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Recent Decentralization Plans of the Royal Forest Department and its Implications for Forest Management in Thailand

Komon Pragtong
Division of Ecology and Environment
Royal Forest Department
Bangkok, Thailand


Over the last 50 years, Thailand has undergone rapid political, social, economic and environmental change. During this period, much of the natural forest area in Thailand has quickly been logged or converted into agricultural areas to spur national development. While there has been much criticism of its failure to stop forest loss, the Royal Forest Department (RFD), which is responsible for managing all forest resources in Thailand, has been constrained in developing appropriate forest management practices by higher political influences and an increasingly polar public opinion regarding how the country's remaining forest area should be managed (Pragtong and Thomas 1990; Sato 1998). This paper traces the evolution of forest management in Thailand and discusses the decentralization and forest management plans of the RFD.

Evolution of Forest Management in Thailand

Before the establishment of the RFD in 1896, forestland was managed by autonomous local fiefdoms, many of whom profited from logging contracts with European companies. The central government reorganized the forestland administration by establishing the Royal Forest Department which was charged with managing all forest area in Thailand. Since then, forest management strategies have evolved along with the socio-economic and political conditions in the country. The evolution of forest management in Thailand can be divided into four phases (Pragtong and Thomas 1990).

Phase 1, 1896 - 1953: developing forest management systems and a forest industry

During this period, forestland was managed primarily for commercial timber extraction to meet both domestic and foreign consumption. The Forest Industry Organization (FIO) was established in 1947 as a public forest enterprise for timber and wood, and the Thai Plywood Company was established in 1952 to promote in-country wood processing. During this phase, forest and agricultural land were abundant and population densities were still low. Until 1953, about 60 percent of the total land area was still forested.

Phase 2, 1954 - 1967: state allocation of land for economic development

This period saw a push to use forestland to support national economic development. In 1954, agricultural land was allocated to small farmers under the Land Act 1954 which provided the legal basis for land classification and private ownership. In 1961, the first national social and economic development plan (1961-1966) was launched. Fifty percent of forestland was to remain forested, but by the second national plan the target was reduced to 40 percent. Forestland was quickly cleared by logging concessions which were granted on a large scale to provincial timber companies, by other governmental organizations which cleared land for dams and road construction, and by landless farmers who settled in these opened, frontier areas. Transformation of the landscape accelerated during this period, and by 1967, forest cover was reduced to 48 percent of the kingdom while the farm land increased to 26 percent.

Phase 3, 1968 -1980: the vanishing forest frontier

In 1968, the government decided to extend long-term harvesting concessions. The program resulted in more than 500 concessions being granted, covering half the country. There were many disputes between forest officers and migrants who settled in the logged over areas. This led to an amnesty in 1974 for those residing in reserved forestland. Two major factors led to this. First, the continuing worry over communist insurgents who had moved into forest areas throughout the country encouraged further clearance of forestland to flush the insurgents out. The second was mass migration of hilltribes escaping the conflicts of neighboring countries into the mountainous forest areas of North Thailand. Reflecting the political events of the time, the RFD began playing a more active role in working with communities. In 1975, the National Forestland Management Division (NFLMD) was created within the RFD to administer the Forest Village Program. This and other rural development programs are generally recognized as having stabilized forest encroachment by setting limits for how much land households could claim (Poffenberger 1999).

By 1980, reserved forest area covered 36 percent of the kingdom, with national parks and wildlife sanctuaries covering six percent. Most of these areas were also under timber concessions, although minor withdrawals were made for national security considerations in highly sensitive areas. Deforestation accelerated, leaving only 32 percent of the kingdom under forest cover.

Phase 4, 1981 - 1990: transition to collaborative forest management

By the early 1980s, the government began recognizing the magnitude of forest loss. During this period there was increasing recognition that local participation in forest management could assist in forest conservation as well as in stabilizing agricultural encroachment into forestland. Thus, the RFD initiated the National Forestland Allotment (STK) Project, which provided land usufruct certificates to households occupying degraded reserved forest areas before 1982. STK land-use rights were similar to those issued under the Forest Village Project, but the program did not include infrastructure development and government services. Also in 1981, the RFD initiated village woodlots. These woodlots were aimed at increasing forest production for local needs by communities outside forest reserves. In 1985, The National Forest Policy targeted 40 percent of the country to be under forestland and stressed the need to involve local communities, the private sector, academia, and other agencies concerned with forest management. Other pilot projects were initiated to boost forest cover and reforestation efforts. The RFD once again responded to the problems by reorganizing itself and placing more emphasis on forestry extension and supporting local community efforts.

