Is the Thai Government 'Greenwashing' us?
Not all talk about protecting the environment and fighting against climate change is sound. Too often, 'green' or 'sustainable' policies and practices are no more than a distraction from the real issues. Even more often, they are motivated by profit. Or even worse, they are a smokescreen for funding fossil fuels and driving deforestation. This is generally known as 'greenwashing'. What exactly is it & why the answer to it is Just Transition?
The term greenwashing was originally used to describe corporations that divert attention from their environmentally unsound practices by claiming to pursue "green" or sustainable policies. It is a way of obtaining a social license from the public in times when people are increasingly environmentally aware and often base their consumer choices on the ethical and environmental practices of a company.
For example, in 2019, the Global Witness revealed how some of the largest financial institutions provide finances to companies involved in the deforestation of the world's most significant rainforests, despite priding in ethically and environmentally sound policies. This is greenwashing.
But aside from corporations and their self-proclaimed environmentally sound practices, the practice of greenwashing has spread out to political spheres too. With the growing pressure of the global civil society on the world governments to act against climate change, it is increasingly difficult to ignore this issue.
On the surface, the results of this scrutiny are quite positive: more ambitious goals to finish with fossil fuels (or 'phase out' fossil fuels), focus on reforestation, and protection of natural ecosystems. But behind big words announced on stages of international forums are national policies and practices that are not only too weak to tackle climate change but also hurt whole communities, violate human rights, and deepen existing inequalities.
In the autumn of 2021, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha became one of over 100 world leaders attending the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26). There, Thailand announced its new pledge: a revised deadline by which Thailand should achieve carbon neutrality - by 2050 - and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions - by 2065. This should be possible mainly through forestry carbon sinks and as the Prayut made clear, only with the support of the international community.
Despite a five-month delay, Thailand eventually also joined the 'Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use' in April 2022, a document originally circulated at COP26, calling for sustainable forest management and, among others, "support for smallholders, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities, who depend on forests for their livelihoods and have a key role in their stewardship."
On the surface, both steps seem like positive developments leading to more efficient environmental protection and climate change mitigation. Dig deeper and you find that the Prayut government's pledges might hurt whole communities, lead to their evictions and criminalization, while not really tackling greenhouse emissions.
Thailand's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment announced that the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration will further support Thailand's efforts to increase the total forested area and reach the new net-zero target announced at COP26. However, the recent modeling by Thammasat University shows that relying on forests only is a false climate solution and that real cuts in fossil fuel electricity generation are needed.
Furthermore, Thailand's problematic human rights record when it comes to forest conservation and sustainable land use might only worsen with these new pledges.
Thailand's false climate solutions
In 2014, Thailand issued its Forest Reclamation Policy, a framework aimed at stopping commercial investors from environmental degradation and deforestation and increasing the total forested area in Thailand to 40%. The new National Park Act of 2019 was supposed to preserve protected areas, including national parks. Other laws regulating forests and protected areas are the Forest Act of 1941 and the National Reserved Forests Act of 1964.
However, instead of providing protection for the forest ecosystems, bad forest conservation laws and policies have been weaponized to evict forest-dwelling communities, small-scale farmers, and indigenous peoples from their lands, accusing them of forest encroachment and even taking legal action against them. According to P-Move, more than 1830 cases have been filed under the Forest Reclamation Policy against poor people in the first half of 2019 alone.
In the meantime, commercial operations have been expanding in protected areas, guilty of deforestation and environmental destruction. E.g., the Government revoked the protected status of national reserved forest to accommodate a special economic zone in Tak province (they changed the legal status of the land so that it could be rented out by investors.) It also authorized Siam Cement Company to use Tab Kwang and Muak Lek Forest Reserve for mining activities.
The stories of Sab Wai and Bangkloi villagers are two cases in point that the Government is not willing to end up with corporate impunity and only makes impoverished communities even poorer.
