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Uprooting the forest guardians: Indigenous people across Southeast Asia defend land and customs

By Samira Hassan and Sahnaz Melasandy

The original version of this story was produced and first published by New Naratif.

From Thailand to Indonesia, indigenous people who have lived off the land for generations struggle to preserve their forest homes and customs. But as states create national parks and forcibly evict forest-dwellers, their ties to ancestral land are cut.

Pongsak Tonnampeych, or Bang, as his family and friends call him—had just finished his breakfast on the morning of 5 March 2021 when the helicopters touched down. Forestry authorities came to evict him and his family from their homes. Their shoddily assembled dwelling on the upper Bang Kloi River in western Thailand could barely be called a house, Bang recalls.

“It was [more of] a shelter. We had just moved back to upper Bang Kloi, so there was no house. We built something very simple. Just enough to stay in the night,” he says.

Together with dozens of family members from their ethnic Karen community, Bang had returned to upper Bang Kloi in January 2021. It was the first time they had been back since 2011, when they were evicted from their ancestral land that is part of Thailand’s largest national park – the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex.

Kaeng Krachan is located at the Thai-Myanmar border and became a national park in 1981. Claiming border security concerns, the government forcibly resettled the Karen for the first time from the area called the “Heart of the land” to a new location in 1997. But their new home in lower Bang Kloi turned out to be degraded land, unsuitable for farming, so some community members eventually returned to their old village. In 2011, the government started campaigning to get the national park recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site and resettled the Karen community for a second time.

Ten years later, in July 2021, Kaeng Krachan was added to UNESCO’s Natural World Heritage listmuch to the dismay of many indigenous Karen and among criticism from international human rights and conservation bodies.

Map by Ellena Ekarahendy. Courtesy of New Naratif

The repeated evictions forced many Karen who previously relied on subsistence farming and fishing to take up daily wage work in urban areas. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, they became unemployed and returned to their ancestral homes in Kaeng Krachan, only to be arrested for “trespassing”. 

“There were 87 people who were all arrested and put in several helicopters. But only 27 of them were charged because there were also the elderly, children and babies,” says Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, an organisation documenting human rights abuses in Thailand. “The police officer had some names of the leaders […]. Most of those who were arrested were outspoken [about the issue].”

The Bang Kloi community is no stranger to targeted harassment and violence. Prominent Karen activist Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, also known as Billy, disappeared in April 2014 after being detained by state officials for allegedly collecting wild honey in the national park. At the time, he was helping a group of Karen file a lawsuit against Chaiwat Limlikhitaksorn, the then-superintendent of Kaeng Krachan National Park. Chaiwat was involved in the Karen community’s eviction in 2011, in which the authorities burned almost 100 houses and rice barns, according to the Cross Cultural Foundation. 

Under Thai law, national parks are to be preserved in their original state without any human interference. But indigenous people like Bang and his family have been living off the land in the park for generations.

“It’s the facade of a national park,” says 23-year-old Thanatorn Vitayabenjang, a student activist who co-organised protests in support of the Bang Kloi community in Chiang Mai in March 2021. “The [state] discourse is [to] leave the forest to be the forest without the people.” 

Across Southeast Asia, when national parks are created and maintained under the guise of environmental conservation, they often end up displacing indigenous communities, who have historically been forests’ primary guardians.

Similar story, different country

About 2,000 kilometres away from Kaeng Krachan, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, third-year university student Mijak Tampung is struggling to juggle his class assignments while trying to secure land rights for his people who live in the Bukit Duabelas National Park.

Mijak comes from the semi-nomadic Orang Rimba community indigenous to the western part of the once forest-rich area of Bukit Duabelas—an area they call Makekal Hulu. The Indonesian government declared the area a national park in 2000. But, two decades later, the Orang Rimba community have found it increasingly difficult to protect their traditional customs, locally called adat

Adat and the accompanying social order of the Orang Rimba are rooted in their ancestral land. Traditionally, they allocated plots of land for giving birth, performing burials, cultivating crops and as  sacred areas prohibited to enter, based on the type of land and topography. 

Map by Ellena Ekarahendy. Courtesy of New Naratif

The conservation policies of the Indonesian government that imposed a new set of zones onto the forest initially failed to take the Orang Rimba’s customary land uses into account. 

“The existence of the Bukit Duabelas National Park management plan [from 2004] was a problem. Our aspirations were not included in the policies,” Mijak says, adding that the plan was modified in 2018 to align with their land categorisation demands. The current agreement allows more flexibility in land use.

There were also plans to relocate the community to a buffer zone in the outer rim of the park, uprooting the semi-nomadic forest-dwellers from their livelihood. 

“We obtained a copy of the [2004 plan],” recalls Aditya Dipta Anindita, a co-founder of the Sokola Institute, an education NGO that has been working with the Orang Rimba community since 2003. “We read it together, and many from the community were shocked.”

