Critical States: Environmental Challenges to Development in Monsoon Southeast Asia

Critical States: Environmental Challenges to Development in Monsoon Southeast Asia. 2009.  Lebel, L., Snidvongs, A., Chen, C.-T.A., Daniel, R. (Eds.) Gerakbudaya, Kuala Lumpur. 473 pages.

The peoples of Southeast Asia share a common need for action: a proactive engagement with and forward-looking response to the multi-level environmental and social changes which are redefining vulnerabilities and opportunities in development.

Extraordinarily rapid economic development has radically transformed urban-industrial, agrarian and marine environments throughout Southeast Asia. Future development is now being constrained by the consequences of decades of largely unregulated exploitation of the region’s rich natural resources and biodiversity. It has also increased or altered the vulnerabilities of Southeast Asian populations to both climatic variability and global economic shifts.

Critical States provides transboundary “state-of-the-science” reviews, case studies, and assessments of issues in the environmental change-development nexus, including: governance and institutional challenges, urbanization, climate change, poverty, and land-energy-water use.

After the Logging Ban: Politics of Forest Management in Thailand

After the Logging Ban: Politics of Forest Management in Thailand. 2005. Daniel, R. (Ed.) Foundation for Ecological Recovery (PER), Bangkok. 220 pages. (price 350 baht).

The book reviews the state of forests and forest policies in Thailand and shows why the nationwide ban on logging concessions declared in 1989 seems to have had little or no effect in halting forest degradation.

The book reveals how Thailand’s often corrupt forestry industry is exploiting forest resources not just in the country but across its borders such as in Burma and Cambodia, while other efforts to cash in on forest areas such as establishing large-scale tree plantations are bringing their own set of ecological problems and social conflicts.

In examining the critical problems with the forest conservation ideology of the Thai state, the book unveils how conservation areas such as national parks are placing more restrictions on access to forest resources by local communities as well as discouraging local forest conservation efforts. Meanwhile, important legal initiatives for increased local control over forests including the “People’s Community Forest Bill”  are struggling to materialize.

The book points to new ways to build social spaces towards strengthening community-based resource management and reverse the present trends of forest destruction in Thailand.

The Mekong: Grounds of Plenty

DVD, 47 min, in English w. subtitles in four Mekong region languages, 2011.

The story of how fish from the Mekong River is caught and sold, cooked and consumed, by the people in the Mekong region.

A healthy Mekong River is central to mainland Southeast Asia’s food security. The rich wild capture fisheries of the Mekong River and its ecosystems feed not only people living alongside the river but are crucial for the livelihoods of millions of people across mainland Southeast Asia.

Caught using an array of nets, baskets and traps, and cooked in many amazing ways, the wild fish catch provides protein and essential nutrients. Yet, the interconnection between the Mekong River’s well-being and the fish on a family’s plate is not so apparent in the urban centers.

The film shows the Mekong River’s wild fish being caught and processed, and its passage through networks of trade as people work through the night and day to transport the catch to villages and towns, to markets, homes and restaurants.

Filmed in over 30 locations across the Mekong region

from Cambodia and Laos to Thailand and Vietnam.

Produced by: Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience (M-POWER), Unit for Social and Environmental Research (USER) and International Rivers.

For DVD copies please contact:;

Full version available online at:—Grounds-of-Plenty.

Short version:

Exec. Producer: Carl Middleton

Script, Camera, Producer: Rajesh Daniel

The film was screened at:

1. “Siirretyt (Displaced)” film festival organized by the Siemenpuu Foundation, Helsinki, 10-12 October 2011.

2. “Lifescapes” Southeast Asian film festival, Payap University, Chiang Mai,  2-5 February 2012.





Grounds of Plenty_Flyer

The craft of film-making

“So you’ve finished a film recently?” the academic from a well-known university asked. The tone was one of amusement, as if she had found a mouse under her chair and it was dead. “So you’ve found a dead mouse under my chair?”.

I replied yes, it had taken some time but now it’s finally done after a year and a half. She asked, “So what was your role in the film?”. I said quite matter-of-factly, “I did the camera and was the director”.

“Ah, the technical stuff?” she queried, and gave a disparaging laugh.

Yes, the technical stuff. The research, then the script reworked and revised and then revised some more, the camera work across four countries and around 30 locations working from early dawn to late night in all kinds of situations. The transcripts of interviews and the translations from the four regional languages, and the final painstaking corrections of the English language subtitles. And then the long, long hours of editing, trying to turn 50 hours of footage into a 47 minute film. Yes, all very “technical”. I was upset that my creativity was not being recognised. Then I realised, why be ashamed of this word technical. Yes, film-making is indeed technical. It’s not that different from a university engineer building a bridge or a 60 storey building.

