Published: Monday 15 February 1999

Conservationists, forestry academicians and government officials are engaged in a heated debate over the contents of a draft community forest bill. The debate revolves around contentious article which allows people to reside in protected forests. Forestry officials and academicians are opposing the article, saying that it would open the way for massive deforestation and wildlife destruction by communities. Conservationists, represented by non-governmental organisations, argue that allowing communities to reside in forests would be the most effective way to protect the natural resources.

The process of drafting the bill started several years ago. Initially two separate drafts were prepared: one by the forest department and the other by environmental and rural grassroots groups. The two drafts were later consolidated into one with both sides agreeing to a compromise and allow existing communities which could prove their "conservation-mindedness" to establish community forests.

Pairoj Suwannakorn, a former forest department official, strongly objected to allowing communities in conservation areas, including national forest reserves, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries. "From my experience, community forests would eventually lead to large-scale deforestation," he said. He urged forest officials to oppose in the bill because they would have to bear the consequences of deforestation.

Most government officials agree with him. But Rataya Chantian, chairperson of the Seub Nakasathien Foundation, argues that the bill would benefit forest conservation as a whole. There were 2,000 forests nationwide where the concept of community forest had proved positive for conservation, she said.

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