Breaking the cycle of land inequality in Thailand

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Breaking the cycle of land inequality in Thailand

Thailand’s land ownership disparity is one of the worst in the world. As such, land reform should be a crucial campaign policy for the upcoming general election. Unfortunately, it is not.

As the campaign heats up, the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) announced in February that it would give title deeds to farmers from the Sor Por Kor distribution scheme for the landless.

Joining the bandwagon is the Move Forward Party (MFP). Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat likewise pledges to give away Sor Por Kor land to landless farmers.

Mr Pita dismisses fears that it will lead to the privatisation of state farm land and ultimately land grabs by the rich. “MFP has total faith that local farmers will not sell land to investors,” Mr Pita told the media.

This is not land reform, but populism. Without proper safeguards, land speculators indeed will quickly scoop up the land, further increasing land disparity.

The solution might not rest with giving state land to landless farmers, as the issue is broader. Land reform requires fair land distribution and sustainable and equitable land use.

In Thailand, most land is in the hands of the rich. Figures show the wealthiest 10% own over 60% of private land. A Land Department database shows 40% of private title deeds belong to the top 1% of the population. A single powerful tycoon owns more than 600,000 rai of land while most people, who are farmers, have little or no land to till at all.

Economist Duangmanee Laovakul, at the Faculty of Economics, Thammasat University, says the bottom 50% of the Thai population owns just 5% of the land. The difference in land ownership between the top 20% and the bottom 20% is a staggering 325 times.

Landlessness is a complex problem that needs comprehensive solutions and a strong political will to implement them.

The biggest land problem in Thailand involves about 10 million forest dwellers who were kicked out of forests when the government over the last five decades declared forest land as state national forest and national parks. The forest dwellers were suddenly left without any land and treated like illegal encroachers who must be arrested and jailed.

The solution is not difficult and several governments during the past few decades have acknowledged the problem.

The Lower House offers a solution on land reform which state agencies could adopt. In 2020, a House sub-committee studying land ownership problems found Thailand has 350 million rai of land, more than enough to accommodate 65 million people. The problem, however, is the concentration of land ownership in the hands of the few.

Its report, sent to the cabinet last year, urges the government to review policies to lease state land to commercial and industrial projects, and allocate or share some of this land with landless people. The government must make it obligatory for those firms to restore the environment before the areas are allocated to the landless.

The government must not permit mining or other non-agricultural uses of the Sor Por Kor land originally given to landless farmers. It must also decentralise land use decisions to local governments; communities and civic organisations can take part in the management of the land and the environment in their immediate surroundings.

The study also advises the government to review its farm policy especially governing corn plantations for the animal feed industry based in the mountains.

This policy leads to unsustainable land use and slash-and-burn harvesting methods there lead to PM2.5 pollution. The government, it says, should support sustainable farming methods instead, like small-scale farming and eco-friendly rotational farming systems.

Because landless problems involve ethnic people living on high land, the report urges the government to set aside forest areas as cultural reservations for ethnic groups in accordance with a cabinet resolution on Aug 3, 2010, so they can maintain their way of life. This includes rotational farming systems, as long as they remain environmentally-friendly.

The government, it said, also must return the land to villagers and provide them with land title deeds in areas where national forests were declared on the properties of locals who had been living there.

It should start enforcing the land reform law for agriculture by allocating degraded forests to landless farmers. For forest communities, the government must acknowledge communal land ownership and allow locals to manage and protect their forest homes.

These suggestions are not new, nor progressive; they are about acknowledging the rights of local people. However, the bureaucracy’s opposition to decentralisation, and collusion between business and the bureaucracy explain why they have not been put into action before.

The solutions to land reform are here; now the next government must show its political courage to put them into effect.

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.