Forest conflict in Thailand: Northern Minorities in Focus

TitleForest conflict in Thailand: Northern Minorities in Focus
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsHares M
Secondary TitleEnvironmental Management
Key themesAccessToJustice, Environment, MarginalisedPeople

This paper aims at exploring the local background of and solutions to the forest conflict in upland areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, who are called hill tribes, in northern Thailand. A so-called hill tribe problem has been officially identified as a result of the slash-and-burn cultivation and other perceived problems, such as opium poppy cultivation, illegal immigration, and the suspicion of disloyalty to the state. This has created distrust and tension between the groups and authorities. The local conflict has recently been related to the dilemma of conserving the forest from all human interference, while many people live and make their livelihood within and adjacent to the protected areas. Furthermore, as the results imply, strictly protected areas and reforestation have also increased the competition over land and natural resources and, thereby, the likelihood of local conflicts. The scarcity and pollution of water, illegal logging, and poor fire control have contributed to the conflicts between local communities. The conflicts between the local communities and officials have been nourished by political and public discussions. Using definitions and terms with negative connotations and ignoring the heterogeneity between the groups or labeling some groups as malevolent have increased distrust and strengthened existing stereotypical images. Conflict resolution starts with efforts toward better mutual understanding, and changes in structures and attitudes are necessary. Local cooperation, utilization of traditional methods, and local institutions are central to conflict solving.


Copyrighted journal article



Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

The author investigated the local background of and solutions to conflicts which relate to national forest policy in the upland areas of northern Thailand. The upland people were defined as a threat to forests by the state because of their slash-and-burn practices, opium poppy cultivation, and illegal immigration. Local conflicts have mainly been caused by the dilemma of conserving the forest from human interference, while many people live and have their livelihoods within and adjacent to the protected areas. Highlighting different kinds of conflicts (intracommunity, intercommunity, supracommunity and external actors), the research promotes efforts toward better mutual understanding, and changes in structures and attitudes. Local cooperation with local institutions, and the utilization of traditional methods, are central to conflict resolution

Key Themes: 
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - Forest management objectives have shifted toward conservation since the national logging ban in 1989. A huge number of upland people were excluded from the forest because they were defined as a threat to its maintenance. Forest conservation in Thailand marginalizes hill tribe people not only from land, but also from trees and water. Due to pressures for land and natural resources, conflicts in the northern uplands have increased
  • Land and the environment: pollution, deforestation, climate change, conservation zoning - Conflicts can be interpreted at different levels (not only through access to land and natural resources, but also in ideology). For example, while national authorities consider slash-and-burn cultivation as an influence on deforestation, for the villager, rotational farming causes no damage as the forest regenerates during the cultivation cycle, typically over 6–7 years. For them, rotational cultivation is a way to maintain the diversity of the forest through patches of differently-aged forest
  • Dispute resolution and access to justice - The way in which several states promulgate forest conservation policy and/or natural resource management by excluding local, particularly upland people, causes conflicts that sometimes cannot be resolved. Yet these conflicts need to be managed to minimize any negative impacts. The paper is very useful when suggesting that: “One successful recipe for conflict resolution may be to combine new and traditional local tools with legal ones”
Research basis: 

The paper is part of the author’s doctoral thesis research, which was funded by the Academy of Finland and the Finnish Graduate School for Development Studies. The material for the study was gathered in six villages, five of which were situated in the Mae Chaem District and one in Chomthong, within Doi Inthanon National Park. Villagers include members of ethnic minority groups (Karen, Hmong, and Lawa) and ethnic Thai. (Provided by Nguyen Phuong Le)