An aerial photographic survey conducted in 1961 showed forests to cover about 54 percent (or if swamp and scrub areas are included, 56 percent) of Thailand. In the succeeding two decades, this area was substantially reduced as a rapidly growing population pushed into the forests seeking new land for agricultural use. Increasing prices for certain upland crops, especially in the 1970s, also acted as a strong incentive for conversion of forests to cultivated lands. By the mid-1980s, the expansion of the cultivated area had resulted in a decrease in the amount of forestland to less than 30 percent.
Except for a few small, privately owned, coastal mangrove areas, all forestland was the property of the state. Roughly 32 percent of the 1961 forest area, largely in the North and Northeast, had been designated permanent reserved forest through the end of the 1960s. Government plans called for additions in subsequent years to raise the total to about 51 percent. Clearing or cutting of timber or settling in such land was possible only with an official permit. Many of the stream valleys in these reserve areas, however, were highly suitable for agricultural use. Traditionally, farmers had been able to occupy unreserved public land on a free basis, restrictions in such cases relating only to the cutting of certain timber tree species, which remained the property of the state. As population growth increased the demand for land, farmers in the 1970s also moved into the reserved forests with little or no effective hindrance from government agencies. This situation was generally nonreversible, and observers anticipated that eventually most such holdings suitable for cultivation would be legalized under the agricultural land reform program.
Areas of forest usable for permanent cultivation still existed in the early 1980s, mostly in the South. In other regions there were logged-over areas and scrubland (at times included with forestland), part of which could be used for agriculture. Extant forest areas--minus potentially cultivable land--were still considered sufficient to meet domestic timber and other wood requirements and also to provide a surplus of forest products for export. Foreign and Thai forestry specialists were agreed that for this situation to continue, positive steps would have to be taken, including an adequate program of reforestation, prevention of illicit cutting and the use of steep forest slopes for cultivation purposes, and active promotion of more efficient forest exploitation practices. In the early 1970s, the Food and Agriculture Organization recommended a reforestation program of 1 million hectares. The government later approved a plan to replant 120,000 hectares.
Major exploitation of the highly valuable teak wood for exportation was begun by European interests in the late 1800s, and by 1895 indiscriminate cutting had largely exhausted the more easily workable stands. About this time, the government established a system of control that included leases and cutting cycles (a teak tree takes from 80 to 150 years to mature fully, depending on local soils and weather). By 1909, when controls were further tightened, almost all of the industry was in European hands, mainly British but also Danish and French. During World War II, a Thai company took over all concessions, and although a few were returned to foreign control for a period after the war, the government’s long-term goal of full Thai operation was attained in the late 1950s.
Although modern logging equipment was in widespread use, difficult terrain and lack of roads in many areas necessitated the use of elephants in logging operations. In 1982 there were 12,000 working elephants in Thailand, including those trained at the Royal Forestry Department’s Young Elephant Training Center.
The exploitation of Thailand’s forests was the responsibility of the Royal Forestry Department. Through the Forest Industry Organization, a state-owned enterprise, the government controlled nearly all extraction of mature teak. However, illegal felling of teak continued to be a serious problem in the 1980s, although the extent of the cutting was uncertain. A decade earlier, estimates had placed illegal cutting at from one-third to an amount greater than legal cutting. Some idea of the magnitude of the situation was evident in a 1973 report of the Royal Forestry Department, which cited some 7,600 incidents of illegal teak felling. The department was not only unable to patrol adequately all forest areas but authorities also failed to act against illegal logging operations connected with politically influential individuals and families.
Major damage to permanent forest areas also occurred, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, through occupation of hillside forestland that was not suitable for cultivation. This practice was carried on throughout the country and resulted not only in destruction of forests but also in erosion and damage to watersheds. Notable forest destruction occurred over time in the North because of shifting cultivation practiced mainly by the hill peoples of the region. Of the roughly 70 percent of this region classified as forests, well over a quarter was being used for such cultivation in the late 1960s, according to a government report. The amount grew tremendously during the 1970s as the population of the hill peoples increased. In addition, many landless Thai were reported to have migrated to the area, and others who were farming agricultural land in the valleys also were practicing shifting cultivation on the hills and mountainsides to supplement production. According to some sources, forested lands in the Northeast declined from about 60 percent in 1956 to less than 20 percent two decades later.
Although teak had been a major long-term source of foreign exchange earnings, the output by volume of timber from other commercially valuable species was far greater. Thailand had a large number of such species, of which the most commonly exported one was yang, related to the so-called Philippine mahoganies. Others were of great value domestically, supplying the country’s general requirements for timber and wood products of various sorts. In the 1980s, however, the forests failed to meet the demand for raw materials for paper and paper products, and these were being imported in growing quantities. Only limited stands of pine existed, and development of a domestic pulp and paper industry appeared to depend on the establishment of suitable forest plantations.