Baan Nai Rai, Thailand - Ten years ago when a massive tsunami swept away every house in this small Muslim village in southern ThailandCham Khiaw-Nin didn't lament the loss of his property but rather the damage done to the mangrove forest.

"Mangroves are vital to us. We survive thanks to them because fish grow on them," says the 60-year-old fisherman, caressing his long white beard in Phang-na province.

Villagers in Baan Nai Rai also survived the fury of the earthquake-driven tsunami - which killed more than 220,000 people in a dozen countries, 8,000 in Thailand, on December 26, 2004 - thanks to the protection provided by the dense mangrove forest.

With a population of 700, only one person was killed in the village even though the south of Thailand was one of the hardest hit areas by the killer wave 10 years ago.

"The mangrove stopped the wave," Cham told Al Jazeera. "Many of the houses were destroyed, but thanks to the forest only one person died." 

Fisherman Krit Sittiboot, 45, was selling his catch at an inland market on that fateful day.

"I was not at the village when it happened, but when I came back my house was gone. I know that we were lucky because the mangrove protected us. But I'm still afraid when there is thunder, or when they speak on TV about earthquakes."

The tsunami was not the only threat the mangrove area faced. A few weeks after the disaster, a private investor came to the area and showed the villagers a land title claiming the property of the mangrove forest and part of Baan Nai Rai village.

The man planned, the villagers say, to turn the area into a tourist resort.

Muslim villagers in Baan Nai Rai survived the fury of the tsunami thanks to the dense mangrove forest [Vincenzo Floramo/Al Jazeera]

'Wrongfully obtained'

For years, villagers had sought several judicial procedures against the investor to keep what they consider should be recognised as a natural resource. 

"This [property] document has been wrongfully obtained. This land should be public according to the law," says Suttipong Laithip, a volunteer lawyer who is helping villagers with the legal procedures against the company.

In 2006, 100 villagers reached an agreement with the investor to relocate their houses to another area a few kilometres away, but they refused to give up on the mangrove area. Nevertheless, in 2013, a court ruled that the private investor had legally acquired the land. Today, the community is trying to find additional evidence to again bring the case to court.

According to the Department of Land, mangrove forests are protected areas and should remain as public land but in some cases, land titles can be issued, especially if there is evidence that the land was acquired before the mangroves began to grow.

"If the court determines that they have right to the land, the law does not stipulate any obligation to protect the mangroves," says Surapong Sriviroj, director of the Land Documents Issuance Standards Bureau. 

The fishing village relies on the mangrove forest for sustenance, but developers want it for a hotel [Vincenzo Floramo/Al Jazeera]

Land disputes

In the case of Baan Nai Rai, the government has a record of changes in land title holders from the last 30 years, but villagers say the area has been a mangrove area for much longer than that.

"I have always lived here. My grandparents were born here and this has always been a forest," says Cham Khiaw-Nin.

Thailand has been unsuccessfully trying to solve its land property problem for decades, but land disputes are still a common issue in the country. The 1954 Land Law, still in force today, put in place a complicated system of land certificates, including permanent and temporary rights to land, that has created confusion.

Nevertheless, activists say many companies and powerful people have obtained land titles by bribing officials, especially after the tsunami. 

"There has always been a big problem of land titling in Thailand. The tsunami just caused all the problems in the affected areas to be reborn," says Ravadee Prasertcharoensuk, director of the Sustainable Development Foundation NGO.

Niran Pitakwatchara, commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission, a public body that has monitored many of the land disputes, says the key issue is that the protection of common interests has never been a priority for any Thai government. 

"The rights of communities to live [according to their lifestyle] is belonging to the constitution, but a landmark for a business can be established by themselves through corruption," says the commissioner, adding community interests should trump private ones. 

Villagers say the mangrove forest saved them from the tsunami, and now they want to save it from developers [Vincenzo Floramo] 

Finding a balance

Pitakwatchara also demands the new constitution, currently being drafted by the military government that seized power last May, ensures the land rights for communities. 

"We should arrive at a balance. In Thailand, the 10 percent of the richest individuals own 80 percent of the land. The poorest, only 0.003 percent," says the commissioner.

Mangroves have been considered a key element in poverty alleviation because of richness in natural resources, and are also an important factor for climate change adaptation and mitigation in coastal areas.

For the fishing community of Baan Nai Rai, mangroves have always been its most valuable asset.

"We have always worked very hard to take care of the mangroves, even before the tsunami," says Duk, another fishermen who catches small fish in the roots of the mangroves and grows them on his farm.

A few days after the tsunami, the community started the rehabilitation of the forest and today it is regaining its original density.

However, villagers are worried about the fate of the area if they finally have to abandon the land because of the luxury resort development. 

"If we are moved from here, who knows if the newcomers will protect the trees," says Cham Khiaw-Nin.

Source: Al Jazeera