New World Heritage Site forest imperils Thai indigenous people

When Gib Tonnarmpech and her family were forced to leave their home in Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan National Park by authorities, they walked more than two days in dense forest with about 60 other families to get to their resettlement site.

They named the new site Bang Kloi, after their ancestral land that had been home to the indigenous Karen people for generations – and one that several families have tried to return to in the more than two decades since they were evicted.

Now, the nearly 700 people who live in simple wooden homes on stilts in Bang Kloi village fear new threats after Kaeng Krachan National Park was recognised in July by the United Nations’ cultural agency (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site.

“We lost everything. Life has been very hard here – the land is not good for growing rice and vegetables, so we have to buy everything,” said Gib, 43, as she chewed betel leaves and embroidered cloth with some women in a community weaving centre.

“We don’t know what the World Heritage listing means – no one has told us how it will impact us or whether it will help solve our problems,” said Gib, who was among more than 20 Karen people who were arrested and charged earlier this year with encroachment after they returned to their ancestral site.

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Rina Chandran