„Sozio-Ökonomie der Waldnutzung in den Tropen und Subtropen"

Doktorand: Oliver Pye (Forstwissenschaftler)
Tel: +49-761 - 203 8600
Betreuer: Prof. Dr. Jürgen Pretzsch (TU-Dresden-Tharandt)

Khor Jor Kor
Strategic Groups in Thailand's Forest
(Vorläufiger Arbeitstitel, Stand Januar 1998)


In the beginning of 1997, ten to fifteen thousand Thai farmers demonstrate in front of Government House in Bangkok - for 99 days. Local conflicts over forest resources - evictions from National Parks, the establishment of eucalyptus plantations, land rights in forest areas - are central problems. A general demand is the passing of a bill giving village communities rights over forest management. Recurrent themes on the 1997 protests were the Khor Jor Kor Project and the resistance against it. Khor Jor Kor was a major forestry project initiated by high ranking military officials in 1990. which aimed to evict up to 1 million people from National Forest Reserves in the Northeast of Thailand.

Theoretical framework

The study accepts the basic contention of „political ecologists", that ecological problems are the result of socio-economic processes rather than purely ecological or demographic developments (BLAIKIEBRYANTPEET & WATTS). It draws on works by PELUSOGUHABRYANT and HIRSCH, with a conflict orientated and historical approach. In particular, their analysis of the colonial origins of forestry departments, the alienation of peasants from these institutions and the resulting „everyday resistance" (Scott) are looked at for Thailand. Conflicting narratives of the competing groups (as Peluso shows in the different perceptions of „crime" in Javas forests or Fortman's fence in Zimbabwe) are also analysed. A general neglect of „collective resistance" is the reason for the focus on the Khor Jor Kor movement. The formation of forest policy is explained as an outcome of policies of different interest groups formed around forest resources and the balance of forces between them. A central question of the thesis is whether the Bielefelder „Strategic Group" approach (EVERS, SCHIEL) is suitable to explain the dynamics of forest degradation. 

'Strategische Gruppen bestehen aus Personen, die durch ein gemeinsames Interesse and der Erhaltung oder Erweiterung ihrer gemeinsamen Aneignungschancen verbunden sind. Diese Appropriationschancen beziehen sich nicht ausschließlich auf materielle Güter, sondern können auch Macht, Prestige, Wissen oder religiöse Ziele beinhalten. Das gemeinsame Interesse ermöglicht strategisches handeln, d.h. langfristig ein „Programm" zur Erhaltung oder Verbesserung der Appropriationschancen zu verfolgen.'(EVERS, H-D and SCHIEL, T (1988): S.10)

Do the different appropriation strategies (collective, corporate, individual) of ruling elites lead to different interests concerning forests? First of all, the study traces the emergence and development of key „Strategic Groups": The Royal Forest Department (collective), the Logging Industry, the Pulp and Paper Industry (both corporate) and the Military (collective). It identifies changing strategies of these groups towards forest policy combined with a reshuffling of influence between them. This is most clearly demonstrated with the enacting of a near to total ban on logging in 1989. The study's contention is that the strategy pursued by this new „coalition of Strategic Groups" led to a new and deeper phase of conflict symbolised by the Khor Jor Kor project. A conflict between local and state or corporate control over land and forest resources. More importantly, the thesis argues that the outcome of this new conflict was decisively in favour of the farmers movement built up in resistance to the Khor Jor Kor project. The success of this movement has led to the establishment of a new national player in forest politics: the Samacha Khon Jon („Forum of the Poor"). This „Non-strategic Group" of farmers pursues in essence a fight for land rights, but has also developed its own competing strategies for forest management and conservation. Given the failure of the Royal Forest Department and other „Strategic Groups" to halt forest destruction, these alternative strategies could offer a way out.


    1. Literature study
    For the sequential analyses of the Strategic Groups in the historical introduction, a collection of primary and secondary literature is being analysed. For the detailed analysis of the Khor Jor Kor project, government and NGO publications (in Thai) were collected during the research period. The analysis is in progress. For forest conflict during and after Khor Jor Kor, newspaper clippings from English language Thai newspapers are an important source of information. Videos, banners, poems, songs and photographs will also be analysed for a greater understanding of the 'culture of resistance'.

    2. Qualitative Interviews
    For a deeper understanding of contemporary forest conflict and the structure and strategy of the RFD, a total of 22 qualitative interviews were conducted with RFD officers in leading positions. 44 interviews were conducted with local leaders and villagers and 12 interviews with leading activists at an Isan or national level. Other Strategic groups were not interviewed to any great extent. This was due to difficulties in gaining the confidence of these groups (pulp industry, military), but was also a conscious decision to focus more on the farmers movement.

    3. Participatory Observation
    During research, it was possible to take part in 6 meetings of villagers and activists concerning forestry and land issues and to observe 2 negotiations between villager representatives and government officials, one at a provincial level and one at a national level. Participatory observation could also be applied in forest use activities in Phuphan forests, Sakhon Nakhon. 