In 1988, serious flooding and landslides in the South generated public concern and an outcry for more conservation oriented policies. A rising urban middle class, with increasing environmental awareness, pressed for action to halt forest degradation. This led to the 1989 national logging ban. The logging ban pointed towards a shift in national forest management policies toward local participation and forest conservation (Poffenberger 1999).

People's Involvement in Forest Management

Forestry policies in the 1990s have echoed the concern raised by the general public. In 1979, Thailand had only 16 national parks covering an area of 9,357 sq. kms. By 1996, this had increased to 81 national parks covering an area of 41,738 sq. kms (Pipithvanichtham 1997). In addition, a number of programs were initiated to encourage people's participation in forest management.

In 1991, the RFD began a process to develop a Community Forestry Bill to involve local communities in managing communal forest areas. The bill has passed through many processes of public involvement and it is hoped that it will become law in the near future. There are many who oppose the Community Forestry Bill and fear that the bill will cause further forest encroachment and degradation. Thus, while many in the RFD see the bill as the only viable way to solve land disputes, forest encroachment and increasing rural discontent, the RFD is tied down by political considerations and has to wait for formal approval by the Thai Parliament. Other initiatives of the RFD include:

In addition, the Eighth National Social and Economic Development Plan (1997-2001) emphasizes human resource development as its main thrust. Many of the strategies in the plan focus on people's participation in national resource management.

The new Thai Constitution and decentralization to local governments

The 1992 Tambon Administration Act (TAO) provides a greater role for local government units in forest management. Under this act, TAOs (sub-district governmental units) have responsibility for managing all natural resources within their boundaries. This decentralization plan was further supported by the new Thai Constitution which came into law in 1997. The constitution states that local people and organizations should be involved in managing their natural resources. Both of these laws further enshrine people's participation in forest management and pave the way for clarifying land-use issues and people's role in forest management (Poffenberger 1999).

Adaptation to Decentralization

While formal adoption of the Community Forestry Bill is still pending, the RFD has been testing out a number of pilot projects which will prepare the department for when the bill is eventually approved. This includes:

RFD and the Economic Crisis

To ease problems caused by the economic crisis, the government launched the public sector adjustment policy to review the role of government agencies. It was decided that all work that can be carried out by the private sector should be privatized. Correspondingly, all work which can be undertaken by local people should be transferred to local organizations. Under this policy, the RFD will terminate government reforestation projects, private plantation promotion, seedling distribution, and wood and non-wood checkpoints. These activities as well as all the work concerning forest engineering (such as road construction, forest boundary survey and all mechanical engineering) shall be transferred to the private sector. Plantation and forest protection activities will be transferred to local organizations. The process of the adjustment was initiated in 1998 and is ongoing.


Thailand has gone through dramatic changes over the last 50 years and the RFD has tried to keep apace. Increasing public concern over the environment, pressure to downsize government in the face of the economic crisis, and the recognition that local people should play an active role in forest management have all encouraged decentralization of forest management responsibilities in Thailand. All sectors of Thai society (government, private, urban and rural) recognize the need to balance rapid socio-economic development and environmental conservation, however, there are diverse opinions as to how to best meet these goals. The difficulty of reaching a consensus on how best to achieve improved forest conservation and rural development, and in turn implementing policies which support these goals, are the major challenges ahead for forest management in Thailand (Sato 1998).


Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and Civil Service Commission Office. 1998. Public Sector Adjustment in the Economic Crisis Situation. Paper for a Public Hearing.

Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. 1998. Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives Economic Policy Under the Economic Crisis Situation. Paper for a Public Hearing

Pipithvanichtham, P. 1997. Issues and Challenges of Ecotourism in the National Parks of Thailand. In Bornemeier, J., Victor, M. and P. Durst (eds.), Ecotourism for Forest Conservation and Community Development. Proceedings of an International Seminar held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, 28 - 31 January 1997. RECOFTC Report No. 15. RAP/FAO Publication: 1997/42. Bangkok, Thailand.

Poffenberger, Mark (ed.). 1999. Communities and Forest Management in Southeast Asia. A Regional Profile of the Working Group on Community Involvement in Forest Management. Forests People and Policies. IUCN. Gland, Switzerland.

Pragtong, K. and David Thomas. 1990. Evolving Management Systems in Thailand. In Mark Poffenberger (ed.), Keepers of the Forest, Land Management Alternatives in Southeast Asia. Kumarian Press. USA.

Sato, Jin. 1998. The Political Economy of Bufferzone Management: A Case Study from Western Thailand. In Victor, M., Lang, C. and J. Bornemeier (eds.), Community Forestry at a Crossroads: Reflections and Future Directions in the Development of Community Forestry. Proceedings of an International Seminar, held in Bangkok, Thailand, 17 - 19 July 1997. RECOFTC Report No. 16. Bangkok, Thailand.

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