Sab Wai villagers from Thailand's Isaan region (Chaiyaphum province) have lived in their village since the 1970s. They live off subsistence farming, growing food for their own consumption and selling the overplus crop such as climate-resilient cassava. The community lived in peace even during the time of the establishment of Sai Thong National Park in 1992 which now covers the area of their village.
However, since 2015, Sab Wai villagers became targets of flawed forest conservation laws and policies. The community was blamed for forest encroachment and its destruction and was requested to take down all the structures on the disputed land. The legislative framework supposed to protect forests against large-scale investors and businesses targeted this impoverished community instead.
The villagers were eventually convicted under Forest Act (1941), National Park Act (1961), and National Reserved Forests Act (1964) for trespassing, encroachment, and clearing of land belonging to the National Park. In 2021, the Supreme Court confirmed the verdicts of courts of lower instances, and sentenced 11 villagers to suspended jail terms while imprisoning the remaining 3 of them.
Almost a year after the Supreme Court verdicts, villagers are in grave danger of forced evictions that would make them homeless and throw them into extreme poverty.
(VIDEO) Learn more about the Sab Wai villagers' case here.
In February 2021, Kaeng Krachan National Park authorities forcibly moved around 100 indigenous Karen villagers from their homes in the Bangkloi - Jai Pandin highland, unfairly accusing them of forest encroachment within Kaeng Krachan National Park (KKNP in Phetchaburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan Provinces).
On 5 March 2021, 22 members of the indigenous Karen community in Bangkloi - including women and a disabled person – were arrested by Thai national park authorities and were detained in prison for returning to their ancestral land in the Kaeng Krachan forest. They were released under the condition that they would not return to the area. This has put the whole community in a considerably difficult situation.
Villagers are facing malnutrition as a result of having no access to their ancestral subsistence (foraging natural resources and rotational farming). They are also facing health risks and loss of income as Karen villagers were forced to resettle and struggled to farm infertile land. Young villagers had to work in cities to feed their families, but the spread of COVID-19 limited their income. Returning to their ancestral land within Kaeng Krachan National Park turned out to be the last and only option.
However, on 26 July 2021, UNESCO declared the National Park a World Heritage Site, ignoring the pleas of the indigenous Karen who currently cannot enter the area. Furthermore, Phetchaburi provincial prosecutors have prepared an indictment against 27 Bangkloi villagers on 18 August 2021.
Learn more about the Bangkloi villagers' case here.
Human Rights response to environmental crises
Thailand's treatment of marginalized communities in the name of forest conservation and climate change mitigation has already been noticed and scrutinized by the international community and UN human rights experts.
The fact that false climate solutions in Thailand attack indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities such as Khon Isaan or the Karen was addressed during Thailand's CERD Review in November 2021 examining Thailand's compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination). In the final outcome of the review, the CERD Committee noted "with concern the discriminatory effect of the State party’s various forestry and environment related laws and regulations, and their implementation, on ethnic groups and indigenous peoples living in forests."
Also, during its Universal Periodic Review in 2021, another UN-backed human rights review of Thailand, the Government accepted several recommendations to address the negative impacts of its forest conservation regulations. These were for example to integrate a rights-based approach into climate mitigation policy, enhance the participation of local communities in land conservation and forest management and recognize the local community’s role in the global climate action agenda.
Why we need Just Transition
The world must change. In the face of unprecedented climate and biodiversity crises, governments, corporations and all other stakeholders must do maximum to stop these crises. The transition will be large-scale and impact every part of every society.
But even just two examples, Sab Wai and Bangkloi villagers, show that the transition in Thailand is far from just. Communities that contribute the least to the global greenhouse emissions are evicted from their homes and criminalized. Their climate-resilient food systems are destroyed and the communities are thrown into extreme poverty, suffering from malnutrition and undermined health.
The Government must grant these communities land rights, ensuring their effective participation in decision-making and equal access to social and health services. But equally important will be their recognition as guardians of the forest who actually help conservation of biodiversity and climate change mitigation through their ancestral knowledge and wisdom.
If Thailand is to ever tackle the climate emergency, it must do so with communities at the center of its response: this is Just Transition.
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