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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 29, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 43

Searching for a Balance
Can minorities and forests co-exist?
By JULIAN GEARING

It is the wet season in Chom Thong district in northern Thailand, but Praphat Ruenkhamfu's longan plantation is bone dry and the nearby Ping River is a mere trickle. The farmer waves toward Doi Inthanond, Thailand's highest mountain. He blames the tribes living on its sides for the water shortage. They burned away the trees to grow cash crops, he says, causing rain to run off the surface rather than seep into the soil.

Praphat, who heads the Chom Thong Conservation Group, is among the actors in a complex battle to protect Thailand's watershed areas. During a severe drought earlier this year, he led 4,000 fellow farmers in a week-long blockade of roads to the highlands, calling for the removal of the ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, hilltribe activists are demanding that the minorities be given rights to land, to a home. Praphat complains: "They are thinking only of people, not of the forest, of human rights, not natural rights."

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Water resources are dwindling. But is the shortage caused primarily by the hilltribes? The El Niño phenomenon was behind some droughts over the past three years. A reverse migration of unemployed folk from Crisis-hit cities has also put more pressure on water supplies in rural areas. And at least some of the deforestation results from the government's flawed development program for ethnic minorities. "To wean the tribes off opium production, the authorities pushed them to produce cash crops," says Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of the Ethnic Studies Center in Chiang Mai. "This was well-intentioned. But expanding cultivation in the hills and the use of agrochemicals had a serious effect on the environment."

Stripping of the forests is not just the work of minorities. Says a professor at Chiang Mai University: "The hilltribes use axes; illegal loggers use chainsaws and heavy machinery. The government is doing little to tackle deforestation by the big players." That may change. Angered by illegal logging at Salween National Park, Deputy Prime Minister Bhichai Rattakul wants stern action against the real culprits: "influential" businessmen.

Royal Forestry Department chief Plodprasop Suraswasdi says watersheds have been seriously damaged - for example, in Nan province. Yet deforestation is more acute in the northeast and central plains, while the cutting by tribes takes place in the north. Indeed, minorities such as the Karen are known for nurturing the forests.

But the bad old ways will have to go, especially for tribes such as the Hmong, who rely on destructive slash-and-burn cultivation. Surin Nateepaiwat, a Hmong who makes his living from growing cabbages, knows that. "We don't want to make the same mistakes as the older generation," he says. He won't get a chance if conservation groups such as the Thailand-based Dhammanaat Foundation have their way. Hilltribes have to move before ecology can be restored, says Princess Nunie Svasti, head of the group, which counts Britain's Prince Charles among its patrons.

Dhammanaat's seemingly uncompromising approach has drawn some flak. But its secretary-general, Wasan Jompakdee, suggests there is a middle way. "It depends on where the tribes are and on their agricultural practices. Not all have to be moved out," he says. Critical areas such as the headwaters of a stream should be returned to forest. But blanket eviction, Wasan fears, will only force landless minorities to resettle in city slums, leaving a clear field for well-connected locals to exploit the forest areas. Cultivation methods in the hill country would have to change, of course. And so would the way water is utilized in the lowlands. Protecting people and forests need not be mutually exclusive goals.

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