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4.The forest colonization process: case studies of two communities in north-east and south-east Thailand

The problem

Case study 1: history of settlement and in-migration

Settlers and occupation groups
Settlement pattern and the community

Case study 2: history of settlement

Settlers and occupation groups
Settlement pattern and the community


Napat Sirisambhand

The information presented in this paper is from field surveys undertaken in February 1979 as part of a project on spontaneous land clearing in Thailand supported by the Volkswagen Foundation. The areas selected for the studies are in the north-east and south-east regions of Thailand (see fig. 1). The area in the north-east is called Ban Sarn Chao Po, or Km 79, and is in Tambon Wang Nam Khiew, Nakhon Ratchasima Province (Khorat). It lies on the west side of National Highway 304. Its hinterland contains at least five villages and about 14 hamlets. The area is located on the escarpment of the Khorat plateau and is characterized by small hills and undulating land-forms.

The second study area lies in King Amphoe Bo Thong, Chon Buri Province, 87 km to the south-east of Bangkok. The area includes eight villages and stretches eastward from King Amphoe township to the border of Rayong Province.

This paper attempts to describe the process of forest clearing and land use in Thailand by tracing the history and stages of settlement. Although the area of study may not be representative for the whole of Thailand, the two case studies have revealed some of the major causes and the sequence of deforestation, especially in the area where extensive cash-crop cultivation is predominant. The paper also focuses on the social aspect of the population involved in the process, its organization and adaptability to its new setting.

The problem

During the past 20 years Thailand has achieved considerable growth in its agricultural sector-5 per cent per annum in terms of the value of production.

FIG. 1. Location of study areas (Uhlig 1984) (Map by L. Dreher)

This has contributed to the overall economic status of the country. The main reasons for the growth are: (1) the shift from almost exclusively rice to rice plus other higher value export crops, and (2) the expansion of agricultural land through the opening of new land, particularly forest areas.

But this growth has extracted a price in terms of the alarming rate of natural resource depletion. During the period of the Third Development Plan (19721976), characterized by the maize and cassava boom, forest areas were heavily destroyed. The government, being aware of this problem, expressed its concern in the Fourth National Economic Development Plan (1977-1981), stating that the proportion of land under forest in Thailand had fallen to only 38.6 per cent, which was lower than the targeted 40 per cent for the end of the Third Plan (1972-1976) as compared to 53 per cent in 1961.

FIG. 2. Forest land as a percentage of total land area in Thailand (Forest Management Division. Royal Forest Dept.. Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Bangkok)

FIG. 3. Percentage of forest areas and the rate of deforestation by region in Thailand during 1967 and 1978 (Klankamsorn and Charuphat 1981)

Consequently agricultural land had increased rapidly from 49 million rai (7.84 million ha) to 109 million rai (17.44 million ha) within 15 years (1960-1975), an average increase of 6 per cent per year. By 1984 it was estimated that about 147 million rai (23.52 million ha) of forest land had been cleared and converted to agricultural use whilst the forest area had declined to less than 30 per cent of the area of the country (Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board 1982, 52). The north-east region has the highest rate of forest depletion, at about 5,136.5 km2 per year, or 12.38 per cent, of the forested area in 1976. The south-east, on the other hand, ranks second with 797 km2, or 6.31 per cent, of forest depleted per year (Klankamsorn and Charuphat 1981) (see figs. 2 and 3).

Apart from the two factors mentioned, population pressure and land fragmentation in older settled areas have contributed to rapid forest colonization. The number of farming families has steadily increased, from about 3 million in 1970 to almost 4.5 million in 1980 (Office of Agricultural Economics 1981, 65), an increase of 19 percent.

The introduction of commercial crops such as maize in the 1960s and cassava in the 1970s encouraged more farmers to seek new land for cultivation as they were regarded as a good source of income with least cost and high profits. Planted areas of maize increased by 125 per cent (from 4.1 to 9.3 million rai) from 1967 to 1980, while for cassava the increase was almost 400 per cent (from 1.4 to 6.9 million rai) from 1970 to 1980 (Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives 1980).

This expanding frontier has absorbed a considerable portion of the increasing farming population. Each successive government has recognized this and some have used it as a strategy to reduce tension or to win popular support by approving the existence of squatters in forest reserve areas. For example in 1975 the prime minister issued an order to the Ministry of Agriculture to tolerate the presence of farmers who had already settled in the reserved areas. The lack of firm or a national policy from the Government to protect forest and natural resources has indirectly encouraged spontaneous land clearing and, at the same time, created conflicts between ground-level officials in the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Interior.

