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2.Spontaneous and planned settlement in south-east Asia

Clearing and settlement in the highland-lowland transition zone of northern Thailand
The Philippines
Conclusion: government-sponsored versus spontaneous settlement

Harald Uhlig

This paper is an attempt to summarize important aspects of a recent book on resettlement in South-East Asia (Uhlig 1984) and to add some new comments and material. Part of the book consists of studies of spontaneous land clearing in Thailand. Field-work and formulation of these studies were done by my younger colleagues of Giessen University and their Thai counterparts.

Clearing of the forests and the rapid expansion of new agricultural settlements are outstanding processes and problems of regional development in present-day South-East Asia. Pioneer settlement has been occurring recently on a tremendous scale-similar to the medieval clearing period in central Europe or to the expansion of North America's settlement frontier towards the west-most notably in the four ASEAN states of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It contributes to the world-wide conflicts over land and resources, but also to the need to preserve a balanced environment. Well-founded economic interests in forest exploitation clash with those for the protection of the ecological potentials, vegetation, wildlife, soil conservation, water economy, etc. All are challenged by the need to clear new land for settlement and food production for a fast-growing, landless or "underlanded" population.

The aim of replacing the shifting cultivation of the hill tribes with permanent settlement and marketable crops is matched by the massive revival of uncontrolled swiddening by lowlanders and by an encroaching "commercial shifting cultivation." The impacts of cutting timber and/or clearing new fields are accelerated by the use of heavy machinery and power saws.

The land-hunger of smallholder pioneers, as well as of agricultural entrepreneurs growing crops for vital export earnings, clashes with the legal and fiscal interests of government land and forestry authorities, whereas other official agencies are bound to follow the settlement extension by providing the needed infrastructure, such as schools, health stations, public transport, etc. Social justice may be upset by land conflicts at the pioneer front and by the dependence of smallholders on middlemen, contractors, or money-lenders. Labour migration from poor regions may be stimulated by the new opportunities but with uncertain socio-economic prospects.

Whereas the state-directed settlement schemes-such as Transmigrasi ("transmigration"), FELDA (Federal Land Development Authority), and others-are widely covered by official and scientific reports and plans, the spontaneous opening up of new agricultural regions is passing nearly unnoticed by research work or official publications. It has grown to such a scale and importance that it outstrips the official schemes in area, in population, and occasionally also in productivity (only in Malaysia does this seem to be reversed).

A programme initiated by the Volkswagen Research Foundation of Germany, funding research projects on present-day problems of South-East Asia, finally provided the opportunity to launch a study of some areas of recent spontaneous land clearing in Thailand with a team of younger geographers from Giessen University and a number of Thai colleagues and younger assistants. It is clearly much more difficult to obtain reliable information on the spontaneous clearing or even to assess its real extent than it is for the official projects, which are usually well documented and more or less exactly surveyed and delineated. We decided to focus our main interest on spontaneous clearing not only because of its scientific interest but also because of the strong practical importance of the undirected settlement for the entire regional and socio-economic development of the countries of South-East Asia.

Thus, we could hardly avoid reaching certain conclusions and making certain comparisons, which can be summed up under the heading "state-directed versus spontaneous settlement." Hoping to focus attention on this question and to present some research findings on the hitherto neglected spontaneous land colonization, we would like to move from an originally purely scientific goal to the presentation of some arguments and theses which might be useful for further development policy in South-East Asia.

Like the majority of the developing countries of the world, those of South-East Asia-and the ASEAN countries in particular-are experiencing today a phase of rapid modernization. Still, rapid population growth and the consequent strong land-hunger remain among their major problems. Notwithstanding the impressive increases in food production during the last decades, it can only partly keep pace with the dramatic population growth, despite the initial successes in birth control. Likewise, all attempts towards industrialization and the fast growing urbanization have not yet provided sufficient employment other than agricultural work, and true alternatives of development are still widely lacking. With the agricultural population still constituting 60-80 per cent of the total population, the need for more land remains a dominating political problem, and the opening of new agricultural areas is a primary goal of regional and national development.

