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Thia Forestry Rangers at Work

The task of reclaiming land stripped of trees for lumber is daunting - and dangerous

WHEN the officers of the Thai Royal Forestry Department enter the wildlife sanctuary at Amphur Saba Yoi in Songkhla Province, Thailand, they shouldn't have to carry guns.

They are already carrying the more conventional tools of their trade: survey equipment, water- and air-testing kits, camping gear, and food.

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But since the murder of a forestry official in nearby Ranong province in April this year, the scientists and rangers have added firearms to the burdens they must lug over the rough mountainous terrain they are responsible for.

The Songkhla Forestry Department office is currently involved in a project to reclaim land that was once a 3,000-year-old virgin forest but today is desolate wasteland. Over the last two decades, the area has been reaped for valuable teak wood by logging consortiums. Now, the department is hiring some of the same local people who used to chop down the trees to plant the decimated forest with selected hardwoods.

Only about 20 percent of Thailand's original forest remains. The government has banned logging in its virgin rain forests since 1988, but the ban is difficult to enforce. Illegal logging and plantations continue to exist.

I recently accompanied the Forest Department rangers on an expedition to see how the Songkhla Province replanting project had progressed. Just two months into the venture, which is not scheduled to produce commercial results for another 70 years, I found a situation in which a handful of brave and idealistic people are locked in battle with illegal loggers.

Leaving the Royal Forestry Department office in Songkhla early one morning in two road-weary green pickup trucks, we traveled to Ban Nam Chiaw, the closest town to the replanting site, five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the Thai-Malaysia border. There were three rangers, all armed. The weapons are not provided by the department.

On the drive, Nai Mong, the senior officer, showed me an aerial survey map of the place where we were going. The map showed no roads or settlements near the replanting site, but there was a cryptic message, three words in English: "Exact Alignment Unknown." Our arrival in Ban Nam Chiaw did not go unnoticed. As the official vehicles passed along the rutted dirt roads, heads popped out of doors.

The people in Ban Nam Chiaw seemed at once interested but wary as our trucks approached. I asked Pi Mai, the youngest and most personable ranger in our group, about the villagers.

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"Chao baan," he replied simply - the local folk.

"Who devastated the forest in the first place?" I asked.

"Chao baan."

"And who's shooting at the rangers now?"

"Chao baan."

We took the Forestry Department vehicles down the main road and over a narrow plank bridge to the home of the village pu chuay, or assistant head man, who was to be our guide and visa into the wilderness. A stocky, capable looking young man with innumerable tattoos, he welcomed us onto his porch. The pu chuay got his gun and a fresh shirt, and he was ready to start.

We spent the night at the home of Nai Phan, the village head man. While his wife boiled rice for our meal, I asked him a few questions about the area and learned that while rubber plantations were the backbone and almost sole product of the local economy, current rubber prices were down, forcing the chao baan to work for the teak barons.

Those villagers who did not log for lumber companies cleared

forest to plant more rubber. Latex that is harvested from plantations hidden within the forest is tax-free and therefore more profitable.

"Are you afraid of violence here?" I asked, referring to the recent murder in Ranong.

"No, we have no problems here," he said. "Other places do, but not here." Despite his bare chest and tattered sarong, I got the feeling that Nai Phan was a pretty savvy politician.

That night we slept on the concrete floor of his house, a floor that is unique in the village and his pride and joy.

In the morning, the Forestry Department trucks dropped us off at the point where the government road is closest to the border, and we began our walk into the jungle.

Thirty meters (about 100 feet) from the road, we came upon a pile of teak logs, all of them more than a meter (3.28 feet) in diameter and neatly marked with the name of the poacher. It was the first of several similar piles we would see that day.

Nai Mong, the forestry officer, refused to let me take his picture with the logs. "If you did," he said, "I'd never be able to come back."

I asked if the poachers were afraid of being caught by printing their names on the felled trees, and he answered, "All they're afraid of is someone stealing their logs."

We followed a river that wound over and around small hills and dense bamboo thickets, through tiny glades and past giant trees that carried creeping vines hundreds of feet into the air. We heard the chatter of monkeys and the whoops of gibbons; we saw the footprints of deer and wild boar. In the streams were turtles and fish and snakes.

Nai Mong pointed out a line of circular depressions, pressed about a foot deep into the moist soil of the forest floor.

"Chang," he said. "Elephant." I was elated and asked, did he think we'd see any wild elephants on this trip? He looked at me as if I were an ignorant child and slowly explained, "There are no more wild elephants left in this part of the country. These elephants are used by the loggers to drag the timber out of the jungle."

We came across a few of the clandestine rubber plantations that Nai Phan had told me about, looking very surreal with their straight even rows of narrow trees growing amid the chaos of the natural forest cover. Someone would have to need the money badly to go to all this trouble to harvest the small amount of latex that 20 or 30 trees could produce, I thought.

Nai Mong pointed at one tiny grove, towered over by the native trees, and said "Chao baan."

We reached the rangers' base camp just before sunset. A wooden house much like the Thai-style open dwellings common in villages throughout the south stood in a little man-made clearing in the heart of the jungle.

