Community Forest Bill passed APINYA WIPATAYOTIN / Bangkok Post Nov22,2007 The long-awaited Community Forest Bill sailed through the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) yesterday by 57-2 votes with one abstention. The passing of the bill, which combines one proposed by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry and one by the civic sector, followed a debate lasting more than seven hours. The bill accepts the legal right of forest communities to preserve and manage forest land surrounding their communities. However, activists expressed disappointment, saying the bill does not actually benefit forest dwellers. Yesterday’s debate concentrated on two contentious articles. Article 25 lays down the qualifications of a community to be eligible to obtain rights to manage and use protected forest, while Article 34 stipulates the rights of the community. The bill limits community rights to original forest dwellers with strict guidelines for the use of protected forest. By limiting eligibility to original dwellers _ those who have lived in the forest for at least 10 years before the bill is promulgated _ the law excludes about 20,000 communities scattered on the rim of protected forests countrywide. Former permanent secretary for natural resources and environment Petipong Pungbun na Ayudhaya said that while local communities should have the right to manage natural resources, the process should go step by step. ”We are going to transfer natural resources management from the state to the people. Isn’t it too fast?” he said during the debate. ”If we want to have it that fast, we have to prepare for negative impacts. In fact, those living on the rim of protected forests can use the forests. There is no need to grant them legal rights.” The bill passed its first reading in the House in 2001, under the first Thaksin Shinawatra administration. But the Senate objected to key provisions. The bill was then delayed after the Senate’s term expired. It was dusted off when the Thai Rak Thai government came to power for a second term, but again stalled when Mr Thaksin was ousted in the coup on Sept 19 last year. Tuenjai Deetes told the assembly that the bill should recognise the rights of people who have ”a good record in keeping the forest”. ”Please understand that over 20,000 villages will help protect over 30 million rai of forest,” she said. ”We should not ignore them. If we do, it means the community forest law means nothing to them.” Pirote Polpetch, a community rights activist, expressed his disappointment with the approved bill which, he said, breaches Article 66 of the constitution that recognises community rights in natural resources management. He said activists were considering filing a complaint with the Constitution Court, or collecting over 10,000 signatures to push for the amendment of the law.