The government's efforts in trying to solve the problem, that is, by setting up self-help land settlements and land-reform schemes involving at least seven agencies, have not proved very successful. The schemes have not fully achieved their goals in helping the landless or needy farmers. Ironically, these schemes paved the way for the opening of more forest areas. This fact has been recognized and one of the Fifth Plan aims of conserving natural resources calls for a review and improvement of existing landsettlement schemes instead of establishing and expanding new areas.

Case study 1: history of settlement and in-migration

The early stage of forest exploitation in the Km 79 area was started at least one generation ago by the Chao Bon people, or highlanders (an important ethnic group living in the western part of Khorat) (Seidenfaden 1967,112). They were hunters and gatherers who lived by swidden agriculture, growing crops such as upland rice, chillies, tobacco, and taro as well as exploiting local forest products such as scented wood and black lacquer from the yang tree (Dipterocarpus alatus). They were the original inhabitants in the area which is now the Lam Praploeng Dam but gradually shifted their cultivation southwards into the area that is now the hinterland of Km 79.

The ethnic Thai wet-rice farmers living in the adjacent lowland areas were the second population group to expand their agricultural areas by claiming the clearings left by the Chao Bon. They planted sugar-cane to produce home-made brown sugar, which was an item used in bartering for other goods, for example, chilliest It was not until the 1940s that the first brown-sugar mills were built in some of the north-eastern provinces, including Khorat. (When the Lam Praploeng Dam was completed in 1967, the sugarcane areas were gradually converted into paddy land, since irrigation was available.) These farmers, by following the Chao Bon "route," also exploited jungle resources and cultivated subsistence upland crops, supplementing wet-rice cultivation in their old settlements.

Large-scale exploiters of forest resources were the commercial logging companies, which started to extract timber in the area as early as the 1940s and continued for about 30 years. During that time other developments were taking place, that is, the construction of a dirt road, which later became National Highway 304, and the introduction of a bus route linking Khorat to the south-east (Rayong Province).

The earlier development of roads and sawmills brought workers, who became the first group of permanent settlers in Km 79. They were from neighbouring villages as well as other provinces like Nakhon Nayok and Sara Buri. Apart from growing subsistence upland crops, these settlers earned their living by felling trees in the hinterland, which was inaccessible to trucks supplying the sawmills. Elephants were used to haul logs to the road.

When maize became an important crop for export in the late 1950s, Amphoe Pak Thong Chai played a major role as a trading centre in Khorat. This brought in more people, who were former highway construction workers. They were mainly maize farmers from the maize belt in the central region, for example, Nakhon Nayok, Sara Buri, Lop Buri, and Nakhon Sawan provinces.

By 1964 the cultivated areas expanded into the hinterland further westward from Highway 304. This process was accelerated when tractors were introduced at about the same time. The forest areas were rapidly depleted and transformed into maize land. The maize boom period started at about the beginning of the 1970s, when the influx of inmigration began. Maize traders established shops as buying depots while new seed (Suwan Nung) was introduced to replace the old Guatemala. A system called tok khao phot was introduced to farmers whereby maize traders provided loans and services such as milling and transporting produce for farmers. Farmers in turn had to sell their produce back to the same trader who also set the price. Farmers were paid in cash after the deduction of debts plus an interest of about 3-5 per cent per crop year, that is, five to six months. This system ensures farmers a stable market for their produce as it does traders dealing with exporters in Bangkok. This had a triggering effect and encouraged more inmigrants from the central region and wet-rice farmers from other provinces in the northeast. These wet-rice farmers came primarily to work as labourers in the maize fields during the slack period of paddy cultivation to earn extra income. Some labourers managed to buy or rent land to begin farming maize as a sideline. The tok khao phot system enabled poor farmers to grow maize with the necessary inputs provided by the traders.

During this process the registered population of the subdistrict office rose from 10,000 to 13,000 during 1975-1979 (it was estimated that about five per cent of the population moved in unreported), whereby the number of settlements also increased. They gradually became permanent communities and were finally approved by the local government as separate villages. By 1984 three new tambon (subdistricts) with about 30 villages had been registered. These villages expanded from the previous ones.

