<< Continued from A Shadow Government

Mapping: A Political Weapon


In the mid-1990s, the government had discovered 365,250 acres of land near the equator - almost twice the size of New York City. It was a land rich in biological diversity; teeming with rare birds, palm trees, and other botanical curiosities. So, having made the ‘discovery,’ the government proceeded to designate the land as a national park in 1999.

“Budo – Su Ngai Padi," it was called.

Conservationists and the National Park Department celebrated their new discovery; inviting many prominent biologists, politicians, and socialites to the opening ceremony. But as soon as the smoke and balloons of celebration died down, there appeared to be a little biological problem with this new park in the tropics – it was the home of over 47,831 humans who had been living there for three centuries.

This was no small problem for the government. So for over 8 years - from 1999 to 2007 – state officials could be seen shuttling back and forth between Bangkok and the province of Narathiwat; making surveys of the affected communities. These surveys were related to how the communities used their land and whether they have settled there prior to the establishment of the park. Of the 365,250 acres of the new national park, 38,486 acres were found to be populated with people – a total of 7,000 households.

The professional survey team took 8 long years to do the survey. By the early 2007, they were left with a stockpile of some 6,000 households to survey from (out of the 7,000). During this entire period, however, the affected communities were treated as illegal settlers; being constantly harassed by various officials and the police forces.

"The mindset of the politicians and officials tends to be contrary to that of people here," says Poji, a village wiseman.

"We've lived here in a self-sufficient way for many generations. But the state doesn't look at it this way. The state wants to trade in the global market, it wants competition; and the people here simply don't understand why their way of life is unacceptable to the state.

In terms of conservation, our old man had taught us long ago that we must use the land with utmost respect. If you were to grow an orchard in the hills of Budo, existing trees should be preserved. Trees help absorb water - especially big trees. We have our laws in regards to conservation for generations," he says, glancing over the lush tropical forest and the hills beyond.

He tells me that the delay in surveying had affected many community members; and it made it very hard for them to survive - especially in the midst of threats. In 2007, several community leaders joined hands with the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI) and came up with a faster method of doing the survey. It was a method of collective collaboration that was being used throughout the digital age.

This new mapping method was similar to the emergence of Wikipedia – a process where the affected people would do the survey and mapping themselves. The government could then sit back and enjoy watching the maps “emerge” with astronomical speed.

"Using the this method along with several revisions and feedback checks, the mapping of the entire affected communities – 7,000 households - was completed in 1 month," he says.

Polji leads me to a palivion where there is a large photo of kids - teenagers - working with computers. The way the photo is positioned on the wall - at dead center - makes it look like a shrine.

"The Gang of Angels," he says with a proud smile.

I recognize a young man in the picture. He was the one who had come to "take a leak" at uncle Ampon's cottage several months ago - shortly before he left the Klong Pia's village school.

"That's Jay, he moved here soon after he'd heard about our needs," says Polji.

He explains that the whole process started with a few community elders rounding up rebellious youths from internet gaming cafes; asking them to assist the community with the advance GIS mapping technology. With a few nods of approval from their girlfriends along with the existential pleasure of challenging the state, the youths agreed immediately – without even knowing how GIS works. Such confidence was not rare among the new generation of youths who knew the disposition of computers better than that of their parents. With less than 2 weeks of GIS training, the computer gamers turned more or less into freedom fighters for their community. They were affectionately called the “Gang of Angels.” They took control over the means of representation.

"Now the we no longer need to wait for the state bureau to hand us the maps of our own community," says Polji as he walks towards an old wooden table next to the pavilion. "Jay has some prior knowledge of GIS, so he was very helpful for us," he continues as his eyes peruse the multi-colored maps laying on the table.

"Then we posted a notice calling for volunteers to go out and do the mapping survey", says Polji. Most often, the volunteers turned out to be the inhabitants of the area for which they would be doing the survey. So they tend to know the area quite well. State officials did not walk with them at this point; they came only to the check the outer-most boundary which bordered the national park. Within this boundary, the communities did all their own mapping using GPS technology along with simple hand drawn maps.

These maps were digitized by the "Gang of Angels" and were presented to the cabinet this year. On October 14th 2008, the cabinet was forced to agree with the community’s demands; they finally acknowledged that the conflict between the community and the National Park Department needed to be resolved in a timely manner.

"Since most families in the affected communities worked the trade of rubber production, they are now allowed to replace old rubber trees with new ones so as to increase production – but no more than 4% of the existing stocks," says Polji.

On my train trip back to Bangkok, I have learned from a tabloid newspaper - discarded in a 3rd class cabin - that the cabinet now agrees that 2,423 households in the Budo National Park will be eligible for land tenure should the state official find that they have been living there prior to the founding of the National Park in1999.

This may be a small victory for the people, but it has given them enough confidence and pride to continue fighting. The battle is far from over. I continue reading the tabloid newspaper; the drama ‘star’ section has been taken away by the previous reader and the classified section runs its usual ads:

SHOPPING MALLS & CONDOS
THAI MASSAGES & SPAS
BEACHES & HOTELS
NATIONAL PARKS & RESORTS

The Budo National Park is listed under the "resorts" section.



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