Thailand is facing the challenges of a transition from lower- to upper-middle-income status. After decades of very rapid growth followed by more modest 5–6% growth after the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98, Thailand achieved a per capita GNI of US $3670 by 2008, reduced its poverty rate to less than 10% and greatly extended coverage of social services. Infant mortality has been cut to only 13 per 1000, and 98 % of the population has access to clean water and sanitation. The country‘s challenges are to accelerate productivity through: specialization; innovation and technological advances; improvements in the quality of education and workforce training; and investment in basic services and infrastructure, in order to compete successfully with other middle-income exporting countries. At the same time, in order for Thailand to ensure the necessary social cohesion, the growth process has to benefit the poor and other vulnerable groups and protect the environment.
Thailand‘s efficient, transparent land administration system is a model for other countries. It has issued title deeds to large portions of the country‘s population, thus contributing to tenure security and developing a robust land market. However, the system has not reached many residents of the rapidly growing informal settlements in urban and peri-urban areas, nor has it addressed the rights of occupants of the country‘s forestland.
Natural-resource degradation has occurred as a consequence of Thailand‘s rapid urbanization and industrialization. In addition to forest degradation, the country‘s water resources are poorly managed, unevenly distributed and increasingly polluted. A comprehensive water law and effective enforcement are needed to address issues of water allocation, fees for water use, and the authority of river basin committees. Similarly, legislation is needed to address the competition for control over forestland among conservation interests, forest communities and mining companies. Finally, land rights need to be addressed in the country‘s mining law and regulatory framework. All this must be accomplished to avoid natural-resource degradation becoming a serious impediment to Thailand‘s continued economic and social progress.
KEY ISSUES AND INTERVENTION CONSTRAINTS
USAID formally ended its bilateral assistance program with Thailand in 1995 but continues to provide technical assistance and support through USAID‘s regional programs. Areas in which the agency and other donors could provide support include the following:
- Women’s land rights. Despite Thailand‘s formal legal framework supporting the rights of women to own land individually and jointly control marital property, men – particularly in rural areas – customarily control most of the productive assets, including agricultural land. As Thailand continues to register land and upgrade use-rights, the country has an opportunity to improve and strengthen the rights of women. USAID and other donors can assist the government by helping to develop programs at local levels to ensure that land registration offices and development programs take affirmative steps to ensure that women’s rights to own and manage land are well received. Women’s legal rights can be supported and enforced with legal aid services that work with local dispute-resolution forums, such as village elders and committees, district officers and municipal courts.
- Forestland rights. Almost 30% of land in Thailand is classified as forest and has been the subject of contested rights for decades. Conservation interests, forest communities and mining companies vie for control of forestland and resources. In anticipation of the passage of the Community Forest Act and programs granting forest-dwellers some type of formal long-term rights, the Forest Department has increased efforts to bring land under protected status. The government recognizes the positive role that participatory forestry rights could play in the sustainable management and preservation of forest resources, but legislation is stalled and the impact of community forest programs limited by the lack of a legal framework. Donors could assist the government in developing and implementing a plan for recognizing longstanding rights to forestland and promoting sustainable use and conservation through the development of benefit-sharing mechanisms. Donors can provide particular assistance with technical support for the development of baselines and socioeconomic assessments, giving particular attention to women and ethnic minorities, and for the design and implementation of appropriate, affirmative interventions to ensure that legislation and initiatives improve and strengthen the rights of these groups.
- Water law and resource governance. Thailand has made progress in developing a governance structure for managing its water resources but still lacks a comprehensive legal framework and cohesion among water governance organizations. In addition, regional water scarcity is rising due in large part to competing uses for the Mekong River and the impacts of increasing climate change. Donors can provide technical assistance to the government to improve coordination among water management entities, and to strengthen the capacity of local governance bodies, such as water user associations, Tambon (sub-district) Administrative Organizations, and river basin committees. Donors could help to strengthen regional water governance through supporting increased transparency and democratic decision-making processes within the Mekong River Commission and other relevant organizations. Donors could also assess the regional need for, and political and institutional feasibility of, a water-sharing agreement for the Mekong River.
