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UNESCO gives Thai park heritage status despite pleas to defer listing

Kaeng Krachan forest in 2014. The national park was granted world heritage status on Monday. (Credit: Manoonp/CC))

Rights groups and UN experts protest the UN cultural body’s decision to list the Kaeng Krachan forests as a protected area amid reports of evictions and other rights abuses against indigenous groups.

UNESCO granted the Kaeng Krachan forests heritage status on Monday, despite pleas by organisations and local communities to postpone the decision. The group of Thai national parks were up for review again this week by the World Heritage Committee, after Thailand’s bid to get the site into the World Heritage List was deferred twice due to concerns raised about rights abuses against indigenous communities.

“Sustainable and human rights-based conservation cannot be carried out when indigenous peoples continue to be harassed, criminalised, displaced and their land rights, traditional practices and culture are denied,” said UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Francisco Cali Tzay, addressing the committee.

The International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on World Heritage also reproached the decision saying that it was “one of the lowest points in the history of the Convention and indeed in the history of UNESCO”.

Cali Tzay asked the body to once again defer the decision, a recommendation also made at the session by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which advises the committee on its nomination process for natural sites.

Sites are included in the list when they are considered to have some cultural or natural “outstanding universal value” to humanity. The protected places gain international recognition and legal protection, which can help preserve them. But they also attract massive tourism which can be detrimental to the environment and the communities that live there.

Located along Thailand’s western border with Myanmar, the Kaeng Krachan forests are home to a number of endemic and endangered species. They make up the country’s largest national park area. But the indigenous Karen say they have been living there mainly in the Bang Kloy village deep in the Kaeng Krachan forest for centuries, long before it became a national park in 1981.

Since then, the government has been trying to resettle the villagers out of the protected area. Some have agreed to leave but then have returned claiming that the land provided by authorities instead was no good for farming. In 2011, park rangers evicted Karen inhabitants from the park area at gunpoint and burnt around 100 homes and rice barns. A Thai court ruled that they had acted lawfully.

Thailand, which is also part of the committee, told its fellow members that past human rights issues had already been addressed as previously requested by the body and complained that these were “revived” and “hatched” to prevent the nomination from going through.

But new allegations have emerged. This year, harassment reportedly escalated as Thai authorities tried once more to relocate the villagers, and arrested 80 who refused, with 28, including seven women and one child, criminally charged for “encroachment”, said Cali Tzay last week in a statement.

The UN expert also slammed the committee for failing to hear out the local communities. “It is regrettable that your current working methods do not allow indigenous peoples to participate in decision-making processes which clearly affect their rights and the future of their lands and resources,” he said.

Worried about the implications, the Karen have been opposed to the UNESCO nomination since the beginning. “The authorities have never explained anything to us. Most importantly, we are concerned about our livelihood. Will it affect our way of life, which is so dependent on the forest? Will such a way of life become even more challenging after its being declared a World Heritage Site? Even when it is not declared so, we have been forcibly removed from the forest, from our traditional village," a villager from Bang Kloy told the Bangkok Post.

Many of the 21 members that make up the committee, including Russia, China, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Nigeria, expressed their support for the nomination. Only Norway voiced its opposition, arguing that they could not endorse the nomination while human rights abuses allegations were not addressed.