This means conflicts over land use and especially an ever-growing pressure on the forest reserves. Their rapidly progressing destruction by timber extraction as well as by slash-and-burn agriculture is growing into a severe ecological hazard. Within the socioeconomic sectors, financial, political, and property-rights problems are added and aggravate the tasks of creating new agricultural holdings on a level well above a primitive subsistence economy together with sufficient economic prospects for the future. Moreover, these attempts are accompanied by speculative exploitation and corruption, giving priority to fast profits and no regard for ecological stability. South-East Asia's strong ethnic and cultural pluralities lead to additional political friction wherever foreign majorities, members of different religions, etc. become involved in the land conflicts. Similarly, the principles and goals of state controlled planning and administration frequently run into conflict with the activities and needs of spontaneous land colonization and inroads into the forests. Opening up new areas for agriculture nearly always means the clearing of more forests. Thus, the conflicts either between the forest authorities and the spontaneous settlers (or squatters, as the authorities call them) or even between the forestry administration and the state-directed land-clearing schemes follow a predetermined course. A continual conflict of interests between the preservation of the ecological and economic values of the forests (timber, water-supply, soil conservation, climatic influences, wildlife protection, etc.) and agricultural expansion-or rather the need for more food and for more export crops for the sake of the national economies-is hard to avoid.

The provision of new agricultural land remains therefore a major problem of planning and development. Frequently the state-directed attempts, usually slow moving and handicapped by bureaucratic obstacles, have been beaten by spontaneous pioneer clearings, but at the same time often by political and social conflicts. Where these conflicts have developed into volatile political and armed conflicts, and sometimes into either insurgent activity or the formation of communist underground organizations, they have gained dangerous dimensions, as in the case, for example, of the Moro resistance in the southern Philippines. They have also brought about severe ecological damage.


When close examination of satellite photographs in Thailand revealed that 57 per cent of the forest cover of the national territory still existing in 1961 had shrunk to a mere 37 per cent in 1974, the Thai forestry administration issued an alert that created much concern. A recent paper by Boonchana Klankamsorn (1981) recorded a loss of 9.9 per cent of the forests per year between 1973 and 1978 and thus a remaining forest cover of only 25 per cent! This is, however, only one of the signals of the importance of balancing the opening of new settlement regions with a policy for the equally important protection-or even improvement and afforestation at appropriate places-of the national forest wealth.

FIG. 1. The rapid progress of clearing new agricultural land and deforestation in south-east Thailand.

The areas of the detailed case studies discussed in the papers by Scholz and by Napat Sirisambhand, chaps. 3 and 4 below-the Khorat escarpment-Km 79 area and the Chon Buri hinterland-are in this region (based on the 1: 250,000 topographical maps for 1950-1955, and on air photos [for 1966] and satellite map data [for 1972 and 1976] of the Royal Thai Forestry Department) (Map by L. Dreher)

TABLE 1. Percentages of the area covered by forest of three provinces in eastern Thailand

  1973 1982
Chonburi 23.38 5.94
Rayong 21.82 6.78
Nakhon Ratchasima 27.88 9.17

The latest available calculations (August 1982) from the Remote Sensing and Forest Mapping Division of the Royal Thai Forestry Department for the eastern region of Thailand, which includes the majority of the areas covered by our case studies, indicate a 46.79 per cent decrease of forest in the entire region from 1973 to 1982, and even 74.61 and 75.61 per cent in the provinces of Chon Buri and Rayong respectively. Table 1 shows the dramatic shrinkage of the forest area in the three provinces in which the majority of our case studies were located.

The recent large-scale land clearance and establishment of a new, booming agricultural zone in the Chon Buri hinterland can be fully understood only in context with the impressive changes in Thailand's crop production and related world trade. Besides sugarcane and maize, the tremendous expansion of the production of cassava (Manihot esculenta, processed into tapioca) was one of the most decisive factors during the last decade.

In 1940 (at about the same time as the Philippines) Thailand recognized the necessity of a public settlement policy and passed an initial law, but because of the circumstances of the war and the post-war period, it has become effective only since the 1960s. The continuing growth of the population (3-3.5 per cent a year during the period 1960-1970, and around 1980 still 2.1 per cent) and the corresponding demand for employment and land reserves with 80 per cent of the population still living on the land led to establishment of a Land Settlement Division of the Public Welfare Department (within the Ministry of the Interior). Its Self-Help Land Settlement Schemes cover the majority of the state-directed projects and are the most thoroughly organized ones. Besides this, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives created its own Co-operative Settlement Schemes (with two pioneer projects already started in the late 1930s), and some six or more other departments are also engaged in certain minor attempts.

