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Fact Summary

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy headed by the King who has an advisory role as head of State. The Prime Minister heads the government. House members are democratically elected every four years. Thailand is the only nation in South East Asia that has never been ruled by a western power.

Geography Climate and Population

Thailand covers an area of some 514,000 km2, divided into four main regions. The country's greatest distance from east to west is 772 km, and from north to south is 1,770 km. The climate is tropical, with three defined seasons - a hot, dry spring, a hot, wet summer, and a mild winter. There are heavy rains throughout the country from May to October, with the south-west monsoons.

The 1994 population stood at 57.6 million people and is projected to rise to 66.7 million by 2010. The time taken for the population to double is currently 50 years.


Thailand's economy is one of the fastest growing in the world for the last decade, with GDP growth averaging above 10% per annum for 1987 to 1991, and above 8% for 1992 to 1996.

The major components of the economy are (as measured by contribution to GDP):









GNP per capita US$2680 (1996).

Notwithstanding recent problems, the Thai economy demonstrates the strength of a free market environment in generating economic growth. The very rapid growth in recent years has created bottlenecks in physical infrastructure, skilled labour shortages and a large middle class which wants progress towards democracy. The rapid development to some extent has been at the expense of natural resources including forests.


Productive hardwood forests were estimated at 4 million hectares in 1980 and only 0.5 million hectares in 1990. As a result of this rate of destruction, in 1989 the government banned all harvesting of timber from the natural forests in an attempt to protect what is left. However conversion to food production continues as does uncontrolled fuelwood removal.

Forest cover is estimated to be about 27% of land area but only limited areas of this have any productive potential in terms of wood. Most of the remaining forests are in relatively inaccessible remote areas. They consist of evergreen montane forests (Dipterocarp spp.), mixed deciduous monsoon forest (teak) and dry dipterocarp savanna forest in remote mountain valleys. Valleys and plains are totally cultivated.

Additional evidence of the decline in domestic forestry production is provided by domestic lumber production. Between 1990 and 1994, production fell by 36%. During the same period, lumber imports rose by 59%.

The government has embarked on a series of initiatives to encourage protection of remaining forest and to encourage private sector involvement in the development of plantations. Reforestation is small when compared to demand and to the areas deforested. The species used are mainly fast growing hardwoods. The Forestry Department has a goal of 21 million hectares of forest land including plantations. At current rates of progress this will take about 200 years (assuming no further conversion of forests to agriculture - a concept which appears very unlikely at present).

Several investors including offshore groups have attempted to establish plantations of fast growing eucalypts to meet the demand for pulpwood. All report very limited success to date.

Processing operations rely on rubberwood plantations, imports of logs and lumber (both legal and illegal), and illegal domestic harvesting. The ban on domestic harvesting has made Thailand a major importer of wood to supply its booming economy and existing processing capacity. Rubberwood utilisation is high in Thailand at about 83% of the available resource. This use of rubberwood has replaced the more traditional hardwoods and now makes up 70% of exported furniture volumes. The 211 rubberwood mills in Thailand consume 1.2 million m3 per year.

Fuelwood gathering is significant and may contribute to deforestation. The use of fuelwood on a per capita basis is higher than the rest of South East Asia. FAO reports that fuelwood consumption is about 35-40 million m3 annually with an increase in usage of 4 million m3 per year predicted by 2010.

Forestry Policy

Policy development in Thailand has three recognisable periods. The first, up to 1932 was under the absolute monarchy system. The crisis period is considered to be from 1932 through to 1956, while the third to the present is the modern period.

Like almost all countries (with New Zealand as an exception in that there was development of plantations to offset the losses of natural forest), the early period of forest development consisted of exploitation of the natural forest with no regard to long term sustainability matters. Little was done to formulate policy as little need was seen. A Forest Department was established and perhaps the most far reaching decision was to vest all forest land in the King. Several other reforms included the introduction of a teak management system and the initiation of forestry training.

The period from 1932 saw the introduction of the Forest Reserve Act and the Forest Act. Subsequent Acts were either supplementary or amendments to these. These Acts were modelled on the British management system being used in neighbouring Burma (Myanmar). These Acts focused on the needs of the government and not of the people. In fact, in the case of reserves, they could be gazetted but could not be de-gazetted even if it was shown that de-gazettal would benefit the people. People occupying land without official title (i.e. all the rural poor) had no rights to the land.

This has created some of the problems faced today where people with no legal access to the land they need for their subsistence simply encroach into reserves with little or no interest in the long term protection of the forest. Today most reserves previously set aside have been destroyed or severely degraded by this process. As the population grows, the problems are compounded. When many of the reserves were set aside the country's population was about 10 million, resulting in little competition for forest land. With today's population of around 60 million, the competition is intense.

The start of the modern era saw the training of foresters abroad and the initiation of the country's first full scale inventory. The use of the concession system was reintroduced in 1965 with control to be spread over a number of stakeholders. In reality the loggers and the Forest Industry Organisation had control. The forests were rapidly over-cut and degraded.

In 1975 access to nearly 75% of the forest was limited, officially to protect the forest but probably also to curb insurgency. The insurgents encouraged the continued cutting of the forest, partly to fund their activities. However after the major floods of 1988, the government cancelled all concessions.

