of land, and fines of up to 150,000 baht per rai in violation.

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Phinitnan Chanasabaeng contributed reporting.

Evan Gershkovich is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. Follow Evan on Twitter @EvanGershkovich