Governing the Mekong: Engaging in the Politics of Knowledge
Editors: Rajesh Daniel, Louis Lebel, Kanokwan Manorom
Publisher: SIRD, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (June 2013)
Download book flyer Governing Mekong Flyer_with TOC.
Publisher: SIRD, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (June 2013)
Download book flyer Governing Mekong Flyer_with TOC.
Xayaburi Dam: What Lies Behind
20-25 mins. (DVD) with English language narration and subtitles
Final film scheduled for release: April 2013
The US$3.5 billion (107 billion baht) Xayaburi Dam along the Lower Mekong, if built, would irreversibly change the ecology of the Mekong River, and threaten the fisheries and food security of millions of people in the Mekong region and beyond.
The first of a planned series of mainstream dams on the Mekong River, the dam is a joint development between the Government of Laos (GoL) and Thailand’s construction company Ch. Karnchang. Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has agreed to purchase 1,220 MW of electricity at a cost of 2.159 Baht per kilowatt-hour.
The Finnish Pöyry PLC (Publicly Listed Company) and its subsidiary Poyry Energy AG, one of the leading international consultant firms is involved as a consultant hired to do the impact assessment. Poyry has portrayed itself as a pioneer of green and sustainable economy with a slogan “Preparing the Plant”.
Although the social and ecological impacts of the dam could be huge and extending all the way to the Vietnam delta, the information and decision-making process appears less than transparent and the centralized energy-planning model is a point of controversy. Even before discussions went underway, Laos had started extensive construction work in preparation for building the dam.
For instance, the Pöyry study gave the green light for the project. But the Mekong River Commission (MRC) panel of experts declared in their Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) that the dam would disrupt the flow and likely affect fish habitats and life cycles. More than 200 species are found in this part of the river and the catch is estimated at 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes per year.
The SEA panel specifically recommended that a “10-year deferral be placed for mainstream hydropower development … to ensure that the necessary conditions to strengthen understanding of the natural systems as well as management and regulatory processes are conducted effectively”.
The film aims to:
1) give a human face for the project and its impacts so that people in different countries could relate to it and understand its importance
2) enable people to be heard that are normally less visible and/or underrepresented in the decision making
3) examine the international global linkages (Laos-Thailand-Finland) and the role and responsibilities of international actors such as consultant companies.
The film will highlight five critical questions and issues:
1) How transparent is the decision-making over the dam? What kinds of information are used to justify (consultants reports) and what is being missed (perspectives of fishers and others dependent on the river).
2) Is this dam necessary for electricity; whom does the hydropower benefit? Do Thailand’s existing energy plans mostly serve the interests of the state-owned electricity utility, energy companies, and the construction industry, rather than the needs of the regions’ electricity consumers?
3) What is the role and responsibilities of international actors/global linkages such as consultant companies in the region? For example: Pöyry is a company of significant national importance to Finland and it has portrayed itself as the pioneer of green and sustainable economy. How does this image match with its role in the Mekong dam projects (Xayaburi also Nam Ngum 2 and Yali)?
4) How sound is the energy planning of EGAT (Thailand) and Laos? Is EGAT’s energy planning part of the problem as it heavily promotes the development of new large-scale electricity generation plants, such as fossil-fuel fired power stations and hydropower dams, increasingly locking Thailand and the region into a “centralized electricity supply model”.
5) The impacts of the dam on the Mekong fisheries and the importance of capture fish to the people in the region.
Documentary (DVD), 47 min., in English w. subtitles in four Mekong region languages, 2011.
For about a year from mid-2010 to early 2011, my friend Carl Middleton and I travelled across the countries of the Mekong region with a video camera. Our objective was to film the extraordinary fish biodiversity of the Mekong River and its ecosystems not only through the eyes of the fishers who depend on the fishing but also those who make their livelihoods from selling and processing as well as those who cook and eat the fish as part of their daily meals.
We filmed fishers and fish sellers near rivers, streams, canals and wetlands, and talked to them about their relationship to the river, its fish and to markets near and far. We marvelled at the incredible number of ways that the fish catch is processed: fermented, smoked or dried, salted or marinated in spices. We ate many kinds of fish preparations in homes, markets and restaurants and talked to cooks and chefs and fish sellers about their favourite recipes and fish dishes.