The earliest and largest government scheme is the Sara Buri-Lop Buri Self-Help Land Settlement. This is situated in the central region, 136 km north of Bangkok, and comprises 320,000 ha of agriculturally usable land (predominantly on good limestonerendzina soils) and 18,000 settler families. Each family received 4 ha of land for intensive dry-field cultivation, chiefly in the form of individual farms set apart along roads or in ribbon developments. One scheme of over 80,000 ha was begun in 1967 under the care of a combined German-Thai development project at Phra Buddhabat; its aim was summed up as the "improvement and stabilization of the sources of income of the settlers through improved methods of agriculture."

This aim was to be realized through the introduction of new crops (in the settlement area or in Thailand generally) and of cattle breeding on mixed farms, the development of agricultural purchasing and sales organizations, in inspection of machines and tools for their suitability for use on the new farms, and the agricultural training of settlers and settlement officials. The scheme, which has since been handed over to the Thai authorities (and incidentally has been succeeded by the Lamtakhong Scheme not far away on the edge of the Khorat plateau), excelled in intensifying maize cultivation and especially in introducing new crops and rotations suited for commercial dry-field cultivation. Included among these new crops were cotton, peanuts, soya beans, Hibiscus sabdarifla for tea and refreshment drinks, sunflowers, cassia, water-melons, and mung beans. In addition to improvements in advisory services and the opening up of water resources (well construction), an exemplary organization in the form of an agricultural purchasing and credit co-operative was set up. This was intended to counter the traditional system of dependence on intermediaries who impose exaggerated rates of interest and the resulting indebtedness of the farmers. In spite of its success, there is still room for improvement in the peasant population's understanding of the idea and discipline of the co-operative, and the temptation is still strong to sell products to intermediaries if they offer a better price or cheaper credits and to sell land to middlemen when debts have been incurred.

In contrast to this large-scale scheme and others with support from various nations and international organizations, the average number of families in the majority of settlement schemes is about 3,000, with the smallest having only about 150. Though small wet-rice fields for domestic consumption are planted wherever the ground is suitable, the programmes of intensification of rice cultivation (rice now as ever being the chief crop in production) are conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture independently of the selfhelp land settlement schemes of the Department of Public Welfare.

The satellite photographs revealed that from 1961 to 1974 roughly 10 million ha of forest land had been denuded! A survey in 1974, conducted by the Ministry of the Interior in co-operation with the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives, covered 202 forest reserves, with 4.6 million ha altogether, in which there were at least 200,000 families: " . . . although official figures on the number of squatters and the amount of area they occupy are not known, conservative estimates within government circles have set the number of squatters [for all Thailand] at a million families [i.e. roughly 5-6 million people!] and the occupied acreage at 4-5 million hectares" (Chirapanda and Tamrongtanyalak 1980, 112).

Adding together 8.7 million ha rice land, approximately 0.7 million ha opened up by the various settlement schemes, and approximately 4-5 million ha of spontaneously settled land, we arrive at about 13.4-14.5 million ha. As the total area of farm land in Thailand was given at 18.1 million ha in 1976, there remains still a difference. This is partly accounted for by the 0.4-0.5 million ha for rubber and further by home gardens, orchards, etc., but there seems still to remain a gap, which most probably indicates a still larger area of 'squatting." Other estimates assume much larger areas of spontaneously cultivated land. Scholz (1980b), for example, bases his estimates on the agricultural statistics of Thailand, which indicate an overall growth of the amount of land in use from 7.8 million ha in 1956 to 16.9 million ha in 1975, a growth of no less than 9.1 million ha! The state-directed settlement schemes were restricted in that calculation to a share of 0.5 million ha opened between 1945 and 1975 (Klempin and Sandler 1975). (Since that date there have been further extensions.) Wet-rice cultivation has still been expanded by a yearly growth rate between 0.3 per cent in the central plain and 2.6 per cent in other regions, notably the north-east (World Bank 1980).

