Conflicts between local people and managers of protected areas (PAs) have often undermined conservation goals in Asia. Since the 1970s, conservation planners have tried to address these problems by incorporating rural development into PA planning. More recently, many conservationists have argued for increasing community involvement in PA management, and for allowing traditional resource uses inside PAs. Based on research in Thailand I make three arguments regarding obstacles to implementing the new approach.
In Thailand, laws governing Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks enacted in the early 1960s were premised on the idea that human use and nature preservation were incompatible. Rapid expansion of these PAs in recent years has produced endemic conflict with rural people claiming resources inside PAs. To address this problem, the Thai Royal Forestry Department has cooperated with NGOs providing development assistance to rural people living in buffer zones outside of some PAs. I argue that this approach has met limited success because the main source of conflict is not poverty but claims on resources inside PAs.
The second argument is that the Forestry Department has resisted changes to laws making local use inside PAs illegal because these laws are important for consolidating the Department's control over territory and in justifying increasing budgetary allocations. In addition, by redefining itself as an organization devoted to strict defence of forests, the Department has obtained the support of many urban environmentalists. The third argument is that the community forest approach taken by a recent draft Community Forest Bill is an important first step in that it implicitly recognizes community property. At the same time, this approach will also fail to address key problems because it is based on a notion of the traditional village, and does not allow for the commercial nature of rural forest use or the household-based nature of forest tenure.
I suggest that the new expansion of PAs be halted, that land claimed by rural households be taken out of PAs, and that the government recognize community management rights in areas that remain classified as protected. More generally, the goals of conservation would be better achieved by replacing an approach based on the rapid expansion of PAs with one promoting conservation outside PAs.