Building Social Cohesion in Northern Thailand

Photo of a farmer in Mae Hong Son Province
A young farmer from Baan Mae Sapae village.

Mae Hong Son is the poorest province in Thailand with the country’s lowest score on UNDP’s Human Development Index. It is home to a diverse population, including a large number of displaced people from Myanmar. Economic opportunities can be scarce and access to natural resources and basic services are often inadequate.

Conditions in Mae Hong Son province gave rise to social tensions between the local population and the provincial government, and resentment towards the displaced people receiving support from the international community in nearby temporary shelters.

Farming villages like Huai Fan border a government forest reserve. Without adequate land for cultivation, villagers grew upland rice for household consumption and gathered forest products like leaves and chillies to sell to outsiders and people who live in the nearby Mae Surin refugee camp. Tensions rose between the village and the government over the continued exploitation of the neighbouring forest.  “Currently the government suggests we do not encroach on the forest. Today the population is increasing. We have to encroach on the forest,” said Mr. Vinai Sornjaroenchai, a local farmer.

Highlights and Successes

  • Improved the relationship between local populations and the Provincial Mae Hong Son Government.
  • Increased the capacity of villagers resolve disputes through tools, such as the 3D maps.
  • Assisted villagers through a PRA, in a wildfire prevention network led by several rural villages and government officials.

UNDP in Thailand worked to improve the relationship between communities and the provincial government, by focusing on improving social service delivery, natural resource management and enhancing livelihoods.

Using two tools, a participatory rural appraisal (PRA), and a 3D mapping model (P3DM) UNDP, the provincial government and villagers identified a number of issues together, including inadequate water for agriculture, the lack of skills for preserving natural resources, and the extinction of banana from the village forest areas.

The inclusive process led stakeholders to realise a much bigger problem —forest fires. The deterioration of natural resources could become an increasingly significant problem for the province, and the local village headman suggested wildfire control as a starting point for conservation of natural resources and as a way of preventing drought.

But Huai Fan also found they could not tackle this problem alone.

UNDP worked with a local NGO to lead a series of wildfire and flash flood prevention forums to improve awareness in the general public, as well as among provincial and local government officers. Huai Fan and other villages teamed together to identify of problems and solutions for community natural resource management. Provincial government got involved, as did a local government radio station. The result was two-fold. The local communities did not have good relations with local government forestry officials, whom they believed were out to “fence or fine” them.  The second result was the creation of the Namtok Mae Surin Wildfire Prevention Network, a group of eight rural communities.

The wildfire prevention networks established an effective fire prevention system through regulations on burning, fire break preparation, and established a patrol team with forestry staff to spot wildfires and prevent illegal logging. The network paved the way for more collaboration in areas like water resource development with other public organizations.

The project was significant to Mae Hong Son, as it emphasized the use of a wide range of actors to identify the root causes of insecurity and develop coordinated community response. It places emphasis on participatory assessments, planning and accountability to improve service delivery, reduce social exclusion, and enhance relations between parties.

“When UNDP discussed [this approach] with us—as a government agency—we saw that we could put them to good use in areas that would be a good example for the future,” said Mr. Tongchai Wongrienthong, former Governor of Mae Hong Son province.

“We talked about how it would help the livelihoods of the people of Mae Hong Son…and it would help conserve natural resources and the environment.”

Although isolation is still a challenge, relationships have improved.

“In days past, the villagers and the government basically couldn’t get along. That’s the honest truth. The villagers wanted to encroach on the forest, but were prohibited,” said Mr, Sornjaroenchai.  

“But UNDP came in and set out where we could and could not expand our land use. Once that was done, it made it so that the officials were not always on us. It made it so they didn’t disturb us and we didn’t disturb them.”