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The forestry situation in Thailand

Amnuay Corvanich

Thailand is a South-East Asian country with an approximate area of 514,000 kmē Its population in 1982 was about 47 million. Of the total geographical area of the country 38 per cent is covered by forest, and only 25 per cent of this is classified as productive forest. The forest area has decreased at an alarming rate during the past decade. The major causes for the reduction of the forest arise from socio-economic problems and can be identified as follows:

First, Thailand is a developing country whose economy is based on agriculture: 80 per cent of the population are farmers and cultivators. Some major agricultural products such as maize and tapioca are grown as field crops cultivated on a more or less temporary basis rather than from permanent farming. Thus, the problem of cultivators encroaching into the forest is intensified when such crops are in great demand in the world markets.

Second, the birth-rate is high, with a population increase of about 3 per cent per annum. The rate of industrialization is low compared with this, causing the new generation to continue to attempt to gain a livelihood through the traditional occupation of agriculture.

Third, there is still a high percentage of illiteracy, which makes it difficult for the people to accept new farming technology introduced by government officials.

Fourth, illiteracy also accounts for the lawless habits of villagers living in remote or inaccessible areas where laws and regulations are often ignored or violated. Government authorities always deal with these violations by compromise, and because punishments given are mild, the people are undeterred from continuing to encroach upon the forests and to burn them down to grow field crops. When the soil loses its fertility they leave the old farms and move deeper into the forest to obtain new land. This practice of shifting cultivation has become a very serious problem in the country.

Fifth, some politicians take advantage of the illiteracy or low standard of education of the rural people by promising, during their election campaigns, to open new land for crop growing. After having been elected to parliament they support the encroachment of villagers upon the forest.

Sixth, as in other countries with tropical rain forest, forest management in Thailand is based on the selection system under which the trees to be harvested have to be marked by authorized forest officers. This system was appropriate in the past when the population was small, the cost of living low, and the people were more law-abiding. Now, however, the situation has changed considerably. The selection system is disadvantageous because the marked trees, which are smaller than in the past, are sparsely distributed throughout a vast annual coupe through which an extensive road network has to be constructed to extract the trees. Each year this network is extended to a new annual coupe in the forest covered by the concession. Cultivators follow these new roads into the forest and open up new areas for shifting cultivation; thus the rate of forest destruction largely depends on the rate at which areas are opened up for timber harvesting. The average size of an annual coupe is normally 10 kmē, and at present there are about 400 forest concessions in the country.

Finally the income of government officials is low (the minimum salary in 1982 was about U.S.$660 per annum), while the cost of living is high. Thus some people in authority are encouraged to use the marking system as a bargaining point with the concessionaires. Provided that an inducement is given, a larger number of high-quality trees are marked than is provided for in the management prescriptions. Thus this misconduct by some authorized officials accelerates the rate of forest destruction. Forest management through the selection system breaks down, and only trees of poor quality and less desirable species are left.

The concept that forests should belong to the state has been held in Thailand since the foundation of the Royal Forest Department eighty-five years ago; this is similar to the situation in other developing countries in the South-East Asian Region, where most of the forests are state-owned. The concept of private ownership of forests has been discouraged or ignored by governments. State ownwership of forests was appropriate in the past because the birthrate was low and the demand for land for cultivation was not so high. Now the situation has changed; the population is increasing rapidly, and the need for land for cultivation is greater, but the rate of illiteracy is still high. The concept that the forest belongs to the state is related to the forest encroachment problem since people in developing countries believe that what belongs to the state should also belong to them, and so they are encouraged to violate forest laws and regulations. This applies to most developing countries, and Thailand is no exception.

Solutions and Recommendations

A number of measures to solve the problem are being tried in Thailand, as follows:

The government is trying to increase employment in industry, in order to reduce the proportion of the population who depend on agriculture. Investment in industry from foreign countries, as well as by local entrepreneurs, is being encouraged. Restrictions are being placed on the quantities which may be exported of field crops, such as cassava and maize, which are the cause of the reduction of the forest area. Universities and government agencies are carrying out research on the increase of crop production from permanent agriculture, and new, appropriate agricultural technology is being transferred to farmers in remote areas, to help them to use their existing land more efficiently.

