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Interview: The land is our life and future

Bunsak Thongdi discusses his work with the hill tribes of northern Thailand

2018 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Women and children from the Palaung tribe. Photo: UHDP

Women and children from the Palaung tribe. Photo: UHDP

A community in rural Honduras.

From: Land rights – Footsteps 105

Why land rights are important and what we can do to protect them

Bunsak Thongdi leads Upland Holistic Development Project (UHDP), which works with hill tribes in northern Thailand on land rights and community land and forest management.

What sort of problems are the hill tribes facing? 

The land where the hill tribes live is seen as belonging to the state. The communities do not have the title of the land, even though they have lived there for generations. The government wants to start a national park in the area, which would mean relocating those living there. But for the hill tribes, it is not just a piece of land – it is their life and their future. 

Another problem is that business people are bringing cash crops into the area, such as tangerines. These crops are not native to the area, so they require a lot of chemicals, which pollute the water. Also, these plants need a clear, open field. The business people try to manipulate local farmers into clearing the forest. Often the farmers end up with no profit – sometimes even a loss.

Bunsak, right, trains local people in community forest management. Photo: Spreadtrum

Bunsak, right, trains local people in community forest management. Photo: Aphi Amor/UHDP

What is your organisation doing to help?

As the local people do not have the land title, the only thing they can do is to request a community land deed from the government. This would provide the people with an official document saying they can use the land. At the moment, this process is still ongoing. 

In the meantime, we provide training to local people on managing community lands and forests. First we help the community to elect a community forest and land management committee among themselves. Each committee member has a role, such as taking care of forest fires or connecting with local government officials. 

We train the committee to do mapping using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology. Then other organisations, such as the local university, make the map for us. The community uses the maps and other papers to document the area of land they are taking care of. After finishing the map, the community agrees some rules and regulations about how they will protect and use the land and resources. When someone from outside wants to take the land, the community can use the map to help them negotiate. Even though it is not an official document, it is certainly helpful. 

How do you help people to make the most of the land?

We are promoting better farming methods, such as using compost. We also encourage income generation from crops that are not so complicated to grow, such as coffee and tea. 

Many people have access to a small piece of land by their homes. We help them develop backyard agriculture, so they can at least produce food to feed their family. If they do well, they can also sell some of their produce. If communities have a bigger area of land, we help them to develop agroforestry. This is the idea of having different things planted in the same plot so that they all benefit: trees for construction, fruit trees and other crops. 

We encourage neighbouring communities to form an environmental network so they can learn from each other and have a bigger voice. UHDP is also part of a larger NGO network in the area. By working together, people are better able to protect their natural resources. 

What do you find most inspiring about your work?

For me, the most inspiring thing is seeing people get a sense of ownership of the land and the project. Because then, when you leave the community, they still carry on the work. A third of the communities have now become trainers for other areas. We are really happy to see the impact they are creating today. 

Bunsak Thongdi is the Director of UHDP and a member of Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals programme. 

Email: [email protected]

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