The Orang Rimba struggle to maintain their traditional livelihoods as farmers and foragers. In the past, each family only needed a hectare of land to grow enough rice, cassava and other seasonal produce. But national park regulations limit the area allowed for farming, making it difficult for the Orang Rimba to feed their families. By the 2010s, many in the community had abandoned subsistence farming and foraging, favouring growing cash crops such as rubber to be able to buy food from the markets. 

In response, local youth collective Kelompok Makekal Bersatu has since tried to revive behuma betanom, the Orang Rimba’s farming traditions. In June 2020, the group raised funds to support a pilot garden inside Bukit Duabelas National Park. It also began documenting the Orang Rimba’s farming traditions in the hope of inspiring the community to start farming food crops again. However, this effort poses its own challenges. 

“There are chances we may not be successful [at farming] because there are more pests [now],” says Mijak, referring to the Orang Rimba’s observation that agricultural pests are causing yield losses more often than in the past. 

Although they managed to live off the forest sustainably while protecting it for generations, with the world around them rapidly changing, the Orang Rimba have had to adjust to survive.

In western Thailand, the Karen community in Bang Kloi faces similar food security issues. They had been relocated to lower Bang Kloi, where another Karen community was also moved to. But with both groups depending on fishing, the nearby Phetchaburi River proved insufficient to provide for all the villagers.

“Two villages for one river. So more population, but only one river. It’s not enough food for us,” Bang says. 

After being forced to resettle in lower Bang Kloi, the Karen found the soil too arid to cultivate traditional crops like rice. The new land was also unsuitable for rotational farming, and malnutrition became an acute issue. As a result, community members face various health issues, from stomachaches to chronic headaches. Many of them now rely on external donations for food, which are often restricted by the authorities. 

“Sometimes, when villagers face hunger, outside people who understand their issues tried to send them food and other materials [but they got stuck] because the officers [at the checkpoints did] not allow for the food to [be transported to] affected villagers,” says Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri from the Indigenous Peoples Foundation for Education and Environment, based in Chiang Mai. 

The area is heavily policed, and journalists and researchers are often not allowed entry, Kittisak adds. “From my experience, that’s really strange because everywhere in the country you can go in, except that area.”western

Everyday harassment

According to Kittisak, Kaeng Krachan National Park remains difficult for Karen people to enter due to a heavy military presence. A notoriously strict checkpoint in the park’s north is where Billy, the missing Karen activist, was detained and last seen. The infamous guard post continues to be a source of anguish for many locals.

“There is a checkpoint in between the village and the outside world. Billy was abducted [at] that checkpoint, and you know, every villager [has to] pass that checkpoint,” says Pornpen of the Cross Cultural Foundation. “It’s traumatising to pass through that checkpoint, [knowing that] one of your family members, one of your friends, had been abducted there.”  

According to Bang, the Karen community is often harassed by the authorities within Kaeng Krachan National Park. So when he heard the helicopters coming on that morning of 5 March 2021, he knew they were coming for his people.

“We knew it was them because they have patrol units around,” Bang explains. “The helicopter did not [just] come once…from January until March. The helicopter came many times in order to negotiate and ask us to [leave].”

But when the community refused to move from their ancestral land, they were arrested. 

“They tied up my hands in the back. Not everyone [had their hands tied]—only men,” says 18-year-old Chaiyoth Mimi, who was part of the group of Bang Kloi villagers who were arrested by authorities in March last year. 

“I’ve met people whose family members were arrested by the park authorities and put into prison for going into the park to pick a few chillies,” says Signe Leth, an adviser at the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. “So it’s a huge problem for them, especially since [the government is] not giving them any alternatives to survive.

In Sumatra, the Orang Rimba also face violent harassment from outside the community and are often drawn into conflicts with plantation owners, but the issue remains underreported. 

“Gun violence, rapes, killings happen almost every year,” Mijak says. “When there are criminal acts or human rights violations—physical or verbal violence against Orang Rimba—they are frequently resolved according to adat laws.” Customary laws are not legally binding, which typically means perpetrators face no real consequences.

Despite the odds stacked against them, the two communities in Indonesia and Thailand are trying to secure land rights in their own ways. In Bang Kloi, Billy’s disappearance spurred the Karen community to continue their fight to return to their ancestral land. 

“When Billy disappeared, it gave me strength to continue our struggles,” Bang says. He has since taken over Billy’s role, handling much of the public-facing work for his community. 

In December 2021, he and other Karen people travelled to Bangkok to file a petition against Thailand’s minister of natural resources and environment, who Bang claims has failed to protect their land rights and food security. The group also campaigned to form an independent committee of experts to resolve their land rights conflict. 

