By Jeffrey A. McNeely
Having retired from IUCN in Switzerland and moved back to Thailand (where I started my international conservation work as a Peace Corps Volunteer back in 1968), I found a challenging position: technical advisor to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation on helping them prepare a National Protected Areas System Plan. Ecoagriculture has been my security blanket in the sometimes chilly winds swirling around the rural landscapes.
Thailand is a classic good news-bad news story. After I left in 1977, its economy boomed (though I take no credit for this) and Thailand now has the 32nd largest GNP in the world. And it has not neglected conservation, with about 20% of its land now legally protected in national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and no-hunting areas.
The bad news is that the nearly 40% of the people who remain farmers are earning less than half the national average income, stuck in relative rural poverty amidst remarkable wealth in the cities. The booming economy in China to the north has increased demand for Thailand’s natural resources, including illegally harvested wildlife. Farmers, driven by economic imperatives and government incentives to increase production, are crossing the boundaries of the protected areas and provoking conflicts with elephants whose traditional migration routes have been turned into pineapple plantations. The expansion of protected areas has engulfed some villages that had been long established in these mostly-forested sites, leading to conflicts with park rangers who seek to enforce regulations that the 600,000 now-illegal forest farmers find onerous, even existential threats.
Though receiving plentiful rainfall, water has become a growing problem: sometimes droughts, sometimes floods. The flow of the mighty Mekong River, which forms much of Thailand’s northeastern border with Laos, has dwindled as multiple dams are being built upstream in China. Agriculture uses 70% of the water, but other users are demanding a greater share to support their significant contributions to the economy. Small wonder that political turmoil is roiling.
The Kingdom’s professional leadership is well aware of the challenges. The 2012-2016 National Economic and Social Development Plan contains the elements of a progressive agenda based on addressing the needs of the rural poor, significantly increasing the national response to the growing threat of climate change, and promoting sustainable forms of natural resource management.
Against this backdrop, protected areas have plenty to contribute. Although they were originally managed by the protection-oriented Forest Department, these ecologically important sites are now managed under the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, giving them a much larger mandate and new incentives for working with local people rather than against them. Protected areas are now focused more on protecting the ecosystem services provided by the forests and delivering these to the local communities, in exchange for cooperation in forest management. Formal Protected Area Committees include local participation to help resolve conflicts. Some villages are even establishing their own payment for ecosystem services schemes, charging themselves for the clean water they receive from the nearby national park and using the funds for community development.
Meanwhile, I have been encouraged to find ways to support linkages in the landscape, using economic incentives for farmers to establish conservation corridors that link protected areas in complexes that include multiple land uses – including agroforestry and other forms of ecoagriculture. It is heartening to see ideas developed as part of ecoagriculture, such as working at the landscape scale and managing for ecosystem services, being applied to the biologically rich forests that are essential foundations to Thailand’s sustainable future.
Photo: Jeffrey A. McNeely