Family planning has been promoted on an extensive scale during the last five years, by both government and private organizations. The rate of population increase has been reduced to 2.5 per cent, compared with 3 per cent five years ago. It is expected that the rate will be reduced to 1.9 per cent by the end of the next five-year plan.

Elimination of illiteracy in rural areas has been stepped up. It has now become compulsory for every child to attend school for at least six years. More schools have been built in the rural areas. Adult education has been promoted extensively throughout the country. A new open university began work a few years ago using mass media such as radio, television and postal services to bring lectures to students. About 100,000 students were enrolled in this open university in the first year. The subject of forest conservation has been included in the curricula at every education level as the first step in a campaign for conservation of forests.

The forest village system, a modified form of agro-forestry, has been used successfully as one of the measures to reconcile the interests of the cultivators who want to encroach into the forest and the authorities who want to reforest the land. Certain kinds of cash crops are allowed to be grown in between the planted trees. Members of a forest village earn their incomes from working as reforestation workers, from selling their crops and from home industries, supervised by the chief of the reforestation unit. They can move their crops from one planting area to another, according to the planting plan for the forest trees; this is like the shifting cultivation to which they are accustomed. Each family participating in the scheme is given a piece of land on which to build a house and make a home garden. Other facilities such as electricity, water, schooling, transportation and medical care are provided. A good understanding is developed between the cultivators and the government officials. Everyone benefits from the system; the cultivators earn a higher income, and the government gets more land for forestry. Up to the present about 100 forest villages have been established throughout the country, under the supervision of the Forest Industries Organization and the Royal Forest Department.

Trials are being made of a system of forest conversion, in which small areas are clear-felled and replanted immediately; it is hoped that if this is successful it will replace the selection system. This new system will not require such an extensive road network, and will, therefore, make it easier for the authorities to prevent shifting cultivators moving into the forest. Under the new system trees of all sizes and of all species must be felled and removed from the area, and to enable the wood to be fully utilized an integrated wood industry will need to be established.

The concept of private forestry should be integrated into the forest management policy. The government must realize that the maintenance of all the forests in the country is a difficult task requiring a great number of foresters; this burden should be shared by the private sector. The creation of non-government forests should begin with communal forests at the lowest government administrative level, that is the village. The present Government of Thailand has a scheme for creation of more opportunities for employment in rural areas. People are given employment in the construction of reservoirs, roads, irrigation systems, etc., from which everybody will benefit. The government should also use this project for the establishment of communal forests for the villages.

Apart from communal forests, lands belonging to temples and schools, and other publicly owned land, should in many cases be converted into forest plantations. The initiative for doing this could come from monks, headmasters of rural schools, or village headmen. To make the plantation more attractive small wood-consuming industries should be established; for instance, small plants to generate electricity from wood fuel for use by the community.

The government should promote large-scale commercial forestry by setting up pioneer plants, such as large-scale electricity generating plants, in areas of degraded forest. This should be followed by the declaration of all the surrounding area as a reafforestation zone. Some incentives, such as government loans at low interest, and tax exemptions, should be given. Those who are illegally occupying land could be granted ownership certificates if they took an active part in the project. To guarantee that the wood produced will find markets, local forest industries should be promoted.

The government should concentrate its own reafforestation activities in areas reserved for educational and environmental purposes, such as national parks, game reserves and watershed areas, and should leave the rest to the private sector. Here the government would be involved in the choice of species, and the giving of technical advice only.

To achieve these goals all existing restrictive laws and regulations should be revised; they alienate the local people and discourage them from participation in government activities.

In dealing with forestry problems, consideration must be given to the traditions, culture and economic status of the community, as well as to the fact that many of the people are illiterate. Appropriate technologies should be developed and introduced.

Agricultural crops introduced into agro-forestry schemes should meet market demands, suit the locality, and satisfy the cultivators. Some perennial cash crops such as coffee, cacao, and pare rubber should be promoted as these will be a source of long-term income for the farmers. Para rubber, which yields both latex and wood, should be regarded as a forest tree in order to encourage people to pay more attention to its utilization for timber.