At the end of a year we had about 50 hours of tapes that we edited into this 47 minute movie called …
“The Mekong: Grounds of Plenty”
A film about how the plentiful fisheries of the Mekong River and its tributary ecosystems provides a web of connections across livelihoods, food and culture in the Mekong region and beyond.
The rich fisheries and ecosystems of the Mekong River not only feed people living alongside the river but are crucial for the livelihoods of millions of people across mainland Southeast Asia.
The film shows how the fish from the Mekong River and its tributaries are caught and sold, cooked and consumed, by the people in the Mekong region.
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 (read more).
Filmed in over 30 locations across the Mekong region from Cambodia and Laos to Thailand and Vietnam.
Camera, Script and Producer: Rajesh Daniel
Executive Producer: Carl Middleton
Editor: Plengvut Plengplang
Produced by: Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience (M-POWER), Unit for Social and Environmental Research (USER) and International Rivers
Available for onscreen viewing at: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7225/The-Mekong—Grounds-of-Plenty.
The film was screened at:
“Siirretyt (Displaced)” film festival organized by the Siemenpuu Foundation on 10-12 October 2011.
Lifescapes Southeast Asian Film Festival in Chiang Mai on 2-5 February 2012.
Explorations on using video for improving research and communication in resource governance by Rajesh Daniel. Paper presented at the panel session on Filmed Ecologies: Possibilities and Challenges in Environmental Communication at the 11th International Conference on Thai Studies – Visions of the Future, held in Siam City Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand on July 26-28, 2011.
In recent years, it has become increasingly common to take cameras and videos to meetings, interviews and for fieldwork. In my research work in Thailand and the Mekong region, video was frequently used to complement a research project.
The use of video in social research has become more widespread and my own work and that of colleagues has evolved and benefited from learning about similar efforts in various fields. For example, Bateson and Mead (1942) were the pioneers in using visual image observation in the field of anthropology. Later the term “visual anthropology” gained wider use after Collier and Collier (1986)  who wrote a practical guide for using photography as a research method.
My primary use of video has been as a research tool in interviewing people and filming where and how they live and practice their livelihoods. One of the positives of video is it clearly communicates who and what we see, who we choose to listen, and to reach our conclusions. At the same time, the interviewees also grasp not only their own but also other’s viewpoints especially when put next to each other in an edited film.
Filming interviews and watching the recorded footage of seminars, as people’s perspectives were shown side by side on film, often helps to better understand the issues and people’s views, afford new insights into local resource or governance politics, and act as a more direct format for communicating ‘ethnography’.
There are also experiments using the video filming as a “process” and not just documentary film as a “product” that is obtained after hours of filming and editing. It seemed that the process of interviewing people and watching/listening to them on film by itself often helped break through difficult research situations such as when ethnic language was a barrier. The process of filming helped improve understanding of resource conflicts and sometimes even facilitated dialogue meetings on resource management.
This paper explores some experiences with video in Thailand and the Mekong region to draw lessons and reflections on the use of video in social science research and, in particular, in resource governance. It also poses some questions and ethical concerns about video technology as the format can lend itself to abuse. With digital video, it is as easy to show genuine scenes, as it is to move content and people out of context to serve certain interests and agendas.
The paper is structured in five parts. After this section one, the introduction, section two provides a brief background and literature review of the use of video in social science especially in the fields of anthropology and sociology. Section three briefly explains the use of video and some ideas about visual research, and why I think it’s useful to incorporate video, in particular as complementary to research.
Section four illustrates some of my video experiences from Thailand and the Mekong region, with some lessons and reflections as well as questions. For example, can video/visual research improve resource governance? Can the process of filming foster empowerment and participation? Or improve efforts to raise awareness on health and ecosystem related issues? It also looks at some of the challenges both technological and practical. The last section five is on video politics and ethical concerns related to the use of video in research that explores how video is not a neutral technology and there are significant questions of simplification, power and control when used in research.
For the full paper, please contact the author.
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
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.
Linking climate change risks and rights of mountain peoples in the Mekong
Xu Jianchu, Rajesh Daniel
Book chapter in: Lazarus K., Resurreccion B., Dao N., and Badenoch N. (Eds.) 2011. Rites of Access: Seeking Justice in Managing Mekong Region Waters. Earthscan, London. Vol 3 of the M-POWER book series.
