Having been forced out of his home to resettle at Bangkloylang village two years ago, Joa Kher still feels vulnerable in his new home, unable to live the self-sufficient life he used to know.
The Karen villager, who is now in his mid 70s, said he used to be independent in making a living, being able to grow 1.5 tonnes of rice and vegetables from his land at Bangkloybon before the village was annexed as part of Kaeng Krachan National Park in 1981.
He said he produced enough to sustain himself at his old home and did not need to rely on any outside help, except for buying salt in town once in a while.
The Karen also lived in harmony with wild animals such as gaurs which often showed up under their homes to look for food.
‘‘We didn’t kill big wild animals. If we killed them, the forest would not be merciful to us. That’s the Karen belief,” he said.
Joa Kher said, however, that his life became worse when park officials demanded in 1996 that all the Karen at Bangkloybon move to Bangkloylang village, a five-day walk away.
The park official promised to allocate an eight-rai plot of land to every family with added food supply for three years.
Fifty-seven villagers decided to move to the new place only to find that the promise was empty. Many of them returned to where they came from.
The park officials have since continued in their efforts to evict the Karen from Bangkloybon village. A major push launched in 2011 and led by park chief Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn resulted in the homes of 20 Karen families being burnt and all the villagers being forced from the village.
Joa Kher said his house was burnt in that eviction operation and his life has never been the same since.
He said he now had to depend on his children and relatives in providing him with food since the land at his new home and Bangkloylang was not suitable for growing rice.
“It’s very different here,” he said. “Many people have came to help us. But still, we can’t return to our birthplace.”
He said park officials have forbidden the Karen from collecting firewood and plants in the forest. His wife used to collect herbs to treat his occasional stomach pains but this no longer can be done. The nearest hospital was about a three-hour drive away.
Bangkloylang sits on a hill above natural water sources and villagers have faced water shortages during the dry season.
When Bangkloybon villagers moved to Bangkloylang in 2011, they did not have land plots as the new settlement has long been occupied by other villagers. This has forced Bangkloybon villagers to either rent land from others for cultivation or give up farming altogether.
Some said they have abandoned farming because of the water shortage and the land is not fertile enough.
Young and middle-age villagers have left for the towns to find jobs in factories where they earn 180-280 baht a day, lower than the standard 300-baht minimum wage.
Some women have turned to weaving and embroidery at the village supplementary occupation centre in exchange for a 100-baht daily wage.
Karen human rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, who has been missing for nearly two months, had called for a better livelihood for the villagers.
He filed a complaint with the Administrative Court demanding the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department and the Natural Resources and Environmental Ministry pay the Karen 9.5 million baht in compensation for the forced eviction and for the right to return to Bangkloybon.
In 2012, Pid Thong Lang Phra Foundation, a local community development project under a royal initiative to provide fundamental aid to local villagers began a six-year terraced rice development project in Bangkloylang and its adjacent Pong Luek village to help villagers become more independent.
Terraced rice fields are a new experience for the villagers as they have relied on the shifting cultivation method for generations.
A total of 38 out of 107 homes in Bangkloylang have been given 356 rai of land to grow rice using the terraced-field method during the rainy season, the foundation said. The villagers have also been taught to grow substitute plants such as green beans, cow peas and chilies in the dry season.
The method enabled the villagers to produce only about 1.8 tonnes of rice in 2013.
The foundation believes the terraced rice fields would enable the soil to hold more moisture and become more fertile in a couple of years.
It has targeted a rice growing productivity rate increase of 0.5 tonne per rai or a total output of 182.5 tonnes by next year. It is also installing solar cells to generate power for water pumps.
“It’s ironic that my family members have to work in factories to earn money to buy rice although we used to have a rice field of our own,” said Doi Muyoa, 45, a villager of Bangkloybon who was forced to live in Bangkloylang.
He said he could now grow 90kg of rice at Bangkloylang, which ran out in 60 days.
Last Thursday, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) chaired by Niran Pitakwatchara visited Bangkloylang village to find ways to help improve the villagers’ livelihoods.
The NHRC plans to set up a joint committee with relevant government agencies and the villagers to look for solutions including the possibility of providing more land plots for the villagers.
Three locations near the village have been chosen but still many villagers have expressed their desire to return to Bangkloybon.
“It’s not wrong for people to live in the forest. They can depend on themselves. They don’t take benefit from others,” said Mr Porlajee’s 103-year-old grandfather Kor-ey Meemi.
“This is the way we live.”
Bangkok post 16 June 2014