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In the eyes of the state: negotiating a “rights-based approach” to forest conservation in Thailand

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Recent debates about governance, poverty and environmental sustainability have emphasized a ‘rights-based’ approach to development, in which individual rights and freedoms are strongly associated with fair and equitable development. Such approaches are defended both in terms of the ‘intrinsic’ benefits of basic human rights and the ‘instrumental’ benefits these may provide. However, the process of implementing a rights-based approach entails a number of political costs. Principal among these are the costs of ensuring that social rights are effectively enforced and the related cost of encouraging the state to intervene on behalf of poor and vulnerable groups in society. Reflecting upon these themes, this paper explores the case of Thailand’s ‘Community Forestry Bill’, legislation that was introduced to support rights of access and environmental conservation for communities living in forest reserve areas. Examining watershed forests in the north and mangrove conservation in the south, it argues that efforts to support rural livelihoods through the establishment of community rights have been undermined by powerful private actors and by a state that has generally ruled in favour of commercial interests. The article then documents the creative ways in which civil society organizations have been able to negotiate and secure informal rights of access in rural areas. Such findings, it concludes, illustrate the need to situate rights-based approaches within the wider public spheres in which rules, rights, and ‘community’ are established, and defended.

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