The private sector seems more interested in short rotation, fast-growing species of trees than in long rotation, slowgrowing ones. In Thailand most exotic species grow faster than the native ones. Their wood is harder, so that they can be used both for firewood and constructional timber. The species which seem most promising as quickgrowing species in Thailand are Eucalyptus camaldulensis and Acacia auricularaeformis; these were introduced into Thailand more than a decade ago, and can be grown even on poor, arid soils in the lower rainfall areas of the country.


Constraints on the introduction of an agro-forestry element into traditional forms of shifting cultivation

J.K. Jackson

Shifting cultivation is, itself, a form of agro-forestry- the oldest form known to mankind. In the more permanent forms of shifting cultivation a period of cultivation of food crops is followed by a period under forest fallow during which the fertility of the soil is restored. This differs from certain modern forms of agro-forestry, such as the taungya system. mainly in that the forest part of the cycle arises from natural regeneration rather than from artificially planted trees.

Provided that the forest fallow part of the cycle is long enough, compared to the period under crops, such systems are effective in maintaining fertility and in preventing soil degradation, and in fact have been practiced continuously in some tropical countries for centuries. The question, therefore, is often asked "Why not try to improve shifting cultivation, rather than to eliminate it?" One possible way of doing this would be to replace all or part of the natural forest period of the cycle by artificially established plantations. The present paper considers some of the requisites for this to be accomplished successfully, and the restraints which are likely to be encountered in doing so. based largely on experience in Thailand.

Shifting cultivation is a very wide term covering a number of very different forms of land use, its essential feature being that the land is cleared and agricultural crops are grown for a limited period, which may range from one to over ten years, after which the cultivation is moved to a new site. The cultivators may or may not intend to return to the old site after the fertility of the soil has recovered.

In Thailand two extreme forms of shifting cultivation are to be found (other, intermediate forms will not be discussed here). The first is practiced by a number of tribes of Chinese origin who live at an altitude of over 1,000 metres above sea level, and who have mostly migrated into Thailand during the present century; the most numerous of them are the Hmong or Meo. These clear an area of forest primary forest where they can find it - cultivate the land for as long as economic yields of crops can be obtained, and then abandon the area. After all the land within relatively easy reach of a village has been treated in this way the whole village will be abandoned, and the cultivators will migrate in search of new lands, often to a distance of more than 100 kilometres away. The system is purely exploitative, and is analogous to a timber concessionaire felling all the useful trees in a forest tract and then moving out, without doing anything to regenerate the forest. In both cases the forest may eventually come back, though in the case of hill tribe cultivation it is frequently permanently replaced by Imperata grassland, but this is not conceived as an essential part of the system. The land is made to yield all it can, and is then abandoned, with no regard to what will happen to it in the future.

The abandoned land is often planted with trees by the Forest Department, but this is not agro-forestry as the intention is to establish permanent forestry plantations, not to prepare the land for eventual return to agricultural crops. To incorporate an agro-forestry element into the Hmong system of shifting cultivation would be virtually impossible without completely changing the system. Of course agroforestry could be introduced to replace the Hmong system, just as irrigated agriculture or commercial coffee-growing could, in some places; but this would be a change of landuse system, rather than a modification of an existing one.

The second systems of shifting cultivation is practiced by the Karen and Lawa bibles. These live at intermediate altitudes, between about 500 and 1,000 metres above sealevel, and have been in Thailand for centuries. Indeed there is evidence that the Lawa were the original inhabitants of parts of northern Thailand before the Thai came. Their system of cultivation is to cut and burn the forest, cultivate rice for one year only, and then allow the forest to regenerate for about ten years - the period varies a little, depending on site factors - before clearing and cultivating it again. The forest is recognized by the cultivators as part of the cultivation cycle, and attempts are made to encourage its regrowth by, for instance. pollarding rather than clear felling large trees within the cultivation area, and protecting the forest against fire. Where land is abundant and population low this is a stable system, and has continued in parts of Thailand for at least 200 years. More details can be found in Keen (1972) and Kunstadter et a/ (1978).