- Mining law and natural resource governance. Thailand‘s mining law is dated and its provisions do not reflect the constitutional mandate for public participation in the management of natural resources. As investment in the country‘s mineral sector increases, conflict between mining interests and local communities, as have been experienced in the Northeast, will likely increase. Donors can help the government manage competing interests by helping to develop a progressive legal framework that supports investment while recognizing the rights of local communities. Donors can also help local communities strengthen their negotiating position with public-awareness building, community organizing, and the development of contracting and negotiation skills to assist them in reaching pro-community agreements with mining companies. Specific attention should be given to developing a foundation for the negotiation of fair and equitable benefit-sharing agreements, with mechanisms to ensure that benefits reach all members of local communities.
- Clean Energy Investment Project. The proposed US $570 million Clean Energy Investment Project plans to develop large-scale alternative energy facilities such as wind farms, dams and biomass operations. Development of these new forms of energy production will necessitate interventions and large-scale construction in rural areas. Access to land and other natural resources (e.g., water) on which local communities depend for their livelihoods will have to be carefully negotiated. The project may also have the potential to provide rural communities with multiple and significant benefits, including: employment; development of new markets; the creation of infrastructure; and opportunities for development of small and medium enterprises. Donors can help the government ensure that local communities dependent on the natural resources that will be impacted actually benefit from the project. Interventions can begin with support for land- tenure assessments, formal recognition of the land-rights of local communities and community members, and strategies for including local communities in project development plans. Donors can provide local communities and NGOs with capacity-building in areas of land-tenure assessments, natural resources inventories, community organizing and negotiating and contracting skills that will assist them in reaching appropriate, pro-community agreements with investors and developers.
Thailand continues its transition into a successful middle-income country and, at the national level, has already achieved many of the Millennium Development Goals in advance of the 2015 target. Despite the challenges of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2004 tsunami, Thailand has made significant progress in reducing poverty. Because of the country‘s relatively strong economic profile, at the government‘s request, most international donors have scaled back activities in recent years. However, Thailand faces continuing challenges in the areas of land rights and natural resource governance. The political uncertainty and public protests in 2009–2010 have slowed Thailand‘s progress and emphasize the need for the government to ensure that the property rights of all citizens are recognized and that local communities participate in and benefit from the sustainable development of the country‘s natural resources.
Almost 40% of Thailand‘s land is classified as agricultural. Forty-two percent of the working population is engaged in agriculture, and the country is one of the world‘s largest exporters of rice. In an effort to address high percentages of tenancy and landlessness, the country embarked on a 20-year Land Titling Program (LTP) that upgraded the land rights of and issued title deeds to large portions of the country‘s population. The LTP also streamlined the country‘s land administration system, which is renowned for its efficiency and transparency. The LTP is identified as contributing to tenure security and growth of the mature and robust land market. However, the program did not reach many residents of informal settlements in urban and peri-urban areas, which are growing at an annual rate of 20%. In addition, the program did not address the rights of occupants of the country‘s forestland, a good portion of which has been settled and cultivated by local communities for generations.
The rights of many forest communities are insecure, and encroachment of forestland for cultivation is the leading cause of deforestation and degradation of forest resources. While some areas have developed community forest programs, participatory forest management has not matured in Thailand as an approach to sustainable use of forest resources. At a national level, the country still awaits final adoption of the Community Forest Act, which will give some forest communities the right to enter into contracts with the Forest Department for regulated use- rights.
Natural-resource degradation is a concern in Thailand; urbanization, industrialization, corruption, and population growth strain the country‘s natural resource base. In addition to forest degradation, the country‘s water resources are ineffectively managed, unevenly distributed and increasingly polluted. The government‘s efforts to address disparities in water allocation, regulate fees for water-use, and establish the authority of river basin committees are hampered by the lack of a comprehensive water law.
Thailand has significant mineral deposits, including gypsum, potash, gemstones, natural gas and petroleum. The mining law and regulatory framework do not address land rights and investors may negotiate directly with landholders for access to land. Local communities with insecure tenure or unrecognized land rights lack the bargaining power and the skills and experience to negotiate with investors to secure local participation in and control of development projects and an appropriate share of the benefits.