Power and prejudice in forest conservation

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.

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