Land row stirs hornet's nest

Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda has landed in hot water over a land dispute in which he granted approval to a company under the Krathing Daeng (Red Bull) group to use community forest land in tambon Ban Dong in Khon Kaen's Ubonrat district.

Locals who have used the 31-rai plot in the area designated as community forest made a complaint against the permit which appeared to have breached regulations. Their complaint was picked up by a watchdog web page.

After the scandal became headline news, Gen Anupong ordered a probe. It was a difficult situation for him as he was the one who signed the permit for Krathing Daeng to rent the disputed land in Huay Mek community forest at 10,000 baht per rai for five years. Initially, he said the process seemed lawful and, according to state documents, no villagers objected to the company's request to use the land. The land, as described in state documents, is "barren and has no water source". The minister added that members of the public, private companies and state agencies are free to make such requests.

The minister said he had only seen documents showing the villagers unanimously agreeing with the permit. Besides, according to Khon Kaen deputy governor Suwapong Kittipatpiboon, before the permit was granted, a public hearing was held on Oct 10, 2012 with 14 agencies and local residents from 15 villages in tambon Ban Dong taking part. The documents were issued by the Ban Dong tambon administration organisation.

But the other side of the story is different. The villagers insisted they had never given consent to the company's request, as claimed by local authorities. Instead, as incumbent users of the forest land, they were upset to find that the company which bought about 500 rai of land near the community forest years ago won the approval.

The villagers said they have jointly preserved the forest and kept it fertile from 1957 until it became known as community forest. Under community forest regulations, villagers are allowed to enter the area for forest products to make a living but felling trees is forbidden.

Gen Anupong wanted the authorities' probe to be concluded in 15 days. He promised to revoke the land permit if it is found the application to use the land does not comply with regulations.

The dispute shows a sad fact about natural resources management in this country where the state tends to give favours to business giants, while marginalising farmers.

Numerous landless farmers have faced eviction orders -- in a state drive to conserve forests -- regardless of their ancestral rights.

This week P-Move, an advocacy group for the rights of the poor, stepped up a call for the regime to halt blanket evictions and recognise the poor's right to access natural resources, in particular, land, for the sake of social justice.

The Huay Mek scandal also demonstrates the dark side of public hearings held by the state which can just be a cosmetic process to enable project owners to gain approval for them. How easy to make it appear that the project has won support from locals, while the state mechanism is used to suppress voices of opponents. Many locals elsewhere have lodged similar complaints against this process.

Among them are those protesting against coal-fired power plants in Krabi and Songkhla proposed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. For the latter, local villagers have disputed a series of public hearings which they said were just part of efforts to win the go-ahead. Such bogus processes must stop.

Back to the Huay Mek land row, Gen Anupong must ensure that the probe is straightforward, fair and transparent to lay the case to rest.

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