TABLE 2. Settlement schemes 1979, 1980

Type Area (ha) Settler families Persons
Self-help land settlement schemes: (1980), 58 projects 363,632 110, 670 550,000
Co-operative land settlements: (1979) 222,723 50,062 250,000
Land allocation programme: (1979) 87,123 56,077 310,000
War veteran's settlement projects: (1979), 8 schemes 4,386 195 1,000
Land development projects: (1979), 4 projects 21,300 10,200 50,000
Subtotal 699,164 227,204 1,161,000
Forest villages - 1,280 6,000
Forest community development projects - 2,243 11,000
Total - 230,727 1,178,000

With all reservations concerning the reliability of the given figures, they reveal some facts of astonishing dimensions:

1. With roughly 4-5 million ha the spontaneous land clearance in Thailand opened an area of at least six times the size of the state-directed settlement (or various kinds), given at roughly 700,000 ha.

2. The farming population involved shows a relatively small difference, comparing the roughly 230,000 families within the official settlement schemes with around 1 million in the six-fold area of the spontaneous clearing. There may be some miscalculations in the latter figure, but several facts indicate the existence of a certain distinction between the two groups. Our research has shown that a considerable number of farmers in the spontaneous clearing areas are not permanent residents but "agro-seasonal commuters" between their original homes and small rice-fields in the village of origin (disadvantaged by the small sizes of holdings or tenancy burdens) and the new settlements, where they stay only in temporarily used houses for planting and harvesting their dry-land crops. In traditional farming areas near the edge of the forests (e.g. the southern and western margins of the Khorat plateau), they reside within walking distance of their additional fields cleared for maize or cassava from the forest reserves.

3. The overall figures of 4-5 million ha of spontaneously cleared land plus cat 700,000 ha of the various official settlement schemes exceed considerably the extent of the already impressive land settlement of Malaysia by FELDA, covering 654,583 ha (1984) in West Malaysia, and the results of Transmigrasi in Indonesia, which up to 1980 had resettled some 1.3 million ha (while the amount of spontaneous settlement there is hardly calculable). Both figures of the extent of state-directed settlement of Malaysia as well as of Indonesia are not far from the 700,000 ha of state-directed settlement in Thailand. Taking into account the 147 million inhabitants of Indonesia compared to Thailand's 46 million, the latter's proportional share is quite impressive. West Malaysia, on the other hand (ca. 11 million people), nearly equals Thailand's figure, especially if one allows somewhat more for schemes other than FELDA. This, of course, refers to only the stateorganized schemes. Considering the extent of the spontaneous settlements, Thailand's huge acreage seems to break all proportions!

Our research disclosed a number of different types of spontaneous settlement in Thailand. They may be summarized as follows:

1. Extension of existing village lands by new, sometimes very large, clearings in the adjoining forests, but farmed still from the old villages. Examples are the extensions of cassava lands by many villages at the southern and western margins of the Khorat plateau into the forests of the Khorat escarpment. Riethmuller (chap. 5) demonstrates another case in his paper, the tremendous extension of maizefields into steep forest slopes bordering the upper Mae Nam Pa Sak valley.

2. "Agro-seasonal commuters" retaining their original fields and houses in their native villages (e.g. in NE Thailand), planting their small rice-fields there, and moving afterwards every year to distant new clearance areas. There they occupy temporary huts and prepare one crop of maize on newly cleared land. They commute between both places until both crops are harvested and return to their villages during the dry season.

3. True pioneer squatters settling permanently in newly cleared lands. They may be subdivided into a majority group growing cash crops for a market economy, usually closely connected to traders providing the marketing and sometimes seeds, credit, tractor ploughing, etc., and a second, small group of true subsistence squatters, achieving a fairly modest existence from remote jungle clearings only. They usually start by swiddening, but quite often what was intended to become an "incipient shifting cultivation," to be followed by permanent fields, has been abandoned, the land falling back to secondary shrubs and imperata grasses.

4. Quite successful and permanent attempts to create holdings for high-altitude market gardening at various locations where good access roads to the markets reach higher areas.