Yes, film-making is a craft, not only an art, and it takes a lot of patience and skill and time and energy. And yes, it takes a lot of knowledge about what one is doing. It seems in this multimedia digital era, where a child can (and often does) cut and paste digital footage into a film (and that’s a good thing, the ease of technology), it’s often forgotten that documentary film-making can still require so much of the film-maker.

It’s easy to dismiss a documentary filmmaker. It seems we have to be Al Gore or Mike Moore to be perceived as a good documentary maker. But in this digital day and age, even a 10 second clip on a mobile phone can become a documentary film depending on its content. And then we have an effort like ours – 47 minutes after more than a year of hard work. And I do say “ours”, because this film was due to not just long hours but an effort of collaboration by many people, those who funded us, did research for us, helped us to go to the right locations and gave advice. Sometimes it was people we had just met for the first time who allowed us into their busy lives, who simply assented to go on camera to tell us about their work and fears, to trust in us. To be disparaging of such a collaborative effort is not only inhumane but more simply to lack any imagination whatsoever.

We need to welcome all kinds of efforts at multimedia, not just from the Gore’s and Moore’s. From the simple mobile telephone-handheld 10 minute shot of a dam inside Burma (taken at great risk to the videomaker) to the 3 hour-long feature, we need to relish and revel in their efforts. If one is socially activist, why be restricted to just words at a seminar or the written article. Why not multimedia, when the power of the visual can provide such clarity to a life situation. If one wants to be engaged in the public sphere, why would one wish to denigrate the power of film, or the small efforts of the filmmaker as she or he tries to bring some small slice of reality in the visual medium into your lives.

My new book is out …

Sustainable Production Consumption Systems: Knowledge, Engagement and Practice
Edited By Lebel Louis, Sylvia Lorek, Rajesh Daniel
Publisher: Springer Netherlands
Subject: Earth and Environmental Science, Sustainable Development and Social Sciences, general

It has my chapter: Agrofuels in Thailand: Policies, Practices and Prospects (co-authored with Louis Lebel and Shabbir H. Gheewala)

Book overview
Sustainable Production Consumption Systems brings together a set of designed case studies intended to provide a more in-depth understanding of challenges and opportunities in bringing knowledge and actions closer together for the sustainable management of specific production and consumption systems. The case study approach enabled researchers to engage directly with some of the actors involved in the production, consumption or regulation of specific goods or services and other stakeholders affected by those processes. Such engagement was particularly worthwhile when it helped mobilize actors to pursue linking knowledge with action in ways that improve the prospects for sustainability.

Copes can be ordered from:

The year of living in intimacy … and imperfection

Two weddings including a trip to India. The birth of my son. Contemplating this year leaves me with the “is this really happening to me” feeling in a good way. Suddenly it seemed everything fell into place in life in a compressed space of time. While this was the wonderful episode of life in 2010, the struggles for me as a husband and parent were also going on in the background.

Managing to travel back and forth between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, doing a film on Mekong fishing were the livelihood stuff. Trying to spend as much time as possible with my son watching him grow was the life stuff. In the middle of both, was the effort to get our marriage going as my wife and I learnt intimacy.

Though we had spent time together, we had never really lived together and we were sharing a space that soon also had our son in it. Saying that we were at hand and watched our son grow can mean something wonderful to people who hear about it, but we think only those who have been parents to a new born fully understand and appreciate the miracles, misapprehensions and misunderstandings that it brings to the relationship.

Having to wake up in the middle of the nights is sometimes not quite the worst thing in the world. There are other worse things involving bickering, late-night emotions, terse replies that leave each other feeling bad until we meet again. But its also good to realise that all of above actually happens (thank god) only about 5 percent of the time. The rest of the time we’re quite contented in many imperfect ways. We cook for each other burning the occasional omelette, take trips around Bangkok with our son and get caught in traffic, enjoy our evening walks showing him around the trees and birds in our condo, look for toys and shirts anticipating what we’re going to get him when he grows up. When my wife comes back form work, its often with a beer for me, and I bring back steamed corn for her. When she is out working all day, I set aside my computer and take care of Rawin; we switch at night as I start work and she plays with him. Striving for imperfection or at least giving ourselves up to it has helped us forgive our imperfect selves and brought us a measure of intimacy.

Here’s thanks to 2009. And looking forward to more intimacy and imperfection in 2010 and the many years ahead. Cheers!


Rawin in Chiang Mai

In November, we took Rawin on a flight for the first time in his life. He was just 5 months old. The trip to Chiang Mai was mainly to get his tourist visa to India at the friendly Indian consul in Chiang Mai. And it was also a test run for us to check out and prepare Rawin for our slightly longer flight to India in January 2010.