In January, the Bang Kloi group joined a public campaign organised by the People’s Network for a Just Society (P-Move) in Bangkok. After two weeks of prolonged protest, Anucha Nakasai, minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, volunteered to chair the independent committee, which the Karen community took as a positive sign. 

However, some locals later learned police had charged them with violating the pandemic emergency decree for participating in the protests. 

Meanwhile, the Orang Rimba community were granted co-management rights over the national park in 2018, after more than a decade of advocacy efforts by Kelompok Makekal Bersatu, which Mijak chairs. The collective held discussion forums, practised civil disobedience, such as removing official land boundary markers and did “counter-mapping”—creating alternative maps that counter the official boundaries and assert the community’s land sovereignty. They have expressed their concerns to the Balai Taman National Bukit Duabelas—the national park management office—and various other state institutions, including the President’s Executive Office.

“For us, the main problem is the change in policy or leadership,” Mijak says. “Usually, every five years, the head of Balai would be changed, so the policy would also change, and how we present ourselves and voice our concerns would also change.” However, he adds that the current leadership is more responsive to the Orang Rimba’s critiques and suggestions. 

“The current head of Balai indeed responds to [our requests for] revising the zoning system very well. He prioritises the indigenous community. Basically, he considers that the national park will not run well without [the involvement of] the Orang Rimba.”

Guardians of the forest

Indigenous communities across Southeast Asia have been vilified for their traditional practises and often evicted from their ancestral homes for decades. For example, the Thai government has criticised rotational farming, an agricultural technique where various crops are planted and rotated between plots of land sequentially over time with the use of burning techniques, as a cause of deforestation and air pollution.

Concerned by increasing deforestation rates, Thailand criminalised rotational cultivation in 1960 and demarcated large areas as “reserve forests”. The government blamed disappearing forests on the agricultural practises of indigenous minority groups. As a result, authorities relocated many of them away from protected areas. 

Today, the Karen Bang Kloi community continues to face harsh penalties under the 2020 National Parks Act, including up to 20 years in prison and fines of two million baht (about US$60,000) for those convicted of encroachment and other offences.

Similarly, in Indonesia, representatives from the government’s Jambi Natural Resources Conservation Center claimed in 2007 that the Orang Rimba’s swidden farming practises, rotational farming where land is cleared by fire, were threatening the forests.

“A lot of the indigenous communities practise slash-and-burn cultivation, or rotational farming, which is actually documented to be a sustainable practice,” says Signe Leth of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. “It’s a problem that occurs all over Asia, not only in Southeast Asia, and actually all over the world. We see how indigenous peoples are criminalised and harassed and kicked out and accused of being against development or being destroyers of natural reserves and protected areas rather than the custodians that they actually are.”

Part of the solution, indigenous activists say, would be to push for a more inclusive approach in understanding what constitutes conservation. “[Policymakers] should involve the community as [active] subjects, not objects,” says Aditya Dipta Anindita of the Sokola Institute.

“That is what we need to establish—a way to ensure the livelihood of Orang Rimba and conservation [efforts] go hand in hand to protect the forest,” Mijak adds.

But the forest-dwelling Orang Rimba community, along with activists, is not only calling for inclusion. They demand to become the main decision-makers in forest conservation efforts.

“If possible, at least half of the staff at the [governmental] Balai [should be] Orang Rimba, that would be better. Granted, they should be the ones who decide over their own ancestral land,” says Dedi Gustian, a participatory mapping facilitator for CAPPA Foundation of Ecological Justice.

Ultimately, both indigenous communities want to “peacefully live” on their ancestral lands, says Kittisak of the Indigenous Peoples Foundation for Education and Environment. But, for that to happen, he believes the government needs to ensure their fundamental rights.  

“What [the Karen community] wants is really basic: enough land for farming. Can the government allocate enough land for them for farming?” Kittisak says. “[The government] says they have already allocated land to them, but didn’t elaborate that the land is not good enough.” 

With concerns over forest sustainability, indigenous activists say there needs to be a community-led effort to acknowledge indigenous practises as sustainable and critical to preserving forests. In doing so, Southeast Asian countries can work toward national park policies that respect and support the work of forests’ traditional custodians.

“It’s our home. It’s our ancestors’ home. We have been cultivating natural biodiversity for a very long time,” Bang says. “If what the government said is true, if we were destroying the natural heritage of these forests, we would not have such rich biodiversity. Kaeng Krachan would not have been recognised by UNESCO without us protecting this forest life.”

Produced by New Naratif as a part of the SEAFORE ASEAN Masterclass project, with support from IWPR

Sahnaz Melasandy is a community organiser, researcher, and freelance translator based in Indonesia. She co-founded a book club called LiteraSEA focusing on Southeast Asian literature, with members based in the region and beyond.

Samira Hassan is a writer, researcher and translator who has worked on issues of migration, race and mental health across Singapore, Bangladesh and Seoul. In her free time, she tries to keep her plants alive.

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