A changed climate is already here as the world faces threats of disaster from more frequent and intense cyclones, heavy rainfall events, sea-level rise, and warmer temperatures with adverse effects on crops, ecosystems and human health (IPCC 2007a, 2007b). Much of the climate burdens are falling on the poor and marginalized peoples in developing countries bringing to light attention as much on the disasters and impacts they face as on issues of rights and justice with respect to the allocation of resources as well as burdens and risks (Kates 2000; Thomas and Twyman 2005). This chapter draws on the context of the uplands of the Mekong region to highlight the interconnected dimensions of climatic risks and the rights of those affected by climate change and development, in particular social and political rights[i] as enshrined in the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The uplands of the Mekong region within Montane Mainland Southeast Asia (MMSEA)[ii] comprise steep slopes and tectonic activities where natural hazards and risks are omnipresent. As a result of the seasonal shifts in monsoon weather patterns, a large part of upland Asia is exposed to increased annual floods and droughts (Bates et al, 2008). Climate change multiplies these risks. Available evidence shows that extreme fluctuations of climate such as rapid or sudden shifts in rainfall can result in either too much water causing loss of lives and property from flashfloods or too little water leading to drought, loss of crops and death of livestock (Xu et al, 2009).
Climate impacts are often socially constructed (Ribot, 2009). Apart from climate-induced risks, various government development policies, institutional settings and expansion of regional, national and international markets have also placed upland peoples in a position of greater vulnerability. The rapid pace of regional economic integration has meant that previously subsistence-oriented livelihoods are quickly shifting towards a market-orientation, often at the encouragement of the government. New cash crops are accompanied by new forms of financial management for local people, and debt has become a major concern across the uplands. In this period of transition, the risk of natural disaster has compounded economic implications for local livelihoods.
Response to climate change in terms of mitigation and adaptation can multiply risks as well. Structured measures for climate change adaptation such as embankments might redistribute flood risks (Lebel et al, 2007a) while hydropower development poses threats to river ecosystems and local livelihoods such as fisheries. Tree plantation projects, for instance, to earn carbon credits are taking away common lands and secondary forests used by upland communities (Adger et al, 2007; O’Brien et al, 2007).
Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) define risk as a joint product of knowledge about the future and consent about the most desired prospects. Living with multiple risks, poor and marginalized groups must manage the costs and benefits of overlapping natural, social, political and economic hazards (Xu and Rana, 2005; Ribot, 2009). The rural poor have successfully faced threats linked to climate variability in the past in forms of mobility, storage and communal pooling of water and other natural resources, diversification, architecture and market exchange in rural settings as the basic mechanisms through which households address risks in securing livelihoods (Agrawal, 2009).
The diversity of the Mekong uplands includes multiple livelihoods (from shifting cultivation in the humid tropics to nomadic herding on the high Tibetan plateau, from rice terraces to tea gardens), multiple ethnic cultures (more than fifty officially recognized ethnic nationalities and hundreds of linguistic groups), as well as numerous vulnerabilities (see Box 10.1).
While the upland peoples in the Mekong region experience both threats and opportunities from climate change or development actions, many people, in particular the economically poorer, face disproportionate vulnerabilities in terms of loss of livelihoods and assets in the face of climate variability and global change (Sen, 1981). This situation is exacerbated by the fact that upland peoples are frequently blamed for environmental risks in downstream and coastal areas, despite the complex and still poorly understood causal linkages between change in the mountains and change in lowland areas. As will be discussed further below, policies to halt perceived environmental degradation in the uplands has often resulted in increased vulnerability for upland people, while the risks to lowland society remain unmitigated.
Climate-related risks will have direct and indirect human rights impacts [iii]. Climate change is already undermining the realization of a broad range of internationally protected human rights: right to health and even life; right to food, water, shelter and property including access to natural resources; rights associated with livelihoods and culture; with migration and resettlement; and with personal security in the event of conflict (UNHCHR, 2009). Multiple climate and economic development-related risks impact on a range of rights including participation in decision-making (Molle et al, 2009).
Climate impact analyses that links to human rights can prove useful in formulating detailed policy and research agendas to inform overarching climate change policy options (ICHRP, 2008), including strategies for mitigation and adaptation, and for particular ecological settings such as the uplands in the Mekong region.