When we arrived, I asked Nai Mong which way was the border with Malaysia. He looked surprised, then pensive, then shrugged and waved his arm in a circle over his head.

A few chao baan were at the camp stopping for a visit while out hunting. Their armory consisted of home-made rifles. The barrels were made of plumbing pipe, and the firing pins were nails driven home with the spring mechanisms from old mouse traps. A gun like this had killed the officer in Ranong.

Before we went to bed, we bathed in groups, going down to the stream armed. I gave Nai Mong a questioning look and asked, "Chao baan?" He nodded back. "Chao baan."

In the morning, we trooped off to rendezvous with the replanting crew. Within 100 meters (328 feet) of the base camp, we were in another world.

Nobody knows exactly how many square miles of the rain forest in southern Thailand have been ravaged by the logging industry.

From the perspective of a small group of people struggling their way across the wasted hills, it seems as if the whole world has been blasted to dust and ash and twisted stumps.

FROM horizon to horizon the land was grey and white, the soft round contours of the hills broken by jagged lines: the refuse of limbs, unsalable trees, and torn-up soil left by the loggers.

Within minutes, we were soaked with sweat and laboring for breath, even the pu chuay, who is well experienced at traveling in this type of terrain. There was no cover from the tropical sun; there was no sign of life.

No birds sang, no small things scurried underneath the brush, and the only insects we saw were swarms of very hungry mosquitoes. There was no path to follow, the streams were choked with ash and deadfall, and the dirt was dry and loose underfoot. The place stank of rot and stagnant water.

Nobody spoke.

It took us more than an hour to cover two kilometers (1 1/4 miles). We came upon the reforestation site when the sun was quite high, but it wasn't hot: The sky was darkened by hundreds of small fires burning all around a camp.

Living in huts made of bamboo and plastic sheeting, a family of 10 people, originally from northeast Thailand and speaking Laotian, had been doing the preliminary work of cutting and burning the waste of deadfall and stumps left by the loggers.

This clearing is the hardest part of the job, and a necessary one: New trees cannot grow until the streams are cleared for irrigation and soil erosion has been controlled.

The rangers had brought more plastic sheeting, bags of rice, and canned fish. They carry these good over the ravaged hills; the workers pay for them through deductions in their wages.

The father of the clan sat in a lean-to with Nai Mong and they went over receipts, while the others argued over the price of a new machete. A woman boiled water, and I learned that she spent all day boiling water.

Since there was no running water anywhere near the camp, every drop had to be boiled. There wasn't enough left after making the daily rice and drinking supply to bathe properly. Doing laundry was out of the question.

I spotted a young boy sitting on the edge of the group staring at the foreigner and eating bee larvae out of a wax comb. "Do you go to school?" I asked. He looked at Nai Mong, unsure what to say. Nai Mong broke off his conference with the clan patriarch to tell me that normally the boy goes to school, of course, but now was on holiday.

I asked him how long his family had been living in the south. He said eight years. If Nai Mong had told the truth, this boy should have attended public school in south Thailand for at least six years. But he was still speaking Laotian, and had difficulty understanding the rangers' southern Thai.

An older woman in the group complained to Nai Mong that the day before a helicopter had flown over the site and they all had to hide. He asked her why they hid; what they were doing is perfectly legal. "It was probably just journalists or government scientists," he said. The woman looked surprised, then embarrassed. "We always hide from helicopters," she said.

We left the exiles in their inferno and made our way back out of the wasteland.

At the rangers' camp we bathed in the stream again and I kept staring into the clear, cool water. The little boy who had been eating the bee larvae hadn't seen water like that for two months.

The trip out the next day was by an easier path, and within four hours we were in regularly cultivated rubber plantations, then banana, then coconut, then finally on the side of the government road. We flagged down a passing truck to Ban Nam Chiaw, where our vehicles were waiting at Nai Phan's house.

When we climbed up on the flatbed, I noticed a lot of wood chips. I didn't ask Nai Mong if they were teak, but I know that it doesn't take a 10-wheel truck to cart bananas or coconuts to market.

THAT evening, back in the air-conditioned department offices in Songkhla, I looked at the map again. I asked Nai Mong to trace the extent of the destruction we had tramped through. He shrugged and ran a finger around the border area - "Precise Alignment Unknown."

I looked at the target figures Nai Mong keeps under the glass that covers his desk. This year the Thai Royal Forestry Department hopes to plant 40,500 trees in the reclaimed section of dead rain forest. It will take 70 years for the trees to mature.

I asked Nai Mong if he thought that he would have to carry a gun into the forest every time he went. He said that the Forestry Department rotated its officers from province to province every five years to make them less susceptible to bribery or coercion. He also hoped to be promoted soon out of fieldwork and into policymaking.

Then he pointed to the pictures of his wife and children on the desk. "Some day, I'd like to take my children out to where we were today," Nai Mong said. "I'd like to show them a new forest, not the rain forest that used to be there. I'd like to show them and be able to say, `Your father helped to make this. Your father and the chao baan.' "

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