If you arrest me, please arrest my wife;
If you arrest my wife, please arrest my children;
If you arrest my children, please arrest my cats, my dogs, and my pigs.
Two hundred years ago, the ancestors of the Ban Pong people came to the area to try to develop the land, during a time where land titles did not exist. They had lived in peace until the government issued a land titling policy in the 1990s. Taking advantage of this opportunity, rich people from urban areas bought a great amount of land from poor people in rural areas. Due to a financial crisis and having not known about the land titling policy, poor people sold their land to the rich at an extremely low price, about 40,000 baht/rai (about $1,120).
After buying the land, investors built housing projects and split the land into smaller parcels to sell to others. Unfortunately, only 20% of the land was sold. The rest was unoccupied and uncultivated. Then, the investors marketed the land to banks to get money. It was a really great investment, since they sold the land at a significantly higher price, approximately 6 million baht/rai (about $168,700). At the same time, they generated a huge profit by digging and selling soil and rock from the land.
In 1997, Thailand experienced a serious financial crisis. As a result, much of the land and building projects were confiscated by banks after the owners had defaulted on mortgage and loan payments. Despite owning the land title, the banks had no plan to utilize the land. Soon afterwards, the area became an illegal garbage dump of the Chiang Mai, where the stench pervaded in the dry season and toxins leaked from the landfill in the rainy season, contaminating the local groundwater.
In response, Ban Pong villagers decided to solve the problem by taking the land back. However, at that time the land was under the ownership of the State, as pursuant to Land Code 1954: lands which are left abandoned for more than ten years shall be returned to the state. Regardless of breaking the law, the villagers were determined to protect their ancestor’s original land, and conducted a campaign to reform land laws.
They started to study cases of other communities to learn lessons from them. At the same time, they cleared land which had been left vacant for a long time. Each household was allotted two plots of land, one for housing and the other for farming. The land revived and their lives became better when they started growing mangos, longans, and a local vegetable called cha-om. They also built a small dam to bring water from a canal to a tank from which water is distributed to households via a locally-managed irrigation system. Moreover, they set up their own rules to manage the land and to live together. On the 20th of every month, they organize a community meeting to discuss campaign strategies. To support the campaign, they established a fund called “cha-om fundraising,” which is taken care of by women in the village. This fund is contributed by all households in the village with 2 kg of cha-om per household per month. This fund also supports villagers to invest in economic development by lending the money at 1% interest.
Since the villagers came back to the land, they were subject to lawsuits from state officials. Everyone in the village has been charged with trespassing or illegally occupying land. Especially the community leader: in addition to his own 13 charges, he has to face the 70 charges of all members of the village. In spite of that, the Ban Pong community always stands shoulder to shoulder to overcome difficulties. For example, whenever police forces come to arrest one member of the village, other members tell the policemen that if he wants to arrest that person, he has to arrest all of them, including their domestic animals. Because of their solidarity, so far no one has been in jail or died.
In addition to their own strength, the Ban Pong community builds networks with other communities who share the same problems. For instance, the community took part in the international land rights movement in Malaysia in the hopes of sharing experiences and putting pressure on the government. Soon after that, the leader of Ban Pong realized that they could not rely on international movements. Then the community joined three national organizations called the Peasants’ Federation of Thailand, the Assembly of the Poor, and the People’s Movement for a Just Society (PMOVE).
In association with these organizations, the Ban Pong community discussed laws that they want the Government to issue. In the context that 62% of private land in Thailand is owned by the richest 10% of the population, while a large number of rural families have no land, the Ban Pong community, together with national organizations, launched the campaign “Four Laws for the Poor.” The campaign aims at addressing disparities in land ownership and challenges facing marginalized groups in terms of land rights. This campaign proposed four bills to the government to make into law and implement.
The four bills include:
- Community land and natural resource management rights: this bill will legally recognize communities’ rights to own and manage lands and natural resources.
- Progressive land tax bill: The more land people own, the more taxes they will have to pay. This will encourage a more efficient use of land and limit land concentration because
- Public land banks: this bill will enable the poor to borrow money at a low rate to buy land.
- Justice fund: this bill will establish a fund to financially support poor people facing criminal charges. The fund will cover costs of legal processes such as bail and court fees.
In the seven years since 2008, the Four Laws for the Poor campaign has achieved a number of significant successes. Most significantly, the Community Land Title and Land Bank bills were approved in 2010.
There are many factors contributing to the success of Ban Pong community. One of them is the support of lawyers who provide legal consultation to villagers. It should be noted that during the thirteen years of the movement, the community is always the decision maker. The lawyers act in a supporting role, to help the community consider their decisions.
The story of Ban Pong community gave me precious lessons:
- The strength of solidarity. Solidarity not only prevents villagers from being arrested but also fuels their determination in a long and fierce fight.
- The role of networks. Sharing experiences and lessons learned at regular network meetings allows other communities to strategize and be better prepared against opponents’ tactics and abuses.
- Study tours are a good way for others to learn from the community. They also promote the community’s confidence and passion for their work.
- No one can help you if you don’t help yourself. It is admitted that the Ban Pong community receives a lot of support from NGOs, lawyers, etc., but they are always active in finding solutions on their own. For example, they raise funds from their own vegetables, and they make their own decisions for all of their actions.