Adaptive management to global climate change can often lie beyond the capabilities of upland and indigenous people even though many communities are dealing with climate risks using their traditional and/or ecological knowledge systems. While recognizing that some groups are more resilient than others, the capabilities of local people and groups can be strengthened when appropriately assisted through partnerships with government and non-government organizations to ensure equitable access to resources and benefits. Yet low ‘capacity’ for adaptive management is often a product of constraints within the governance system of a country or region. Traditional ecological knowledge and environmental management practices are deeply rooted in local natural and cultural landscapes, but as upland areas are increasingly integrated into lowland social, economic and political systems, the pressures on indigenous and local knowledge increase. However, representation of upland people in national political processes is often constrained to varying degrees across the region. This means that what is perceived as a problem of many may actually be a problem of empowerment; thus the argument for inclusion of rights as a central component in considering risks from climate change.
Our analysis of the climate risks in the Mekong uplands through a rights-based approach tries to address the climate-related vulnerabilities including both natural and human-induced hazards for the upland peoples, in particular for the poorest, in the Mekong region. The chapter’s intent is to bring together three threads that in the authors’ view are not adequately addressed in the climate change discourse: viz. uplands, poor/marginalized people and their disproportionate risks, and the human rights dimension.
The risks-rights framework helps to better understand and address climate related risks and impacts in the uplands of the Mekong region and improve policies related to upland governance and climate change to benefit the poorer and marginalized peoples of the upland populations. Mapping geophysical hazards and socio-political constructed risks provides an entry point for concerted pro-poor climate change adaptation efforts.
The chapter includes the following sections: The risks analysis of geophysical hazards and climate change in the Mekong uplands; Accelerated risks and socially constructed vulnerabilities; The value and challenges in a rights-based approach; The risks-rights nexus towards integrating rights for living with risks; Potential strategies and means to cope with, as well as rebound after, climate risks and disasters; Discussion and conclusions about improving and incorporating local rights as well as addressing the adaptive capacity of upland peoples to climate change.
[ii] The Mekong uplands, lying within the larger context of Montane Mainland Southeast Asia (MMSEA), as defined in this chapter is a large, eco-region comprising about half of the land area of Cambodia, Laos, Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and China’s Yunnan Province. The headwaters of the Yangtze, Salween, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Red, Chao Phraya and Pearl Rivers are located within the MMSEA region that drain an area of nearly 4 million km2 and have impacts on the lives of more than 696 million people (Xu and Thomas, 2010). The MMSEA region can be further divided into an alpine zone (above 3,000 masl), a high mountain zone (between 1000~3,000 masl), and a low mountain zone (between 300~1000 masl). The term “uplands” is used here to describe areas in the montane and alpine zones (Thomas et al, 2008). Our definition centers on areas that are between 300 to 3,000 metres above sea level (masl) in elevation, and located within and across several river basins. The alpine zone, which is dominated by the high altitude Tibetan Plateau, is referred to as the ‘Water Tower of Asia’ (Xu et al, 2008), while the montane zone has been called the ‘Roof of Southeast Asia’ (Thomas et al, 2008).
[iii] Climate change will have implications for the enjoyment of human rights. The United Nations Human Rights Council recognized this in its “http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/climatechange/docs/Resolution_7_23.pdf” \t “_blank” resolution 7/23 “Human rights and climate change” (28 March 2008), expressing concern that climate change “poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the word” and requesting the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner to prepare a http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/climatechange/study.htm study on the relationship between climate change and human rights (“http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/climatechange/index.htm” http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/climatechange/index.htm, accessed 14 June 2010).
Democratizing Water Governance in the Mekong Region. 2007. Lebel, L., Dore, J., Daniel, R., Koma, Y.S. (Eds.) Silkworm Books/Mekong Press, Chiang Mai. 284 pages. http://www.mekongpress.com/catalog/detail.php?isbn=9789749511251.
Over the last few decades, the Mekong region has been facing complex pressures and challenges in water governance driven by a range of economic integration efforts and relationships motivated by national self-interest.
This book, the first in a four-volume series, brings together the work of researchers, scholars, activists, and leaders in the Mekong region to provide a baseline, state-of-knowledge review of the contemporary politics and discourses of water use, sharing, and management, and their implications for local livelihoods.
