The Struggle for Land Rights in Thailand

Greetings from Thailand, where fighting hunger, achieving food security and land ownership are all bound together in a network of landless poor in Surattanee, a province in Southern Thailand. AJWS’s grassroots partner, The Coordination Committee on Natural Resources Management of Surattanee, whose name does not convey the creativity and vision of the farming families of which it’s comprised, brings together the landless poor, indigenous farming and laboring communities along with local human rights lawyers, and environmentalists and community activists to reclaim indigenous land that has been unjustly seized by the government. The struggle for land in the face of death threats from corrupt Thai companies and governments that have denied people their right to land is being challenged nationally by the Landless People’s Movement.

Over one million farming families are trying to prevent the loss of farm land, forest land and protected land to land speculators. Thailand’s land distribution (which is, on the books, described as an act of land reform) is a disgrace and underlies the structural injustices which are perpetuating deep-rooted class divisions in Thai society. Five hundred thousand Thai families are landless. Ninety percent of Thai citizens own one rai (land measurement) while the richest 10 percent own hundreds. Many villagers have been living and farming for generations but the state forest laws criminalize them as encroachers and subject them to imprisonment.

In the last several years, 400 communities formed a land reform movement. The movement advocates for land title deeds, community rules for land and forest management and land bank funds. The families involved in the movement are by no means squatters; they have a historical right to the land, a human right to build sustainable livelihoods and the right to live freely without the exploitation of forced labor from rubber or palm oil plantations.

Today I spent several hours with 101 farming families who are developing an ecologically diverse cooperative farm on government-contested land. They have spent the last six years working this land and the last two growing a range of crops. They consume, share and, when possible, sell their crops to sustain themselves. The farming families have been sued by a Thai company that has held an illegal lease of this land and they now face criminal prosecution.

In the face of the poverty and persecution, these farming families remain undaunted. The villagers repeatedly told me: “The goal of this project is not just to attain the land; it’s to work on it, think about what the families want to do with it, invest their time and energy and lives into it and then determine how they live on it.”

This community believes in using all it can access to create all that it needs. Villagers are clearing tracts of land that once grew palm oil trees to grow new, biodiverse crops. Since the palm oil trees have leached all the nutrients from the soil, the soil must first be composted before anything new can be grown in it. How do community members do this? They drive to caves that are several kilometers away to collect bat excrement, drive to local factories to collect coffee grinds and pick up rice husks to create compost for the fields.

The community says that while a portion of their people are hungry and members of the farm must go into the surrounding town to work additional jobs to support their families, since they began this project, they have a vision of living their lives with food sovereignty and full human rights.