The University of Arizona

Political ecology, privation and sustainable livelihoods in northern Thailand's national parks

Aurathai Phongchiewboon, Trisia Farrelly, Karen Hytten, John Holland


National parks provide a wide range of ecological, social and economic benefits. However, in some cases the establishment of national parks has also lead to the displacement of indigenous people, the disruption of their livelihoods, and ongoing social conflict. Northern Thailand's national parks are home to approximately one million indigenous people. Balancing the interests and needs of national park authorities with those of indigenous communities within and adjacent to these parks poses significant challenges. This article employs qualitative research methods to assess the livelihood strategies of six indigenous hill tribe communities residing within three national parks in Northern Thailand. Due to the criminalization of the traditional farming systems and restrictions imposed on land use, these communities have had to adapt their livelihood practices to survive. Our findings suggest that communities remain in a state of flux and are continually adapting to changing circumstances. It is argued that greater community empowerment and participation in collaborative decision making is crucial to strengthen both sustainable livelihoods and environmental conservation efforts within Northern Thailand's national parks.

Keywords: Sustainable livelihoods, co-management, Northern Thailand, national parks, social justice

Full Text:



Alford, D. 1992. Streamflow and sediment transport from mountain watersheds of the Chao Phraya Basin, Northern Thailand: a reconnaissance study. Mountain Research and Development 12(3): 257-268.

Baumann, P. and S. Subir 2001. Political capital and sustainable livelihoods analysis. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Barrett, C.B., A.J. Travis and P. Dasgupta. 2011. On biodiversity conservation and poverty traps. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108(34): 13907-13912.

Beeton, S. 2005. Empowerment for sustainable tourism development. Annals of Tourism Research 32(3): 820-822.

Bennett, N. 2010. Sustainable livelihood from theory to practice: an extended annotated bibliography for prospective application of livelihoods thinking in protected area community research. Protected Area and Poverty Reduction Alliance Working Paper No. 1. Victoria, Canada: Victoria Island University.

Bennett, J.B. and P. Dearden. 2014. Why local people do not support conservation: community perceptions of marine protected area livelihood impacts, governance and management in Thailand. Marine Policy 44: 107-116.

Berkes, F. 1995. Community-based management and co-management as tools for empowerment. In N. Singh and V. Titi (eds.). Empowerment: towards sustainable development. London: Zed Books. Pp. 138-146.

Berkes, F. 2007. Adaptive co-management and complexity: exploring the many faces of co-management. In D. Armitage, F. Berkes and N. Doubleday (eds.). Adaptive co-management. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. Pp. 19-37.

Berkes, F. 2009. Evolution of co-management: role of knowledge generation, bridging organizations and social learning. Journal of Environmental Management 90(5): 1692-1702.

Büscher, B. and R. Fletcher 2020. The conservation revolution: radical ideas for saving nature beyond the Anthropocene. London: Verso.

Carney, D. 2002. Sustainable livelihoods approaches: progress and possibilities for change. London: Department for International Development.

Castro, A.P. and E. Nielsen. 2001. Indigenous people and co-management: implications for conflict management. Environmental Science and Policy 4(4-5): 229-239.

Cernea M.M. and K. Schmidt-Soltau. 2006. Poverty risks and national parks: policy issues in conservation and resettlement. World Development 34(10): 1808-1830.

Chapman, E.C. and S. Sabhasri. 1983. Natural resource development and environmental stability in the highlands of northern Thailand. Mountain Research and Development 3(4): 309-431.

Charas, S. and D. Weist. 2010. Thailand's decentralization: progress and prospects. In S. Ichimura and R. Bahl (eds.). Decentralization policies in Asian development. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing. Pp. 193-224.

Cochrane, J. 2007. Ecotourism and biodiversity conservation in Asia: institutional challenges and opportunities. In Higham, J. (ed.). Critical issues in ecotourism: understanding a complex tourism phenomenon. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann. Pp. 287-307.

Cultural Survival International, NIPT (Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand) and AIPP (Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact). 2016. Observations on the state of human rights of indigenous peoples in Thailand in light of the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people. Joint submission prepared for the 2nd cycle of Universal Periodic Review of Thailand, 25th session of the Human Rights Council (April-May 2016). Summary:

Dearden, P. 1997. Development, the environment and social differentiation in northern Thailand. In J. Rigg (ed.). Counting the costs – economic growth and environmental change in Thailand. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Pp. 111-130.

