Doing it differently in Thailand

01 August 2011 | News story

Thailand’s armed forces are involved in an uncharacteristic activity—a major conservation programme in cooperation with the local community.

Doi Mae Salong in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province is an unusual and counter-intuitive case of landscape management. The Doi Mae Salong watershed feeds into the Mae Chan River, a tributary of the Mekong. The area is classified as a Class 1 watershed, which requires a high degree of protection and limited human use. The area is controlled by the Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTAF) as part of a military reserve area.

This status arises from its sensitivity in security terms, both because of its proximity to the Myanmar border and as a legacy of the conflict between the military and communist insurgents during the 1970s. There are several similar military reserve areas in northeast Thailand.

Despite its protected status, the area is highly populated. The population includes remnants and descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces who fled to Burma after the Chinese revolution and later moved to Doi Mae Salong, where they were granted residency in return for assisting the armed forces against the insurgents. These ex-Kuomintang are now heavily involved in agriculture and tourism. There are also members of other ethnic groups, including Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Shan and Yao, and a significant number of refugees from Myanmar.

Doi Mae Salong is seriously deforested. There are areas of natural forest, particularly on hilltops, all part of a complex mosaic of agricultural plots (especially areas under shifting cultivation) and coffee and fruit tree plantations. The contrast between an area with protected status and a population involved in technically illegal agricultural activities is not uncommon in northern Thailand. What is unique is the fact that the RTAF is engaged in a process of participatory landscape management involving many different players.

In 2007 the RTAF initiated a reforestation project in honour of the King’s 80th birthday. The first efforts followed a classic command-and-control approach. Tree planting work began on deforested hilltops and slopes. However, these areas were already used for agriculture, leading to loud protests.

What happened next was surprising. The RTAF responded by rethinking its approach rather than enforcing decisions already made and approached the Asia Regional Office of IUCN in Bangkok for advice about more realistic approaches to conservation.

As a result, a land-use planning approach was developed involving villagers, Tambon leaders and officials from various government agencies, such as Tambons, the Land Development Office, and the Watershed Conservation and Management Unit, and NGOs.

The project area is the watershed core area, covering 90 square kilometres—the total watershed area is 335 square kilometres— and occupied by about 15,000 people.

It includes several villages and the town of Doi Mae Salong, a busy market and tourist centre with numerous restaurants, tea and coffee shops, guesthouses and hotels.

IUCN became involved in the landscape because it seemed to fit neatly with a major IUCN project, the Livelihoods and Landscape Strategy (LLS), which is being tested in selected landscapes in over 20 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The LLS approach is based on the idea that conservation and livelihood objectives can best be managed on a landscape scale, with multiple land-use types being balanced according to conservation and social objectives.

This differs from many traditional approaches to integrating conservation and development in that improving livelihoods is not seen as a way of achieving conservation, but as an essential function of ecosystems. The approach avoids centralized planning and focuses on the importance of negotiations and trade-offs between players around land uses.

For example, in the case of farming on sites highly subject to erosion, such as slopes and hill tops, alternative farming land in valleys is negotiated. Another somewhat radical approach is the planting of perennial fruit trees and cash crops (especially macadamia and coffee), which meet both conservation and livelihood objectives, in sites susceptible to erosion. Although these species help protect the watershed, conventional forest department practice would insist on the planting of forest species.

It is too early to measure identifiable improvements in livelihoods, but there is strong evidence that decisions are being made differently. Informal surveys of local people suggest fairly widespread knowledge of the new arrangements and that people are confident that the RTAF is serious about the approach. There seems to be a high degree of confidence about future security of access to agricultural land and resources. People do not feel their land will be removed. A rising level of trust is evident.

In only three to four years, work in the landscape has already led to significant changes in terms of areas reforested, although those areas are small compared to the overall size of the landscape. It is clear that the increased confidence about resource security has given people the incentive to plant and protect trees. With clear evidence that people want to plant profitable perennial crops, the elements are in place to ensure landscape restoration and, when the trees mature, contribute to significant income generation.

Another striking thing about Doi Mae Salong has been the involvement of the military in innovative development and conservation activities. The RTAF commander at Doi Mae Salong, Brigadier General Chaluay—promoted for his work at Doi Mae Salong—describes his assignment as the most difficult of his military career. In the past he was just used to giving orders, but now he feels trusted and relaxed.

Although the activities under LLS in Doi Mae Salong have formally ended, the Thailand office of IUCN is continuing its involvement including a focus on income generating activities.

This is an updated version of an article originally published in Asian Currents (e-bulletin of the Asian Studies Association of Australia), No 63, February 2010. The article was written by Bob Fisher, IUCN consultant and Tawatchai Rattanasorn, IUCN Senior Programme Officer in Thailand.

For more information, please contact Bob Fisher and Tawatchai Rattanasorn.