The chapters critically analyze contested discourses on such topics as regional hydropower development, floods, and irrigation, along with the broader yet interrelated issues of gender, media, dialogue, and impact assessment. The writers explore the interplay of power relationships between actors such as state planners, regional institutions, the private sector, and various water users, in particular, politically marginalized groups including women, urban and rural poor, and ethnic peoples. The diverse array of topics and perspectives provides a sound basis for engaging in policy-related action.
The book will appeal to a broad readership and, at the same time, contribute to the Mekong region’s search for democratic water governance options.
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. http://www.gerakbudaya.com/products-page/asian-studies/critical-states-environmental-challenges-to-development-in-monsoon-southeast-asia/
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. 2005. Daniel, R. (Ed.) Foundation for Ecological Recovery (PER), Bangkok. 220 pages. http://www.terraper.org/publications.php (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.
Book review published in the Bangkok Post, 8 June 2002
By Noel Rajesh
The upland forests of north Thailand have become an arena for intensely contested perspectives on forest protection as state forestry officials and some nature conservation groups attempt, in the name of forest conservation, to remove local communities, particularly hilltribe people living in and using these forest areas.
Overtly, the explanation (and subsequent solution) that is proposed by these nature conservationists seems simple and forceful: upland forests act as watersheds for lowland rivers and must therefore be kept free of human interaction.
On closer examination, however, this conservationist ideology crumbles, revealing a remarkable combination of pseudo-science, hidden falsehoods, power agendas, racial and anti-rural prejudices and, ultimately, unasked questions about who defines nature conservation and makes decisions about the use and protection of forests in Thailand.
Redefining Nature: Karen Ecological Knowledge and the Challenge to the Modern Conservation Paradigm explores the conservationist ideology and the themes surrounding it: the racial and anti-rural character of nature conservation imposed by the state, the power and politics involved in defining what counts as knowledge of nature conservation, and the struggle of the Karen ethnic people to protect their homes and fields as they engage and resist the politically powerful: the state foresters, policy-makers and nature conservationists. Author Pinkaew Laungaramsri, an anthropologist at Chiang Mai University, begins the book with the tragic story of the suicide in March 1997 of a Karen elder, Pati Punu Dokjimu (to whom the book is dedicated), from Huai Hoi village in Chiang Mai province.
About five years ago, the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) declared a national park that enclosed Pati Punu’s village. Ever since, Pati Punu lived in fear and uncertainty over his future and that of his children. Forestry officials randomly stomped over the swidden rice fields, not considering that their deliberate destruction of crops could mean starvation for many families; threats of arrest and resettlement became a daily nightmare; and people were often jailed when they cut down trees for house building or rice growing.
In March 1997, Pati Punu travelled to Bangkok to join in the demonstrations of hundreds of other ethnic people from the northern mountains whose homes and swiddens were taken over by the state in the name of nature conservation.
Pati Punu hoped that dialogue with the phu yai, the powerful state authorities, would make them sympathise and understand that the Karen people had lived and protected the forests for hundreds of years even before the phrase protected area” had come into existence, and there was nowhere else for the Karen to go if they were deprived of their land.
But the negotiations between the hill people’s representatives and the phu yai collapsed. The Deputy Minister of Agriculture declared that all the people living in upland watershed areas must opphayop ( resettle”), a word dreaded by forest-dwelling communities. On the way back to his homeland in the northern mountains, his heart heavy with grief, Pati Punu threw himself out of the train and died.
As Pinkaew movingly describes it, in a world in which freedom of choice is not granted to powerless hill people, Pati Punu had chosen the only path he had in his struggle for autonomy; the path that took away his life, but allowed him to remain Karen in soul and spirit.
Why are Pati Punu and hundreds of other villagers like him denied this freedom of choice over their forests and homelands? Why is it not possible for them to participate in making decisions over how to use and protect the forests, especially when their communities have sometimes been protecting these forests for hundreds of years? How did these powerful ideologies of protected areas or nationalparks come to be built? And who in fact makes these decisions?
Redefining Nature looks into these questions by unravelling the complex processes of power relations by which the modern concept of nature conservation has historically come into being in Thailand.
As Pinkaew states, the book searches for radical questions rather than tacit answers, and hidden falsehoods rather than unquestioned truth.
