Local politics of watershed management in the uplands

Local institutions and the politics of watershed management in the uplands of northern Thailand

Rajesh Daniel and Songphonsak Ratanawilailak

Book chapter in: In Lazarus K., Resurreccion B., Dao N., and Badenoch N. (Eds.) Rites of Access: Seeking Justice in Managing Mekong Region Waters. Earthscan, London. Vol 3 of the M-POWER book series.Introduction

Introduction

Upland watersheds in northern Thailand are arenas of social interaction and political contestation around the values, uses and management of natural resources and ecosystem services. Differences in definitions, perceptions, objectives and interests among actors abound and often lead to misunderstandings and misrepresentation of alternative land-use and watershed management practices (Luangaramsri, 1999).

Tensions in these arenas have grown in recent years with intensification of land-uses and market-oriented cultivation in both upland and downstream areas. Upland farms now widely use fertilizers and pesticides and in some locations even have overhead-sprinklers and associated infrastructure for irrigation water storage, delivery, and distribution (Badenoch and Wanitpradit, 2006).

The nature of the governance challenges are not dissimilar to many upland forest areas in the countries of the Mekong region as national parks and watershed conservation areas expand while upland farmers try to maintain their livelihood security and resource use.

This chapter explores how upland farmers in northern Thailand, predominantly ethnic communities, are using local-level institutions to manage not only  resource scarcity such as seasonal water shortages but also resource constraints posed by state conservation laws and official development strategies.

The local politics of watershed management in northern Thailand is affected by wider watershed management discourses, government policies related to the uplands, in particular regulations and classification systems for land, and the feedbacks from actual livelihood and conservation practices.

Based on the authors’ research in the Upper Mae Hae and Khun Kan watershed areas, the chapter shows that upland farmers attempt to maintain farming livelihoods by using and adopting a range of local institutions such as traditional definitions and practices as well as local government agencies. Individual actors are seen taking on greater responsibilities and roles with respect to local institutions for watershed management.

Upland farmers attempt to frame their own definitions of “watershed” based on their cultural or customary values, transform earlier village-level institutions (Wanitpradit, 2005), drive collaboration among individual actors in positions of power, or redefine other new institutional set-ups from activities of several actors to retain control over livelihoods and upland landscapes (Prasit et al, 2006; Lebel et al, 2006).

The chapter uses case studies in the Upper Mae Hae and Khun Kan watersheds in northern Thailand to illustrate the negotiation and contestation between the different definitions and meanings of watershed and those who use it. The cases show the on-ground efforts of local-level actors including individual leadership, watershed networks that cut across administrative boundaries, and the local administrative organisation play their roles, shape their definitions and perspectives as well as further their diverse objectives in watershed management.

We think that the policy challenge for watershed governance in Thailand and the Mekong region is to provide an enabling policy framework that can be inclusive of upland—especially ethnic community—livelihoods, address resource access and scarcity, and resolve resource conflicts and tensions. This chapter is an attempt to further our understanding of upland watershed management and the roles of local institutions in order to widen the options for watershed governance policies in Thailand and the Mekong region.

The chapter is structured with the following sections: outline of the key contestations over upland watersheds in Thailand including how watershed as a concept is constructed; the different ways of viewing the watershed; case studies illustrating the local institutions and watershed management practices, and; discussions and conclusions.

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