During last week, the issue of land after the tsunami continues to be prominent, and has been the subject of hot discussion several forums. In Thailand, groups that are working in the rehabilitation process on the ground have been able to get quite good information about government plans, housing projects and about the relief and rehabilitation resources that are available. So people know what's what. There has also been a fairly wide participation of civic groups, community networks, NGOs, academics, professionals and aid organizations in both the discussion and the implementation of rehabilitation work. So wherever the forums have been organized by various ministries, the issues of communities has been able to brought up to the floors. However, the conflicts on land and how the affected poor can say what they want still have so much work to do. Here are a few developments and some news about what's been happening:
1. Good information and more public discussion on the issue of land helps slow down the eviction of traditional fishing villages in tsunami-affected areas
The voices of the fisher folk who want to go back to their land is becoming very strong. The Thai and English-language newspapers are filled with stories about fishing communities fighting to be able to go back to the land they have occupied before the tsunami, and rebuild their communities. The issue has also come out in several meetings organized by different ministries in the aftermath of the tsunami. So the issue of land for these fishing communities is much more open. So in general, it is also not so easy for government organizations or private sector interests to evict, relocate or deny these traditional communities their rights to the land they have occupied for so long (but may not have formal title to).
Also, there is quite a lot of lobbying going on behind the scenes on their behalf. In the past week or two, several people's groups and prominent figures and have made contact with various government advisors and officials. This creates avenues for communication on this issue, provides more information to all the groups and organizations involved in the tsunami rehabilitation land issue, and also more opportunities to represent the needs of these fishing communities. In some ways, all this open discussion and all this flow of information has helped to slow down the eviction of these communities considerably.
2. The tsunami has opened up all the conflicting interests the various groups that have been affected by the disaster
It's similar to what's going on in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. It's like the waves tore away the thin surface which covered over all these complicated and conflicting forces, and they are all now exposed and very raw: the aspirations of traditional fishing communities, the ambitions of private sector tourism, shrimp farming and real estate operators, the local politicians who benefits commercial development of the coastal belt, the environmental activists pushing for stronger coastal environmental controls, etc. It's a big mess, and now you can see it so clearly!
In Thailand, the conflicts in how this coastal land is used have been around a long time. But the tourism boom of the past 10 - 20 years has really raised the stakes. The big money that has been trying to develop the prime coastal areas has increased pressures to evict poor fishing villages from the land they occupy. Because both local and national politicians are partners in - or beneficiaries of - various schemes to commercialize Thailand's Andaman coastline, the government's role in managing these fragile coastal environments has been deeply compromised by conflicts of interest. To these groups of businessmen-politicians, the tsunami was the answer to their prayers, since it literally wiped these coastal areas clean of the communities which had previously stood in the way of their plans for resorts, hotels, casinos and shrimp farms. To them, all these coastal areas are now open land!
The only issue they have to deal with now is how to stop people from coming back to their old villages, and how to get the higher-up politicians and various authorities involved to agree with them.
So this is what so many communities are facing. The communities and support organizations working with them are now looking for ways to deal with this. Some government organizations are clearly siding with the vested commercial interest groups, while others are confused about whose rights to respect: the "traditional" land rights of these indigenous fishing communities, or the legalistic rights. The catch is that the big people have land title and the fisher folk don't. So the question is how to deal with these overlapping rights.
A few examples of how the land issue is playing itself out
The fishing village at Tung Wah
In one area in Phang Nga Province, a board was put up on some coastal land announcing the construction of a new hospital, which will be built with a grant from the German Embassy in Bangkok. There was no mention on the board that the site is actually on land which had been occupied for hundreds of years by an indigenous mokan fishing village, before the tsunami destroyed it. The people are now living in a temporary camp nearby. All of these families have wish to rebuild their houses, revive their community and take up their fishing again, on the same land at Tung Wah. But they were shocked to find this hospital project suddenly appearing on their land, without any consultation or warning. Fishing communities such as this one at Tung Wah have lost everything in the tsunami: their family members, their houses, their boats, their belongings and their way of life. The only hope remaining lies in the land they have traditionally occupied. Only there can they rebuild their lives and community and start fishing again.
Communities which have decided to "invade" their own land : In the past two weeks, there have been four or five cases in Phang Nga Province (in Baan Taptawan, Baan Thai Muang, Baan Tung Wah and others) where community people have decided not to wait for permission from anybody but to go back to the land they used to occupy and just start reconstructing their houses - even if they may be only make-shift bamboo shelters. These are mostly indigenous "mokan" fishing villages. Their feeling was that if they could start reconstructing their houses before the national elections ( which happened on 6 February ), it would be a way of getting a head start on the land negotiations that would have to follow. This tactic has led to some tension. In some cases, armed soldiers have been sent in by the government to intimidate the people, and there have been confrontations. But so far, none of these communities have been evicted, and this "people's strategy" for negotiating may pay off in the end.