Forest policy in Thailand has never been well coordinated, with definitions sometimes in conflict. The four major laws are hardly related and their implementation has been ineffective. The result of this lack of unified and planned approach to the management of the forests may be a contributory factor to their almost total destruction as an economic resource. It is generally understood, however, that forest loss has been driven mostly by land clearing for rice and tapioca cultivation - developments for which there were significant policy incentives.

In an attempt to unify forestry policy in Thailand, the Forest Department established a committee in 1982 to draft a National Policy. The process was detailed with extensive public hearings and input. The Policy was approved by Cabinet in 1985. This Policy covers most aspects of concern in forestry. The general scope of the policy is described below.

The policy seeks to establish long term coordinated management of forest resources alongside other natural resources. Within the concept of management there exists the concept of perpetual benefits to the people, maximising national social, economic and environmental benefits, while at the same time ensuring national security.

The National Forestry Plan will be an integral part of the National Social and Economic Development Plan. This is seen as part of an overall economic development programme of which forestry is a part.

Within the Policy there is recognition of the need to retain forest for the protection of soil and water resources. This requires management of issues such as fires, shifting cultivation and forest clearance by rural people.

Other sections of the Policy deal with research, education, enforcement of forest law, efficiency of timber production and control of corruption. This last point may be the Achilles Heel of the process if not well controlled.

Reforestation and afforestation are seen as important initiatives required to supply future wood needs. This part of the Policy encourages the private sector to become involved in tree planting projects for both domestic and export supply. There is even recognition that wood energy substitution for fossil fuel could reduce the country's dependency on oil imports.

It should be noted that while the Policy addresses many of the wood-related issues facing forestry, it is light on the non-wood and non-commercial timber issues. Non-wood and noncommercial wood matters are uppermost in the minds of those who rely on the forest for their daily resources. In particular the issue of fuelwood is of considerable concern given the volume consumed and the impact its collection can have on the remaining forests, and on the daily lives of those involved.

The Policy must also meet the requirements of other sections and goals of government. These include the mining sector, the need for national security, the rapid expansion of the construction industry, and supporting the furniture industry. In general this results in conflicts of objectives and interests. For example the furniture industry requires a supply of quality logs while at the same time the government has banned logging of natural forests. This encourages either the import of logs or lumber or the illegal cutting of the local forests. In reality both occur and thus work against the stated policy aims of government, namely protection of remaining forest and reducing the need to import resources.

The actual document is weak in terms of coordination and clarity. In addition there are some important omissions and there is a lack of priority setting.

Land tenure, as in most countries with a traditional tribal population, is an issue to be addressed. In Thailand, large numbers of rural landowners have a recognised title to their land, but in addition, some estimates put the number of illegal landholdings at over 2 million in forest reserves. This creates the usual dilemma - the desire to protect the forest versus the well-being of the people trying to make a living from the land they occupy. These issues are not simple to resolve and will not go away either. In fact they become progressively harder to resolve the longer they are left.

Security of tenure is a key parameter in the drive towards efficiency of land use and to achieving sustainable management of forest resources. Without security of tenure it is difficult at best and generally almost impossible to encourage land and forest users to consider the long term. A key doctrine of conventional economic wisdom is that the stakeholders must have a significant share in the outcome in order to justify the investment in inputs. Until they have secure title to their land they will only invest in short term projects, which by definition precludes thoughts of sustainable management. Indeed the opposite is more likely where the forest is seen as an impediment to economic development, usually in the form of agriculture.

There is further conflict between various government agencies, which increases the pressure placed on the forest resource. For example the agency responsible for agricultural development and settlement of rural people sees the forest as an impediment, as do the agencies responsible for public works and infrastructure development.

In spite of statements to the contrary, current Forest Policy appears to be more focused on the immediate issue of forest protection than the longer term issue of sustainable development of forest resources. Contemporary thinking holds that protection of the forest is more achievable if the stakeholders can see the benefits that forest protection can provide them. The concept of protecting forest resources for their intrinsic values is more associated with educated urban people (often from other countries) who do not rely on the forest or the land it occupies for their daily existence.

Overall, the result of this focus is that the Policy is not achieving the stated objectives as there is opposition to it, both deliberate and unintentional, and there are insufficient human and financial resources to fully implement it.

Towards 2010

In order to advance the cause of sustainable forest management, several important issues require addressing. Like all countries, Thailand must develop a forest policy and associated legislation in conjunction with a raft of other policy initiatives. Forest policy cannot survive in isolation. Consideration must be given to an holistic approach to land and forest resource management which provides for the needs of the people while at the same time ensuring the long term sustainability of the resources.

The approach taken can vary with circumstance, but some fundamental principles apply including: the active participation of all stakeholders and the principle that all concerns should be listened to and acted upon (failure to do this results in an "us and them" situation in which the "losers" refuse to accept the decisions taken); equity for all and honest, open, auditable process of policy development; security of tenure (to provide an incentive for resource users to consider the long term effects of their practices and whether they are sustainable); provision of alternative options from which economic wealth can be created (including alternative wood and non-wood resources and alternative methods of utilising them).

Associated with all this is the urgent need for research into all of the issues facing the forestry sector. Forest ecology and management, economics, sociological impacts, soil, water, environmental and ecological protection issues, are but a few of the matters to be addressed. In common with other countries, there is an ongoing need for education and training both within the forestry sector and with the wider population.

Even with the best will in the world in formulating and implementing a policy and the associated legislation, there will always be a requirement for surveillance and enforcement. This can only work in the long term if the underlying policy and law being enforced is equitable and just.

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