5. Finally there remain the large clearings (carried out and farmed partly by more or less dependent smaller pioneers) of agricultural entrepreneurs (economically viable, but not without social problems). (See the papers by Sirisambhand and Scholz.)

Clearing and settlement in the highland-lowland transition zone of northern Thailand

Other regions with remarkable inroads of new settlements into the forests occur in northern Thailand. The highland-lowland transition zone (topic of an international UNU symposium at Chiang Mai in 1978) has especially been affected (Uhlig 1980). In many ways similar to the above-mentioned examples, it is distinguished by varying geoecological conditions of the natural mountain setting. In certain cases it is complicated by the socio-economic clashes of interest between the Thai valley dwellers pushing up into the hills and the hill tribes, who are the original shifting cultivators of the mountains. These problems are discussed in detail in Uhlig (1980).

The easy access to large stretches of mountain forests afforded by timber exploitation and the rapid construction of new roads, combined with the boom in maize exports, especially during 1971-1974, and in cassava in more recent years, caused a new phase of radical clearing and squatting, partly encroaching upon forest reserves. As discussed above, according to the rural traditions of the Thai as well as of the hill peoples, the clearing of new land from the forest is regarded as common law, practiced since ancient times. This has caused several land conflicts, resulting even in armed clashes and casualties. It is tragic that areas of spontaneous land clearing in this mountain region are all too likely to become politically sensitive areas; a more flexible land policy and effective aid by the authorities to genuine settlers, instead of attempts to prevent cultivation, would be more in the public interest of the country. Obviously the forest authorities are aware of this and frequently are quite tolerant and act to prevent deprived settlers from being driven into the arms of communist insurgent groups.

Initially, swiddening starts with a first crop of upland rice for subsistence. Fairly soon, however, the cash crops maize and cassava become dominant. The fields are usually irregular and dotted with stumps and remaining trees. In most cases, what is intended is an incipient shifting cultivation, aimed at opening up the land, with permanent cultivation to follow. Sometimes, however, after two or three years the nutrient content of the soil is depleted and weeds spread themselves thickly. New tracts are then felled and burnt and the former are left to imperata grasses. Thus, in practice a new shifting cultivation of a very crude and unregulated nature emerges, much more harmful to the environment than the old established integrated swidden systems of some of the hill tribes (notably of the Karen and Lua).

One of the most outstanding examples evolved along the road from Phitsanulok to Lomsak across the mountain ranges of Tung Saleng Luang National Park. Constructed in the early 1970s, the new road attracted a large influx of settlers from the northern parts of the central lowlands and from the Isan, the poor north-east. Within a few months they had felled and burnt the forests in a most destructive way. A belt of several kilometres in width paralleled the main road and several side roads. The area, situated at an elevation between 500 and 1,000 m, was dotted with irregular plots of maize and cassava under the skeletons of dead trees. Nearly two-thirds of the clearings were overgrown by imperata and saccharum grasses or bushes. Scattered huts, some temporary, others permanent, formed the settlement pattern. The authorities, however, refused to grant deeds to the land and defended the national park and within a few years were able to remove the majority of the settlers to other areas.

Poor soil conditions and subsequently fast declining agricultural yields gave support to the reversion to forest-up to now, of course, only a meagre secondary scrub. In most cases the local administration is forced to accept the fact of the (originally illegal) established settlements and to try to arrange for registration, basic rural organization, schooling, etc.

A considerable share of the colonization in the Lomsak region is worked by hired labourers or by dependent settlers who are indebted to or otherwise financed by agricultural entrepreneurs. Traders, comprised in part of ethnic Chinese, from regional centres and smaller market towns as well as officials, professionals, and modern farmers, some of whom hold degrees in agriculture, are similarly engaged as backers.

In 1985 we undertook more detailed research into the clearances of the Mae Nam Pa Sak watershed region, including the planned resettlement projects located in the Khao Khor Mountains, where heavy fighting against communist insurgents was occurring up to 1982. (Riethmuller describes this area of tremendous forest destruction in chap. 5.) High-altitude market gardening is evident in this mountain area, too, exemplified in the very successful development of the Campson Plateau of about 700-900 m. This type of cultivation has only recently emerged in Thailand, though long established in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and the Himalayas, notably around former hill resorts and near roads crossing the mountain passes.

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