Settlers and occupation groups

The population in the study area of Km 79 may be classified into two groups. the maize farmers and the traders. The former are mainly from outside Tambon Wang Nam Khiew and may be classified further into three categories according to their socio-economic background: (a) permanent residents; (b) seasonal residents; and (c) seasonal wage labourers

Permanent residents are those who have registered with the kamnan, the subdistrict head. These residents have come from maize-growing areas seeking new and fertile land since their previous fields have become impoverished or suffered drought and pest damage. The size of their holdings varies from 50 to 200 rai (8-32 ha) per family. Such farmers are more dependent on the maize traders for food supplies compared to seasonal residents, who are wet-rice farmers.

Seasonal residents are farmers from wet-rice areas both within Khorat and from other provinces of the north-east. They are engaged in planting maize for cash income as a supplement to wet rice since the cropping pattterns of both are complementary. There are two types of seasonal farmers: those who own their maize fields and those who rent them (seasonal tenants). The seasonal tenants are small wet-rice farmers from poorer areas in the north-east. They generally rent small plots, either from permanent residents or from seasonal residents with their own land. The amount of land rented depends on how much family labour is available. They come to this area irregularly, depending on the price of maize and the success of the wet-rice crop; if the crop is poor, more seasonal tenants come.

Seasonal wage labourers are mainly young men who are wet-rice farmers from poor areas in the north-east. They come in great numbers during the maize planting season (April-June) and harvesting season (October-December), when heavy labour inputs are required. They earned about 18-20 baht (U.S. $0.70) per day at the time of study (1979), with board and lodging provided by the employer.

Crop traders or middlemen, locally known as tao Kae, form another occupational group involved in the maize trade and supporting cultivation. They not only buy maize from farmers but provide loans and some other necessary goods, especially rice during the six to eight months prior to harvest. There are four large-scale traders at the Km 79 market who have at least 500,000 baht (U.S. $19,230) in circulation for maize purchase each crop year to be sold to exporters in Bangkok through an organizer caller a yong. The small-scale traders or crop brokers are shopkeepers at the Km 79 market, selling groceries and miscellaneous goods to farmers on credit. The latter have to repay in maize, plus interest of 5 per cent per month. These small-scale traders generally deal with seasonal farmers and tenants of small holdings.

Settlement pattern and the community

Patterns of the earlier permanent settlements were formed as clusters not far away from Highway 304, which is surrounded by planted areas claimed by members of the group (mostly relatives and friends). This pattern encouraged mutual help among new settlers and also group security. It gradually vanished as more and more cultivators moved in for land and was replaced by one more characteristically dispersed where cultivators lived on their own and were more independent. However dispersed the homesteads appeared, those who came from the same area generally settled near one another in groups of about five to ten dwellings, forming a hamlet. When such hamlets increased, they eventually became a formal village. This process was generally feasible because the Government has tried to facilitate rural administration and promote permanent settlements, mainly for the purpose of supervision and to maintain peace and order in the area. Such a community is composed of different groups of people from various places with mainly young and newly founded families. The village headman, or phuyai ban, is generally chosen either from among the first to settle in the area or from among those having the most relatives in the community.

What these young communities in the hinterland lack is a wet (Buddhist temple)-regarded with importance for the people to perform religious functions and to provide a school for their children. During the pioneering period farmers had to leave their school-aged children with grandparents or relatives to attend school in the old home village. For their part they had to return home for religious ceremonies. It is likely therefore that the establishment of such institutions is one way of creating community integration.

Case study 2: history of settlement

The study area is located in King Amphoe Bo Thong, which is about 60 km east of the district centre. The first record of forest exploitation is from as early as the 1930s, when natives sought jungle products, especially yang oil (black lacquer), which later became commercialized by a Chinese trader living in Phanat Nikhom. At that time sugarcane was already being grown in the area surrounding Phanat Nikhom, supplying brownsugar mills operated by the Chinese. The area under cane did not expand into Bo Thong until the 1960s because lumbering was still very active. Sawmillers extracted timber from the forests of Bo Thong even before the 1940s. Extensive extraction of timber occurred in the 1950s, during which three more sawmills were established in the adjacent amphoe (district). In addition, two timber concessions were granted, covering an area of about 850 km2 encompassing parts of Ban Bung and Bo Thong. The first course of deforestation through timber felling lasted almost 40 years, of which the last concession ended in 1970.

Sugar-cane farmers (brown-sugar processors) started to penetrate the area in the 1960s by claiming old felling locations along logging routes. These people were the first to put this frontier land to cultivation. The tract of land claimed was not less than 500 rai (80 ha). It was also this group of brown-sugar processors who began the luk rai system.