Unfortunately as a result of increasing population and pressure on the land, the system is now breaking down. The forest fallow period is becoming shorter, resulting in invasion of Imperata cylindrica, and there has been a catastrophic drop in rice yield, from an average of about 600 kg per hectare to as low as 60 kg per hectare in some places (F.G.B. Keen, personal communication). Whereas the people used to be self-sufficient in rice, most of them now have to buy the larger part of their needs; they are becoming dispirited and apathetic and some, as a last resort, are turning to the cultivation of opium, not formerly one of their traditional crops.

How far could the replacement of all or part of the naturally regenerated forest by plantations improve this and similar situations, and what are the conditions needed for successfully introducing this change?

The first point to be considered is the choice of species for the forest plantations. The main objective of planting these trees would be to shorten the fallow cycle, by using trees which restored soil fertility more rapidly than the natural forest, and which at the same time would produce a useful product, preferably one which could be readily sold to provide income to the cultivators. The sooner they began to produce this product, the better, as for a cultivator with virtually no capital even five years is a long time to wait between planting a crop and harvesting the yield from it.

The practice of cutting down the trees and burning them before the annual crops are sown would make the growing of most fruit trees uneconomic. Guava, for instance, though it may begin to produce fruits two years after planting, only comes into full bearing at the age of eight years. There might be some scope for planting such short-lived plants as bananas and papaya after the annual crop was harvested, but neither of these is a soil-improving crop.

Growing trees for firewood or charcoal is a possibility, but this would depend largely on the market situation. Where wood is scarce and markets close at hand, this can be profitable, but where firewood can still be easily obtained from natural forest at the cost of cutting and stacking the wood only, production from plantations is unlikely to be competitive. In the future, as natural forests continue to diminish, the scope for plantations will increase, and these plantations could well form part of a cycle of annual crops followed by forest.

Another point, however, to be considered in using the forest fallow period to produce firewood is that the slash and burn system of cultivation depends on there being enough forest biomass both to produce a fierce fire, thus suppressing weeds for a year or so, and to return enough nutrients to the soil to meet the needs of the agricultural crop. If most of the firewood were removed for sale the biomass left for burning might be less than what is needed. Possible solutions for this might be to plant very fast-growing trees, which could be coppiced after say three years, and then allowed to grow for another two or three years to provide wood for burning in situ; or only to remove part of the forest crop for sale, making sure that there was enough biomass left to give a satisfactory burn.

The production of timber for wood pulp is another possibility, but for this an assured market is essential. In the Philippines cultivators are planting Albizia falcataria. a very rapidly growing, easily established leguminous tree, for sale to a paper company (Matela 1982; Spears 1980). This tree, however, is not incorporated in a shifting cultivation system, but is grown as a substitute for shifting cultivation. The scheme in the Philippines has had a good deal of success, but has involved considerable inputs in the form of credit, provision of plants, and extension work - such inputs would, of course, be needed in most agro-forestry projects. The essential part of the scheme is, however, the guaranteed market for the product as mentioned before.

Unfortunately Albizia falcataria only grows well in the humid tropics where the dry season is very short or non-existent, and has produced much poorer results in drier conditions. Other pulpwood species are, of course, available for drier areas, but so far there are relatively few countries where there is an established market for pulpwood grown by peasant cultivators. The necessity of keeping enough biomass for burning would apply equally to pulpwood plantations as to firewood plantations.

Leucaena leucocephala is another possibility, and in addition to producing wood, its leaves are very useful for feeding animals. In many countries, including Thailand, there is a growing market for Leucaena leaves as a protein constituent in animal feed mixtures. In Thailand the present market is estimated at 60,000 tons of leaf meal per year (Manidool 1981). For peasant cultivators to take advantage of this market collection would need to be organized.