Within this process of building a nature conservation ideology, she explains how the Thai political establishment has deliberately constructed certain definitions and discourses that discriminate against ethnic hill peoples and their local knowledge.
However, this politics of nature conservation by the political establishment comprising foresters and nature conservationists is not going unchallenged. Pinkaew describes how the Karen ethnic people in Mae Ning Nai village in north Thailand respond in numerous creative and self-confident ways to reassert their political space, their Karen identity and their intimate knowledge of the forest ecosystem.
At one end, the book traces the origin and development of the state’s anti-peasant nature conservation ideas, introducing the reader to the thinking of foresters and nature conservationists and the emergence of forest conservation as representing the desire for the modernisation of the country.
A key feature of this development is how the modern Thai state adopted the concepts of nature conservation that can be termed as North American wilderness thinking, and the history of pa (forest) in Thai society and its changing meanings.
Within this narration runs one clear strand, what the author describes as a major stumbling block preventing foresters from considering the idea of co-management of forests with local people: An obstacle which, I came to realise later on, was a racial prejudice against ethnic-minority hill people.
This prejudice among foresters is so strong, definite, and decisive that it obviated the necessity of further truth finding about forest problems.”
Many social scientists and anthropologists have long pointed out that racial prejudice is inherent to, and actually forms a basic core of, the nature conservationist ideology.
Pinkaew states: In fact, what is repeatedly portrayed by the international conservationist idea of human/nature division is a human/human boundary which tends to reinforce or conceal class, ethnic, anti-agricultural, anti-commons or other discrimination in the allocation and permitted uses of land.”
Pinkaew cites the example of the Dhammanat Foundation (DM) in the Mae Soi Valley in Chiang Mai province, one of Thailand’s nature conservation groups, to illustrate how their forest conservation practice is closely allied to the politics of ethnic discrimination.
In advocating forest conservation in the Mae Soi area, DM states that the physical causes of forest destruction are community farming by slashing and burning headwater forests. For DM, part of the solution to this problem is in the relocation of the hill people.
As Pinkaew writes, this bio-centric ideology espoused by DM is not simply a celebration of nature rights, as is often claimed. In fact, what has been advocated is a type of conservation that counters the attempt by any non-Tai culture to contaminate the Tai nature:a new form of cultural racism which has developed and manifested in the movement to protect untouched head waters by DM.
But this hegemonic representation of poor ethnic minorities, however, is never constructed without contestation. Local contestation begins when forest authorities attempt to assert their power over local livelihoods.
The reader then enters one of the most compelling sections in the book where Pinkaew weaves an absorbing narrative about the Karen people of Mae Ning Nai village. Pinkaew takes us to their swidden rice fields, forests and their homes, relates their stories of the struggles to protect their livelihoods.
In the evenings after dinner, sitting around the fireplace, she engages the Karen in often tense yet lively dialogues where the Karen enter into and learn to encounter the debates about deforestation, and respond with wit and humour to the foresters’ views of hill tribes, the causes of forest destruction and the efforts of nature conservationists to resettle the hill people.
She writes: For them, the discussion was not simply a series of entertaining intellectual riddles, but a wager on a future of their own as well as of the generations to come. Through these difficult conversations, the multiple voices of concern especially those of women, often hidden in the shadows where the glimmering light of the lamp did not reach, began to speak loud in defending their swidden territory.”
These debates and dialogues produce another strategically very important outcome for the Karen: discussing government forestry maps, the Karen then decide to build their own map, a topographic model based on Karen perceptions, to prove their customary land use practices, and as a tool to defend their rights and to communicate effectively with forest authorities.
The author writes with an obvious enjoyment of and a deep empathy for the Karen communities and the rhythms of their daily lives based on forests, swidden fields, and fallows. Equally, she writes with a firm intellectual understanding about the main theme of the dominant nature conservationist ideology and its protagonists, the politics of racialisation, the conflicts that it engenders and the far-reaching impacts on local communities, particularly ethnic minorities living in the upland areas who are being targeted by the state for resettlement.
The book compels us to look afresh and question the power, ideology and prejudices behind the politics of nature conservation, if for nothing else because, by the end of the book, we realise that the survival of hundreds of communities dwelling in forest areas not just in Thailand but elsewhere in the Mekong Region is being threatened by it.