When the area proved to be suitable for sugar-cane, upon the exhaustion of commercial timber supplies, the lumber-mill owners used the land for speculative purposes. As they were not farmers, these "land controllers" introduced the pa boei system, by which small or landless farmers are granted permission to work on a piece of claimed land over a certain period of time, generally three to five years (contract farmers). They are allowed to clear and till the land to grow any crops and to reap the harvests without any interference from the land controllers until the due time, as previously agreed. After this the process is repeated on other plots of land. This system was a contributing factor to the clearing of forests in the hinterland and, at the same time, encouraging the in-migration of small or landless farmers. The land controllers are not only lumber owners but rich merchants and businessmen who have claimed and control large areas of land but are not their legal owners. Their control can be exercised only if government agencies collaborate or ignore their illegal activities; that is, control depends on wealth and political influence and on the tolerance of their activities by the Government.

The development of road networks and the introduction of a new variety of cane led to the development of processing techniques and equipment required for the establishment of white-sugar mills. The rate of deforestation increased rapidly as more settlers moved in. Local records revealed that from 1973 to 1978 the population doubled from about 11,000 to 22,000.

As Bo Thong began to attract wage labourers when white-sugar mills were developed, the mills started buying fresh cane directly from plantation owners through a quota system.

Settlers and occupation groups

The settlers of Bo Thong differ from those in Km 79 as they are mainly indigenous to the district of Phanat Nikhom, which was once a sugar-cane growing area. Through the process of land colonization different groups of population emerged:

1. The rich and large-scale plantation-type farmers or brown-sugar processors (Jon" chu)
2. Luk rai, farm labourers who work on the long chu farms
3. Small farmers (pa boei farmers) who clear forest for landlords and grow cassava and subsistence crops on small holdings of 10-20 rai (1.6-3.2 ha) in the hinterland
4. Medium-sized farmers with holdings of 200-400 rai (32-64 ha) who entered the area when it was more established
5. Seasonal wage labourers who are mainly wet-rice cultivators from the northeast. They were brought in by the long chu when white-sugar mills began buying cane and labour was much needed during harvests. Apart from this, the labourers could earn incomes from this work during the slack period of paddy cultivation.

Bo Thong owes much of its development to the sugar industry, which has generated various sources of income for its people. Besides crop production there is a commercial sector supporting and interrelated to the former which includes:

1. Shopkeepers and traders, who were attracted to settle in Bo Thong when the area started to develop into a large production center for cash crops, especially after 1967
2. Crop brokers, who opened shops at the Om Phanom market to buy whatever smallscale farmers produced (excluding sugar-cane), such as cassava, ground-nut, sweet corn, and tumeric
3. Truck owners, who play an important role in the cassava network as they are shopkeepers or cassava cultivators renting out their vehicles for transporting cassava from the hinterland area as a sideline

To conclude, in the production system in the Bo Thong area all population and occupational groups are interrelated. The long chu provided the luk rai with board, lodging, and protection and in turn received services and labour for the brownsugar mills. The latter were also provided with land ranging from 20 to 50 rai (3.2-8 ha) depending on the number of workers in the family. This pattern of relationships formed an inter-class bond, with each party needing the other. Gradually this system began to decline when the brown-sugar industry ceased. It was replaced by one of seasonal wage labourers because the cost of production rose. Thus a new work system, mao raksa, was introduced under which seasonal workers came for three months to cultivate and care for the cane until the first weeding was done. These workers were paid on a piece-work basis of 700 baht per rai (U.S. $168.00 per ha).

Today the term luk rai is used to describe any farmer dependent on the long chu for loans or a share in the sugar-cane quota. The pa boei, or contract farmers, clear forest land for land controllers. This system protects the controllers from the risk of raids by government forestry officers. Traders, crop brokers, and truck owners are important in the production system as they provide services and market outlets for smaller enterprises.

Settlement pattern and the community

The brown-sugar processors were the first group to settle permanently. They formed a cluster of settlements of row houses near the road intersections which eventually became shop houses and a market centre, Om Phanom. When more migrants moved into the area in later years, settlements began to disperse into fields and also occurred in small groups lining the roads. Owing to the lumber businesses and plantation owners, road networks in the area were well developed and accessible to most locations. Those having land near the road chose to build their houses at the intersections.

