When the army does conservation – doing it differently in Thailand

19 October 2010 | News story

Thailand’s armed forces are involved in an uncharacteristic activity—a major conservation program in cooperation with the local community. Bob Fisher and Tawatchai Rattnasorn report.

Doi Mae Salong in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province is an unusual and counter-intuitive case of landscape management. The Doi Mae Salong watershed feeds into the Mae Chan River, a tributary of the Mekong. The area is classified as a Class 1 watershed, which requires a high degree of protection and limited human use. The area is controlled by the Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTAF) as part of a military reserve area.

This status arises from its sensitivity in security terms, both because of its proximity to the Myanmar border and as a legacy of the conflict between the military and communist insurgents during the 1970s. There are several similar military reserve areas in northeast Thailand.

Despite its protected status the area is highly populated. The population includes remnants and descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces who fled to Burma after the Chinese revolution and later moved to Doi Mae Salong, where they were granted residency in return for assisting the armed forces against the insurgents. These ex-Kuomintang are now heavily involved in agriculture and tourism. There are also members of other ethnic groups, including Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Shan and Yao, and a significant number of refugees from Myanmar.

Doi Mae Salong is seriously deforested. There are areas of natural forest, particularly on hilltops, all part of a complex mosaic of agricultural plots (especially areas under shifting cultivation) and coffee and fruit tree plantations. The contrast between an area with protected status and a population involved in technically illegal agricultural activities is not uncommon in northern Thailand. What is unique is the fact that the RTAF is engaged in a process of participatory multi-stakeholder landscape management.

In 2007 the RTAF initiated a reforestation project in honour of the King’s 80th birthday. The first efforts followed a classic command-and-control approach. Tree planting work began on deforested hilltops and slopes. However, these areas were already used for agriculture, leading to loud protests.

What happened next was surprising. The RTAF responded by rethinking its approach rather than enforcing decisions already made and approached the Asia Regional Office of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in Bangkok, for advice about more realistic approaches to conservation.

As a result, a multi-stakeholder, land-use planning approach was developed, involving villagers, Tambon leaders and officials from various government agencies, such as Tambons, the Land Development Office, and the Watershed Conservation and Management Unit, and NGOs.

The project area is the watershed core area, an area of 90 square kilometres—the total watershed area is 335 square kilometres—occupied by about 15 000 people.

It includes several villages and the town of Doi Mae Salong, a busy market and tourist centre with numerous restaurants, tea and coffee shops and guesthouses and hotels.

IUCN became involved in the landscape because it seemed to fit neatly with a major IUCN program, the Livelihoods and Landscape Strategy (LLS), which is being tested in selected landscapes in over 20 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The LLS approach is based on the idea that conservation and livelihoods objectives can best be managed on a landscape scale, with multiple land-use types being balanced according to conservation and social objectives. This differs from many traditional approaches to integrating conservation and development in that meeting livelihoods is not seen as a way of achieving conservation, but as an essential function of ecosystems. The approach avoids centralized planning and focuses on the importance of negotiations and trade-offs between stakeholders around land uses.

An example of negotiated land use is the case of farming on sites highly subject to erosion, such as slopes and hill tops. In such cases negotiations occur about providing alternative farming land in valleys. These negotiations seem to be quite genuine and allow for genuine choice.

Another somewhat radical approach is the planting of perennial fruit trees and cash crops (tea and coffee) in sites susceptible to erosion. Although these species perform watershed protection functions, conventional forest department practice would insist on the planting of forest species. Perennial cash crops meet both conservation and livelihood objectives.

Forest landscape restoration is undertaken with the assistance of the Forest Restoration Research Unit at Chiang Mai University, which focuses on re-establishing natural forest species and the Royal Project, under the patronage of the King, which focuses on income generating agroforestry species practices. The project, through the activities of NGOs, provides support for the testing and demonstration of integrated farming methods.

The striking thing about Doi Mae Salong is not the various conservation and agricultural practices that are being tested and implemented, but the way land-use decisions are made. It is too early to measure identifiable improvements in livelihoods, but there is strong evidence that decisions are being made differently. Informal surveys of local people suggest fairly widespread knowledge of the new arrangements and that people are confident that the RTAF is serious about the approach. A rising level of trust is evident.

Although there is no formal land title and, given the political realities around protected areas in Thailand, no likelihood of reform in the foreseeable future, there seems to be a fair degree of confidence about future security of access to agricultural land and resources. People do not feel their land will be removed.

The RTAF commander at Doi Mae Salong, Brigadier General Chaluay—promoted for his work at Doi Mae Salong—describes his assignment as the most difficult of his military career. In the past he was just used to giving orders, but now he feels trusted and relaxed.

This highlights the paradox. How can a military organisation, entirely predicated on hierarchy, command and control, operate in a significantly participatory way? There is no similar example of the National Parks Department of the Royal Forest Department operating like this.

It is important to note that there has been some tradition of military involvement in development activities and community forestry in Thailand, largely in connection with dealing with people relocated from sensitive security areas in the past and, perhaps, with a ’hearts-and-minds’ approach. Another possibility is that the RTAF is not locked into pre-ordained ways of ’doing’ conservation, since army personnel do not see themselves as conservation experts.


This image shows the courtship behavior of Indian Bull frogs (Holobatrachus tigerinus). During the monsoon, the breeding males become bright yellow in color, while females remain dull. The prominent blue vocal sacs of male produce strong nasal mating call.