Two fishing villages with insecure tenure have already been able to negotiate for secure land and are now constructing their houses
3. Getting local people involved in drafting the post-tsunami coastal master plan
- Baan Taa Chatchai: In Phuket Province, the Baan Taa Chatchai community used to occupy a strip of Treasury Department-owned land along the coast before the tsunami destroyed most of the houses and fishing boats ( but nobody died here! ). For years, there had been attempts to evict these 57 families to make the area into a park, but they held on. A week after the tsunami, two young architects from Bangkok worked with the people to quickly map their old settlement and to draft plans for reconstruction. In the negotiations between the people, the local authority and the Treasury Department, however, the people decided to take up the treasury department's offer of free resettlement plots (fully serviced, and on a 30-year renewable lease) on land that is just a few hundred meters away. The people can now form a cooperative society and take advantage of the Baan Mankong Community Upgrading program for housing loans. The Deputy Prime Minster attended the inauguration of this project on January 20.
- Baan Pak Triem (in the northern part of Phang Nga Province): In this small community of 30 households, the people negotiated to purchase one acre of land near their former settlement. They were able to haggle the land price down to only 200,000 Baht (US$ 5,000), or about US$ 170 per household. This status of this new land, however, is still complicated: it is public land and has no title, but the land comes with a kind of "user rights" status, which will make it easier for the people to negotiate to stay. But it is at least more secure than the invasions. There are so many levels of land status, and so many degrees of formality and security! It's almost never clear!
The government has just set up a team of professionals from several of Thailand's prominent planning institutions and given it the task of preparing a master plan for the coastal areas of the six tsunami-affected provinces. This master plan will then provide a physical guide and legal framework for the development of these areas: how the environment will be dealt with, how the communities and the overall areas will be planned and rehabilitated. Over the past week, CODI has been coordinating with this team and trying to bring a more participatory style to the process of drafting this master plan.
What did CODI propose? Thailand, like so many Asian countries, is full of master development plans which never get implemented - nobody follows them, nobody pays them any attention. If this coastal master plan is going to be something real, something which relates to all the sectors, CODI argued that the plan should not be drafted by a bunch of cloistered planning professionals, but should be done on the ground, and in a highly participatory manner. The idea would be to get all the local people and local interest groups into a participatory planning process, and then putting their suggestions into a form which as many of those people as possible can agree to. In this way, the coastal master plan will actually become a jigsaw puzzle put together of all these smaller, area-specific and intensely participatory master plans, which have been developed locally, with the people.
CODI's experiences in city-wide community upgrading has shown that the best planning is the planning in which the people who actually live in that place - all the local actors and interest groups - can sit together and talk about whatever they want and decide together on what they would like to do.
Of course these local actors (communities, civic groups, local businessmen, local agencies and NGOs) will all have their own interests to push for, and conflicts will inevitably come up. But most of these can be resolved through a good, open planning process. CODI has offered to assist in the process of getting communities and various local groups to be involved in developing this master plan.
For the professor who heads the team - a planner from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok - this is not the conventional style of planning, but he agreed to give it a try. "But if we use this process and get all these local master plans drawn up," he asked, "how can we possibly implement them?"
The answer is simple: If we get all the people to agree to a plan, we already have the political power to implement that plan. So there will be a "pushing force" from the people themselves and the local authorities, because it is their own plan, not some thing drawn up in Bangkok and imposed by the central government. If the local groups agree to the plan, then it's easy and the implementation will happen almost by itself. No need to bother too much whether the plan is implemented or not, because now the plan belongs to that local area - it's their problem ! It's something like a university, where people have all gone together through a process of learning about their own area, sharing impressions and negotiating with their neighbors for what they want their place to be.
First test for the participatory coastal planning process: Koh Lanta Island.
On February 7, this master planning team will go to one of the big islands that was affected by the tsunami - Koh Lanta Island, in Krabi Province. On that island, CODI and several local NGOs have been able to get all the local groups to agree that one of the significant aspects of the island's plan will be to allow the traditional fishing communities to stay where they are, or shift only very slightly to nearby land. This master planning team will then sit down in a large meeting with the District Chief, the communities, the local interest groups and the support groups to see how this planning can progress. Both CODI and the Thai Community Foundation will be involved in facilitating the community's involvement in the process.
4. Networking is growing between affected communities, within provinces and between ethnic groups
When the deputy Prime Minster visited the ruined Baan Nam Khem village (in Phang Nga Province) on 20 January, he sat with the people, on the ground, in a very big meeting of affected communities. He told the people, now we are waiting for your plans - your plans for how you will revive your lives, your work, etc. Whatever you feel you need for your lives, why don't we make a plan and propose it to the government? He mentioned that a few times in the meeting. And both the communities and the support organizations took this as an important gesture.
A few days later, a big full-day meeting was organized in Phang Nga in which about 20 communities - from 20 different tsunami-affected areas in six provinces - came together. They discussed in that meeting all kinds of issues they felt were important - issues of land, fishing boats, livelihood, housing, children, etc. They talked about what they need to do to revive their lives. And they came up with an overall plan. The plan includes general points on land rehabilitation, housing, revival of economic activities, how to repair their boats, how to deal with children, etc.
This was the first chance a lot of these tsunami-ravaged community people had a chance to compare notes and share stories and ideas with people from other areas of the Andaman coast. It was a very powerful network-building meeting, and it was agreed in the meeting that we should find a way to strengthen these links between communities that are affected, and that are going through the same struggle to rebuild their lives after the tsunami. This may mean that from time to time, gatherings can be organized to bring all the groups together and to discuss about certain issues. Issues such as children: what are we going to do with all the children who have lost parents in the tsunami? This is one way to begin building a network around these key issues of importance. This is one of the old techniques CODI has used for years to bring communities together.