DFID (Department for International Development). 1999. Sustainable livelihoods guidance sheets. London: Department for International Development.

Dressler, W., D. Wilson, J. Clendenning, R. Cramb, R. Keenan, S. Mahanty, T. Bech Bruun, O. Mertz and R. Lasco. 2017. The impact of swidden decline on livelihoods and ecosystem services in Southeast Asia: a review of the evidence from 1990 to 2015. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 46: 291-310.

Dudley, N. 2008. Guidelines for applying for protected area management categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Dudley, N., M. Hockings and S. Stolton. 2010. Precious places: getting the arguments right. In S. Stolton and N. Dudley (eds.). Arguments for protected areas: multiple benefits for conservation and use. London: Earthscan. Pp. 253-264.

Dupar, M. and N. Badenoch. 2002. Environment, livelihoods, and local institutions: decentralization in mainland Southeast Asia. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute.

Ellyn, K.D. and M. Masuda. 2008. National park establishment in developing countries: between legislation and reality in India and Indonesia. Tropics (2): 119-133.

Erdmann, M.V., P.R. Merrill, M. Mongdong, I. Arsyad, Z. Harahap, R. Pangalila, R. Elverawati and P. Baworo. 2004. Building effective co-management systems for decentralized protected area management in Indonesia: Bunaken National Park case study. Jakarta: Natural Resource Management Program Secretariat.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) 2002. Case study on education opportunities for hill tribes in Northern Thailand – implications for sustainable rural development. Bangkok: FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

Ferguson, I. and C. Chandrasekharan. 2005. Paths and pitfalls of decentralization for sustainable forest management: experiences of the Asia Pacific region. In C.J. Pierce and D. Capistrano (eds.). The politics of decentralization – forests, power and people. London: Earthscan. Pp. 63-85.

Ferraro, P.J., M.M. Hanauer and K. Sims. 2011. Conditions associated with protected area success in conservation and poverty reduction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108(34): 13913-13918.

Folke, C., S. Carpenter, T. Elmqvist, L. Gunderson, C.S. Holling and B. Walker. 2002. Resilience and sustainable development: building adaptive capacity in a world of transformations. Journal of the Human Environment 31(5): 437-440.

Forsyth, T.J. and A. Walker. 2008. Forest guardians, forest destroyers: the politics of environmental knowledge in Northern Thailand. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Foucat, V.S.A. 2002. Community-based ecotourism management moving towards sustainability, in Ventanilla Oaxaca, Mexico. Ocean and Coastal Management 45(8): 511-529.

FPP (Forest Peoples Programme) 2012. Pilot Whakatane Assessment in Ob Luang National Park, Thailand, finds exemplary joint management by indigenous peoples, local communities, national park authorities and NGOs. [accessed February 5 2018].

Freudenthal, E., M.F. Ferrari, J. Kenrick and A. Mylne, A. 2012. The Whakatane Mechanism: promoting justice in protected areas. Nomadic Peoples 6(2): 84-94.

Hall, C.M. and H. James. 2007. Scaling ecotourism: the role of scale in understanding the impacts of ecotourism. In Higham, J. (ed.). Critical issues in ecotourism: understanding a complex tourism phenomenon. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann. Pp. 243-255.

Hickey, S. and G. Mohan. 2004. Participation: from tyranny to transformation? Exploring new approaches to participation in development. London: Zed.

HRDI (Highland Research and Development Institute). 2008. Annual report. Chiang Mai: Highland Research and Development Institute.

HRDI (Highland Research and Development Institute). 2009. The statistic number of hill tribe population in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai: Highland Research and Development Institute.

IMPECT (Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association) and FPP (Forest Peoples Programme). 2006. Indigenous knowledge, customary use of natural resources and sustainable biodiversity management: case study of Hmong and Karen communities in Thailand. [accessed July 1 2017].

ICEM (International Centre for Environmental Management) 2003. Lessons learned in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam: review of protected areas and development in the four countries of the Lower Mekong River Region. Brisbane: International Centre for Environmental Management.

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). 2014. Summary report: IUCN World Park Congress 2014 Bulletin. [accessed April 5 2015].