Rawin … from Tagore

We started looking for a name for our baby when Tuk was about six months pregnant. In Thailand (and unlike India where it is actually illegal), doctors are free to tell the parents the sex of the baby upon request. Actually we had preferred to not know and did not plan to formally request our doctor. But once while doing the ultrasound scan, he casually asked us if we wanted to know; as we paused and looked at each other in some confusion, he told us that it was a boy, and that he was very healthy. It wasn’t a big deal after that. It also meant we could start searching for a name.
Our search for names extended to Thai, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu and even Persian. With just one scoping condition: that it should begin with the sound of “ra” – thus similar to our names Rajesh and Ratchaneewan. A month before our son was born, we had whittled our selection down to a “top 3”. But we were still not totally satisfied with any of them. Until one day Tuk and I were chatting and she asked me “why not Rawin?”. We both liked it at once. It struck me as being inspired by, and also sounding like, the first part of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the famous poet, writer and philosopher of India whom we both liked and who was also well-known in Thailand for his song “Gitanjali” (which is translated into Thai).
Rabindranath (or also sometimes Ravindranath) is most well-known as a poet but he was much much more. He was an extraordinarily creative and versatile person bringing out sublime prose and poetry and plays as well as songs, music and painting. He was also active in the politics of his time being a reformer and critic of colonialism. His writings reflected his critical perspectives on topics ranging from Indian nationalism and identity, to caste, ethnic and religious conflicts and violence. In the early 1930s, he lectured and wrote poems and dramas criticizing India’s “abnormal caste consciousness” and the practice of untouchability. An important aspect of his life was his contribution to religious and philosophical literature through his collection of essays like “The Religion of Man” and the very beautiful and touching “Sadhana: The Realization of Life” (see excerpt below). The essays in “Toward Universal Man” also show him as a social and political theorist.
Tagore was a musician, a vocal performer as well as composer. Apart from writing eight novels and four novellas, he composed more than 2,000 songs. He developed a new style of vocal music which is called, after him, Rabindra-sangit. His “Gitanjali” or “songs offering” about divine and human love is his best-known collection for which he won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature (becoming Asia’s first Nobel laureate). Two of his songs are the national anthems of Bangladesh and India: Amar Shonar Bangla and Jana Gana Mana (Thou Art the Ruler of All Minds) respectively.
In 1922, Santiniketan (abode of peace), the school he had founded at Bolpur in 1901, was expanded into the Visva-Bharati University with a curriculum that emphasized social reform, international unity, and rural reconstruction.
Tagore traveled widely across Europe, North and South America and Southeast Asia including Japan and Indonesia. His writings after his travels in Southeast Asia were compiled in “Jatri”. He visited Bangkok on his way home to India from Java and Bali in 1927. Following that visit, he wrote poems on the “Buddhist spirit of Siam” and the maitri or fraternity of the Borobudur of Java. In Bangkok, Tagore was received by the King and Queen of Thailand along with two other members of the royal family: Prince Damrong (a collector of Siamese art) and Prince Chantabun (publisher of the Siamese Tripitaka). Tagore gave lectures in Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

The man whose acquaintance with the world does not lead
him deeper than science leads him, will never understand what it
is that the man with the spiritual vision finds in these natural
phenomena. The water does not merely cleanse his limbs, but it
purifies his heart; for it touches his soul. The earth does not
merely hold his body, but it gladdens his mind; for its contact
is more than a physical contact–it is a living presence. When a
man does not realise his kinship with the world, he lives in a
prison-house whose walls are alien to him. When he meets the
eternal spirit in all objects, then is he emancipated, for then
he discovers the fullest significance of the world into which he
is born; then he finds himself in perfect truth, and his harmony
with the all is established …
When man’s consciousness is restricted only to the immediate
vicinity of his human self, the deeper roots of his nature do not
find their permanent soil, his spirit is ever on the brink of
starvation, and in the place of healthful strength he substitutes
rounds of stimulation. Then it is that man misses his inner
perspective and measures his greatness by its bulk and
not by its vital link with the infinite, judges his activity
by its movement and not by the repose of perfection–the repose
which is in the starry heavens, in the ever-flowing
rhythmic dance of creation.

From Tagore’s “Sadhana: The Realization of Life”,
Ch 1: The Relation of the Individual to the Universe.


The sleep that flits on baby’s eyes — does anybody know from where it comes? Yes, there is a rumour that it has its dwelling where, in the fairy village among shadows of the forest dimly lit with glow-worms, there hang two timid buds of enchantment. From there it comes to kiss baby’s eyes. The smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps — does anybody know where it was born? Yes, there is a rumour that a young pale beam of a crescent moon touched the edge of a vanishing autumn cloud, and there the smile was first born in the dream of a dew-washed morning—the smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps. The sweet, soft freshness that blooms on baby’s limbs — does anybody know where it was hidden so long? Yes, when the mother was a young girl it lay pervading her heart in tender and silent mystery of love—the sweet, soft freshness that has bloomed on baby’s limbs.
From “Gitanjali” by Rabindranath Tagore (p.61).