In 1979 Bo Thong consisted of eight villages, of which the most important was Om Phanom. By 1984 the number of villages had increased to 10. The interesting feature of each village community is that each has a small centre of shop houses near road intersections selling groceries, food, and drink as well as serving as a meeting place. The degree of interaction and contact between villagers varies among various groups.

However, in such a cash crop area the sugar-cane and cassava farmers are occupied almost ail year round. Most social contact tends to evolve in the crop-production area or where the farmers live, when, for example, mutual help is given in clearing land. Unlike in the traditional wet-rice community, however, the wet and schools perform only limited, basic functions and do not carry out other economic or social roles. This is because the agricultural production system in Bo Thong has embraced all aspects of farmers' livelihood. In addition, the new settlements of Bo Thong are composed mainly of people who moved from within Chon Buri and have similar backgrounds; they are accustomed to this system of cropping and its social livelihood.


The two case studies share some characteristics with regard to the stages and process of forest colonization, starting from the exploitation of forest resources at the subsistence level to the commercialized logging business and extensive cash-crop cultivation, maize in the case of Km 79 and sugar-cane in the Bo Thong area.

However, there are differences in the degree of development. The economy of the Bo Thong area is more established in terms of investments (e.g. industries and trade) than that of Km 79. Development in Km 79 depends mainly on the maize trade, which fluctuates according to world markets, not to mention the environment and climatic conditions which directly affect production. Development in Km 79 has decreased because resources have been exploited and drained by farmers and traders who are primarily from other areas.

In Bo Thong the large-scale sugar-cane farmers and brown-sugar processors (ethnic Chinese) invested in extensive cultivation. As a result land speculation for agricultural development in the area has increased. The process began earlier here than in Km 79, which developed only when maize was introduced in the 1950s. Large tracts of forest land in the Bo Thong area were claimed by the rich and influencial sawmillers, who controlled and regulated spontaneous land clearings through the luk rai and pa boei systems.

Under the tok khao phot system the farmers in Km 79 are more independent in terms of acquisition of land since maize traders do not control access to land. However well these systems functioned to serve the needs of the two parties concerned in forest clearing, growth began to decline and the relationship between farmers and their supporters (e.g. the long chu and luk rai relationship) began to loosen. One obvious reason is the higher risk involved when more capital investment is needed for production. By implication, for such a system to exist there should be natural resources. As seen in the case of Km 79, when maize yields declined due to low soil fertility, profits decreased because of increasing input costs. Traders became more cautious in giving loans and in the Om Phanom area, for example, the long chu now prefer to keep wage labourers in place of the luk rai.

This problem of depleted resources is felt not only by the farmers but also by the government. Previous development in the agricultural sector was by "area expansion," which has now to be replaced by the "increasing yield per rai" strategy stated in the Fifth Development Plan. A review of past agricultural development shows that the rate of growth in the agricultural sector has declined to about 3.5 per cent due to the degradation of natural resources. It is anticipated that unless conservation measures are taken the rate of decline will further decrease. The areas most affected will be those in the upper north and the north-east of Thailand. It is obvious that Thailand has now reached the point where "no more frontier land" is available for exploitation. What the government has proposed as one of the aims of the Fifth Development Plan is to increase the production potential of farmers by giving priority to projects such as those connected with soil, water, and forest conservation.

It is time that we ceased taking natural resources for granted or as a free means of production. Although it may be time-concurring, Thai farmers should be trained and guided with firm and persistent support from the government in adopting technologies on intensive rather than extensive use of land.


Klankamsorn, B., and T. Charuphat, 1981. Using landsat imagery to investigate the changes of forest land use. Forest Management Division, Royal Forest Department, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Bangkok.

Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, 1980. Agricultural statistics of Thailand, 197811979. Bangkok.

Office of Agricultural Economics, 1981. Selected economic indicators relating to agriculture, 84 (5): 65. Bangkok.

Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board, 1982. The Fifth National Economic and Social Development Plan, 1982-1986 (in Thai). Office of the Prime Minister, Bangkok.

Royal Forestry Department, Forest Management Division. 1980. Study on forest land use
problems in northeastern Thailand (in Thai). Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives,
Seidenfaden, E. 1967. The Thai peoples. The Siam Society, Bangkok.

Thai University Research Association, N.d. Policy and land use planning section 4: Land reform and land allocation (in Thai). Bangkok.

Uhlig, H., ed. 1984. Spontaneous and planned settlement in Southeast Asia. Institute of Asian Affairs, Hamburg.

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