Ives, J.D. 1983. Preface. Mountain Research and Development. 3(4): 309-311.

Jentoft, S., B.J. McCay and D.C. Wilson. 1998. Social theory and fisheries co-management. Marine Policy 22(4-5): 423-436.

Johnson, C. and T.J. Forsyth. 2002. In the eyes of the state: negotiating a 'rights-based approach' to forest conservation in Thailand. World Development 30(9): 1591-1605.

Krantz, L. 2001. The sustainable livelihood approach to poverty reduction: an introduction. Stockholm: Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Limnirankul, B., T. Onprapai and P. Gypmantasiri. 2015. Building local capacities in natural resources management for food security in the highlands of Northern Thailand. Agriculture and Agricultural Science Procedia 5: 30-37.

Maxwell, J.F. and S. Elliott. 2001. Vegetation and vascular flora of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, Chiang Mai Province, Northern Thailand. Bangkok: Biodiversity Research and Training Program.

McKinnon, J. 1983 A highlander's geography of the highlands: mythology, process, and fact. Mountain Research and Development 3(4): 313-317.

McKinnon, J. and W. Bhruksasri. 1983. Highlanders of Thailand. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morton, M.F. and I.G. Baird. 2019. From Hill tribes to Indigenous Peoples: the localisation of a global movement in Thailand. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 50(1): 7–31.

Natcher, D.C., S. Davis and C.G. Hickey. 2005. Co-management: managing relationships, not resources. Human Organization 64: 240-250.

Nepal, S.K. 2002. Involving indigenous peoples in protected area management: comparative perspectives from Nepal, Thailand, and China. Environmental Management 30(6): 748-763.

Parr, J.W.K., S. Jitvijak, S. Saranet and S. Buathong. 2008. Exploratory co-management interventions in Kuiburi National Park, Central Thailand, including human-elephant conflict mitigation. International Journal of Environment and Sustainable Development 7(3): 293-310.

Phongchiewboon, A. 2016. Livelihood strategies and environmental management practices in northern Thailand national park communities. PhD thesis. Palmerston North: Massey University.

Pragtong, K. 2000. Recent decentralization plans of the Royal Forest Department and its implications for forest management in Thailand. Bangkok: Royal Forest Department.

Prime Minister's Office on the Issuance of Community Land Title Deeds. 2010. Bangkok: Prime Minister's Office.

RFD (Royal Forestry Department) 2000. Status of protected areas in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok: Royal Forest Department.

Roth, R. 2004. On the colonial margins and in the global hotspot: park–people conflicts in highland Thailand. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 45(1): 13-32.

Roth, R. 2008. 'Fixing' the forest: the spatiality of conservation conflict in Thailand. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98(2): 373-391.

Scheyvens, R. 1999. Ecotourism and the empowerment of local communities. Tourism Management 20(2): 245-249.

Schmidt-Vogt, D. 1999. Swidden farming and fallow vegetation in Northern Thailand. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Scoones, I. 1998. Sustainable rural livelihoods: a framework for analysis. IDS Working Paper 72. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.

Sims, K. 2010. Conservation and development: evidence from Thai protected areas. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 60(2): 94-114.

Stone, L.S. and T.M. Stone. 2011. Community-based tourism enterprises: challenges and prospects for community participation: Khama Rhino Sanctuary Trust, Botswana. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 19(1): 97-114.

Stubelj Ars, M. and M. Bohanec. 2010. Towards the ecotourism: a decision support model for the assessment of sustainability of mountain huts in the Alps. Journal of Environmental Management 91(12): 2554-2564.

Survival International. 2017. Survival International - the movement for tribal peoples. Cambridge, MA.:

Toner, A. and T. Franks 2006. Putting livelihoods thinking into practice: implications for development management. Public Administration and Development 26(1): 81-92.

Vandergeest, P. 2003. Racialization and citizenship in Thai forest policies. Society and Natural Resources 16: 19-37.

Whakatane Mechanism. 2018 Whakatane Mechanism. [accessed December 17 2017].

Yates, G.E., T.V. Stein and M.S. Wyman. 2010. Factors for collaboration in Florida's tourism resources: shifting gears from participatory planning to community-based management. Landscape and Urban Planning 97(4): 213-220.