Preliminary results

    The Royal Forest Department
    The RFD was established in 1896 modelled on colonial (especially Indian) forestry services, in order to establish central government control over the Northern teak forests. Until 1989, its main function was to supervise logging operations rented out to private companies in the concession system. The 1989 logging ban stopped this strategy based on converging interests with the logging industry, with firms affected by the ban sueing the RFD. From then on, the RFD focused heavily on reforestation programmes and the expansion of protected areas, entering into closer collaboration with the Pulp and Paper industry and international institutions. This has led to a substantial increase both in number of staff and in overall budget. However, traumatized by the logging ban and Khor Jor Kor, and wracked by constant corruption scandals, the leadership of the RFD is unable to develop a coherent forest policy for Thailand.

    The Logging Industry
    Originally dominated by foreign (mainly British) capital, the logging industry expanded in the 50s and 60s under Thai auspicies, as good connections to politicians, military and RFD officials became crucial for obtaining legal and illegal concessions. The 2 million m³ yearly timber production in the 80s was halted dramatically by the logging ban, throwing many firms into bancrupcy and financial losses. Other companies moved their operations to neighbouring countries such as Burma and Cambodia.

    The Pulp and Paper Industry
    Most firms in this industry are subsidiaries of large Thai (and foreign) conglomerates (such as CP). The industry expanded during the 80s, as the industrialisation boom led to sharp increases in demand. Production of pulp grew from 40 000 tons in 1977 to 150 000 in 1989, reaching 500 000 tons in 1996. However, plans for large scale eucalyptus plantations were thwarted in the 1980s by protests of famers, and again by the collapse of the Khor Jor Kor programme. Plans to invest in new pulp producing plants have been stalled.

    The Military
    The military's involvement in forest politics, originates in its counter-insurgency operations against the Communist Party of Thailand in the 70s and early 80s. In close co-operation with the RFD, the military established „Forest Villages", developed infrastructure, and supervised logging concessions in communist dominated forest areas. After the military threat was over, the emphasis was changed to „development", embodied in the 1987-1992 „Isan Khiau" project (Green Northeast Project), which, among other things, was to „green" the Northeast with eucalyptus plantations. This historical involvement coupled with direct personal involvement of certain high-ranking military officials in the Pulp and Paper industry, explain the origin of the Khor Jor Kor project in the Internal Security Operations Command.

    The Farmers Movement
    Although organised farmers resistance is no new phenomenom in Thailand, former conflict focussed on land, not on forest resources. Encroachment into forest areas was tolerated by the RFD and actively encouraged by the military and other government agencies. This changed as the degraded forest areas became interesting for reforestation and the expansion of protected areas. During the 80s, local protests against eucalyptus plantations led to revival of peasant resistance. Opposition to the Khor Jor Kor project started in 1991, developing into a North-eastern wide network of „47 forest committees" in 1992. This network was a major factor in the development of the national farmers organisation Samacha Khon Jon („Forum of the Poor"). This organisation plays a significant role in forest policy at a local and national level.

    Strategic Groups in Thailand's Forests
    The Strategic Groups approach is helpful to understand changing strategies of the ruling elites towards forest policy. However, within each „Strategic Group" there are also competing factions (for example the political patronage structures in the RFD). In general, there is an evident convergence between the strategies of the main Strategic Groups, with the lines of conflict emerging more clearly between the ruling elites and a „Non-strategic Group", the farmers. This can be demonstrated clearly for the Khor Jor Kor project, but also for current debates centred around the community forest bill.

Selected Bibliography

  • BLAIKIE, P (1985): The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries. Longman. London.
  • BRYANT, R. L. (1992): Political Ecology. An emerging research agenda in Third World studies. In. Political Geography Vol. 11, No. 1. Pp. 12-36.
  • BRYANT, R. L. (1996): The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma, 1826-1993. Hurst & Co. London.
  • EVERS, H-D and SCHIEL, T (1988): Strategische Gruppen. Vergleichende Studien zu Staat, Bürokratie und Klassenbildung in der Dritten Welt Berlin. Reimer.
  • GUHA, R. (1991): The Unquiet Woods. Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya. Oxford University Press. New Delhi.
  • Fortmann, L. P. (1995):Talking Claims: Discursive Strategies in Contesting Property. In: World Development, Vol. 23, No. 6. Pp.1053-1063
  • Hafner, James A. (1990): "Forces and Policy Issues Affecting Forest Use In Northeast Thailand 1900-1985", in: Poffenberger, M. "Keepers of the Forest", S.69-94.
  • HIRSCH, P. (1993): Political Economy of Environment in Thailand. Journal of Contemporary Asia Publishers. Manila.
  • Internal Security Operations Command (1991): Master Plan of the Land Reform Project for the Poor in the destroyed National Reserved Forest area in the Northeast..
  • LDI (Local Development Institute) (1991):Land Reform Project for the Poor in the destroyed National Reserved Forest area (KJK).
  • Lohmann, Larry (1991) "Peasants, Plantations, and Pulp: The Politics of Eucalyptus in Thailand", Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 23,4:3-18
  • PELUSO, N. L ( 1992): Rich Forests, Poor People. Resource Control and Resistance in Java. University of California Press..
  • Scott, J. C. (1985): Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven.
  • SUEHIRO, A (1989): Capital Accumulation in Thailand. 1855-1985. Silkworm Books. Chiang Mai..
  • WATTS, M & PEET, R. (ed.) (1996): Liberation Ecologies. Environment, development, social movements. Routledge. London and New York.




by Eberhard Weber March 1998