Siki (1981) describes a farming system in Papua-New Guinea in which six months of foodcrops are combined with Leucaena grown on a three-year rotation, but this is in a very humid region with no dry season. Rotations in Thailand would be considerably longer than this, and even in Thailand Leucaena does not grow rapidly everywhere. Casual observations indicate that it grows well in parts of the north-east, but much more slowly in the northern region, especially above 700 metres altitude.

Thus there remains a considerable need for research into trees suitable for growing in the fallow period of a shifting cultivation system, and which have the required properties, especially of producing a marketable crop.

There are other constraints to the incorporation of planted trees into shifting cultivation systems. There will be a need for extension work, but this cannot be undertaken until solutions to the choice of species have been obtained and demonstrated. If success is achieved in this, credit may be needed in some cases. But one very important restraint to doing anything to improve shifting cultivation systems is the question of land tenure.

It is unusual for shifting cultivators to have any legal rights to land at all, even the land which is currently under agricultural crops. In many countries this cultivation is illegal, and the cultivators could, in theory, be evicted and even penalized. However, in practice, occupancy of land under crops is usually tolerated, but little recognition is given to the fact that the land under regenerating forest forms an essential part of the cultivation cycle. This land is usually regarded as abandoned; it may be converted into government-owned tree plantations, or alienated for other purposes, and the cultivators have no redress. There is little room for improvement of shifting cultivation methods in these circumstances, and if plantations were to be incorporated in the fallow cycle, it would be essential that the cultivators should have legal rights to both the agricultural crop lands and the areas under trees within the cultivation cycle. Also it would need to be clearly recognized that the trees planted by the cultivators remained their own property.

Foresters would need to change their traditional attitudes to such problems. They are used to make plantations by employing labourers, and agro-forestry is often confined to allowing cultivators to grow crops between the planted trees. The idea of encouraging cultivators to plant their own forests, from which they would obtain the financial benefits, is a relatively new one. It is being increasingly accepted, but by no means universally so.

Assuming that a suitable species of tree had been found for including in a shifting cultivation system, how would this be introduced in practice? The first need would be the establishment of demonstration areas. Once they could be seen to be successful, cultivators could be taken to see them, and invited to consider doing similar things on their own land. Discussions with the cultivators on this might well produce useful feedback, on, for instance, how the work needed to make forestry plantations would fit in with their agricultural work year. Then if they agreed to make their own plantations they would need to be given some form of guarantee that they would not suffer financial loss - for instance, that what they grew would be purchased. In addition to technical advice, some financial assistance might be needed in the early stages, for instance by paying the cultivators wages to establish the first forest plantations, perhaps to be recovered when the crop was harvested. However the aim should be to get the cultivators to carry on the scheme on their own initiative, once they had realized that it was advantageous to them.

All this would take quite a long time, but it is far better to establish a sound basis for such schemes than to introduce them precipitately, with the very great setbacks which would be incurred if they should fail. There are possibilities of introducing agro-forestry methods into certain forms of shifting cultivation, but there are also very many difficulties to be resolved before they can be put into practice. Research into overcoming these difficulties will take time and patience, but will be well worth while if satisfactory solutions are found.


Keen, F G.B. 1972. Upland Tenure and Land Use in Northern Thailand SEATO Cultural Program, 1969-70.

Kunstadter, P., E.C. Chapman, and S. Sabhasri. (eds.) 1978. farmers In the Forest. East-West Center, Hawaii.

Manidool, Chanchai 1981. Protein Rich Food from Leucaena in Thailand. Asian Livestock, October. pp Go and 104.

Matela, A.G. 1982. "The Agro-Forestry Development Plan and Practice of PICOP." Paper presented to the Workshop on Agro-Forestry, Freiburg i.Br., 31 May to 5 June, 1982.

Siki, B F. (1981) "Agriculture, Fuelwood, and Conservation Programme in the Atzera Range, Lae, Papua New Guinea." Paper presented to the Workshop on Environmentally-Sustainable Agro-forestry Production with Fast-Growing, Nitrogen-fixing, Multi-purpose Legumes. East-West Center, Hawaii, 12 to 20 November. 1981.

Spears, J.S. 1980. "Forests and Man." Unasylva, 32 (128): pp. 2-12.


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