Monday, May 18, 2009

Political Struggle in the Forest

The environmental movement in Thailand is, like the country's myriad ethnic groups, ever-changing. Government agencies, NGOs, citizens, corporate entities, and international actors constantly vie to shape environmental decision-making. Forest conservation in northern Thailand is an ideal case study to describe the implications of the environmental movement and seek a more socially-neutral forum for conservation.

Increasing state control over the periphery has been characteristic of Southeast Asian forestry (Hirsch 1998). The Thai state latched onto its rich natural resources base as a form of nation-building, a tool to gain legitimacy in a world dominated by a western view of modernity. Forests, and national parks in particular, are seen as "a landmark of modern civilization, a key element of the modern Thai nation-state, rendering forest destruction equivalent to destroying the nation" (Laungaramsri 2002). Actions to protect natural resources, in addition to building a positive international image, have been used by a succession of relatively weak Thai governments to gain popularity with the urban elite who are the repository of the country's wealth and much political power. There is little incentive to consider the needs of peripheral hill tribes, many of whose members are not even Thai citizens. In fact, it could be political suicide to support hill tribe claims and risk inciting the ire of the nation's most politically-savvy, well-connected folks. The goals of the urban elite have been furthered by such actions as the 1989 ban on logging and goals to put 15% of all Thai land under conservation plans. Watershed and wildlife have been main priorities for decades, but the benefits of conservation to the global climate crisis are beginning to top the list, as well.

The wilderness ethic perpetuated by the central government has had dire implications for rural communities, especially the poor and marginalized minority groups living in upland forests. A growing "civil society" in Thailand has reacted against this conception of nature and many grassroots activists have combined social and environmental concerns-- greens who bleed red. Some argue that removing agrarian communities from lands deemed Protected Areas (PAs) is fundamentally wrongheaded because it causes more environmental degradation outside of park boundaries and give displaced communities no incentive to protect the land. Instead, many activists argue that park officials should empower and harness the energy of communities to remain sustainably on and protect the land. Because of this counter-current, community forestry has gained recent legitimacy despite its "decentralized, grassroots, vernacular approach" (Hirsch 1998). The King has played another significant role in supporting the plight of subsistence communities living in proposed PAs.

Despite a popular movement towards rights-based sustainable development and human-inclusive conservation regimes, hill tribes face prejudice because they are often portrayed as forest destroyers. For ethnic Karen, the creation of PAs around their traditional lands has resulted in political and social pressure, forcing them to mobilize in order to protect rights to land use and livelihood. Traditionally, the Karen practiced upland rotational agriculture, also known as "swidden" agriculture or rai mun wian. Rai cultivation had cultural significance as the main form of subsistence and an integral part of courtship rituals, and ecological significance as a richly biodiverse planting system with long fallow periods for the regeneration of soil. Current pressures forced this ethnic minority to set out the "Karen consensus," a narrative of an economy based on self-sufficiency, sustainable land use, and communal land management. Walker, however, argues that this consensus, while going a long way toward establishing legitimacy for resource use of upland communities, ultimately boxes the culture in with certain "primordial attributes" and may prove problematic for Karen communities or individuals "seeking modest (re)engagement with... commercial networks" (Walker 2001). For example, the increasing importance of paddy fields (na) has been downplayed in order to emphasize the traditional rai cultivation, even though paddy fields have proved just an environmentally benign and their acknowledgment in the consensus might entitle communities to needed irrigation water.

However limiting the consensus might be, there is no denying that the image of the Karen has changed in their favor. They are now viewed by many in Thailand and around the world as forest guardians, in contrast to other hill tribes like the Hmong. But image only goes so far. In cases where an unstable government seeks land for political and national economic gain, legal protection is also necessary. To this end, a Community Forestry Bill was proposed in 1990 to codify the rights and responsibilities of communities dwelling in PAs. A people's version of the bill was submitted along with 50,000 petition signatures, but the final version signed into law in 2007 had none of the provisions of the people's version. NGO workers and upland communities viewed the final version as a failure (Walker 2007).

Government is not the only source of authority in Thai society, however. The Karen have developed creative ways of protecting their rights, most notably through Community Based Tourism (CBT) and working with NGOs. The Karen in Huai Poo Long subdistrict aim to develop people-to-people interactions and build awareness worldwide about their way of life through CBT. Communities host groups of students and international tourists throughout the year. Outsiders form relationships with villagers and are transformed into powerful stakeholders. Measures of success might be an ongoing relationship with an organization like ISDSI, or Mackenzie returning multiple times to bring other people or donate money to the temple construction. Working with NGOs has benefited communities through the development of maps and land use zoning, making of documentaries, gaining media attention, etc (Huai Tong Gow Community Meeting). Communities and NGOs often work together to "counter-map" a village's traditional lands and set aside plots for use of forest resources, agriculture, conservation, and other classifications. The skills for this type of data organization are taught to villagers, who them possess tools and knowledge to negotiate with government officials (Forsyth and Walker 2008). Like the "Karen consensus," however, mapping can also box in "claims whose very strength had previously lain in their flexibility, dynamism, and lack of restriction by territorialization" (Hirsch 1998). Villages in Huai Poo Ling not only have maps, but also have 10 years plans which can be supplied to authorities quickly and describe exactly which land will be used by which family for which purpose (Huai Tong Gow COmmunity Meeting).

Huai Poo Ling subdistrict is not perhaps the best example of a struggling upland community. To be sure, they have had their share of hardship and uncertainty, but the villages in the sub-district have been established for several centuries on the same (or nearly the same) sites. The big question of "how does one define a 'community'" is less of an issue because it is clear that the villages are both "an identifiable group of settlers with a common interest" and "a defined territory to be managed by those who happen to live there" (Hirsch 1998). Real conflicts arise in areas where little to no commonalities exist between resource users, or a community has been on a piece of land for a relatively short amount of time. The residents of Huai Poo Long enjoy a solid, established community with power and rapport at the sub-district level. Notably, they even seem to have veto power as the communities have been successful in preventing both a development scheme on Doi Pui summit and a superhighway tunnel through the mountains nearby.

Both the Doi Pui scheme and the the tunnel are examples of the government's penchant for projects in favor of upper classes, with burdens falling on the shoulders of the lower classes. Of course, the government is not all bad. Looking beyond the rampant corruption, the government has taken increasing interest in caring for peripheral communities like the hill tribes by providing education, health care, and many other services. Villagers seem to be happy with the budget allocation for the subdistrict. Whether this new wave of care is due to the perceived security threat posed by peripheral communities or because of the genuine feeling that civil rights should be extended to all within Thai borders, one cannot be sure. It is clear that the central Thai state has a bigger role than ever before in Huai Poo Ling. The latest development deals with the tenure of village headmen. Headmen were originally elected to 4-year terms, but the law was recently changed to state that once a headman is elected, he/she will remain in that position until retirement at the age of 60. Villagers view this law as a way for the government to have more control at the village level by setting the stage for community leaders who serve more as officials carrying out orders from above than politicians responding directly to the needs of the local community (Huai Tong Gow Community Meeting). But just as increasing access to town has had minimal effect on the main lifestyle of the Karen villages, this new law has been got around by at least two resilient communities. The headman in Huai Hee resigned after a 5 year term because he did not make a good headman. The headman at Huai Tong Gow expressed plans to hold a formal reflection and evaluation of his performance after 5 years to be sure that his community is happy with his leadership. If not, he indicated that he would be happy to step down. Systems designed for societies that lack internal trust just don't make sense in societies that operate on such a high level of social accountability. If the resilient villages in Huai Poo Ling can retain their agency despite the designs of the central state, there is certainly hope.

A better policy than top-down development might be what Hirsch calls the "co-management approach." Local control is supported by an NGO or government agency with access to a wider scope of information and tools. Community ownership and agency in development is retained. Huai Tong Gow has been successful in using a co-management approach, of sorts. Community members and the Thai-German Project teamed up several years ago to develop a map system for the village lands that is in active use today.

If these Karen communities are as resilient as they seem to be, perhaps drawing them closer into the national fold will ultimately be positive for maintaining or even legalizing their use of the land. National recognition might mean a seat the table and more legitimacy. Yet, danger lurks in this idea, too, because the intrusion of the state is changing Karen culture in visible ways that may eventually undermine the traditional way of life the Karen have worked so hard to protect.

Cultures should be preserved and respected, but the reality of our changing planet means that compromises will have to be made on international and local scales. Some might say that it is part of the American Dream for every citizen to drive a 4WD, gas-guzzling SUV, but in light of the global climate crisis it may be necessary to curb this particular attribute of our culture. On an increasingly crowded planet with growing problems, the burdens and benefits of life on Earth should be shared equally among all inhabitants.

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