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Review: Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers, by Andrew Walker and Tim Forsyth

I finished reading Andrew Walker (of New Mandala blogospheric fame) and Tim Forsyth’s new book, Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers. The politics of environmental knowledge in Northern Thailand, out from University of Washington Press. (amazon)

This is an excellent, careful, critical, and engaged piece of work. I am not competent to evaluate the science of the book, though what level of competency I possess does not balk at its conclusions, even those most supposedly controversial. Perhaps the best example of the latter is the idea that a dense amount of tree cover in upland watersheds does not lead directly and uncomplicatedly to increased water flow (in dry or wet seasons), a commonly-held assertion in the lowlands.

The main point of the book revolves around the fact that environmental knowledge in Thailand has been portrayed and constructed (and then used) according to a problem which has already been closed. This problem, discussed as “problem closure,” (discussed in Tim Forsyth’s previous book) is crucial. When the problem’s definition prevents fresh, democratic, and honest approaches that allow for multiple solutions to real problems (rather than forcing all potential solutions to address predefined problems), there can be little genuine progress.

Closing-or defining-problems in such singular ways limits the range and perceived purpose of information to predefined objectives, and hence restricts attention to [sic?] alternative ways of experiencing or explaining environmental change. (238 )

Walker and Forsyth address particular issues chapter by chapter, including the power of environmental narratives, upland agriculture and its transformation by ethnic-Thai initiated reforms, the relationship between forests and water – especially downstream water availabilitiy, erosion, chemical use, and biodiversity.

A key theme that ties all of the chapters together is the use of upland ethnic minority groups – especially the Hmong – as stereotypes of ignorant farmers responsible for destroying the environment in general, and the prospects of lowland ethnically Thai farmers in particular. This is where the arguments tend to be the most effective, and rightly so. As the authors state in their introduction, the book is not intended to be an encompassing survey of environmental knowledge or policy in Thailand (let alone elsewhere), but rather an examination of the politics of environmental knowledge. Specifically,

This book challenges common presentations of environmental crisis in northern Thailand. The intention is not to deny the existence of environmental problems, but to argue that common explorations that link upland agriculture with environmental degradation are overly simplistic and do not provide a sound basis for addressing the challenges of upland resource management. Moreover, the tendency for the debate about environmental degradation to regularly revert to distinctions between ‘forest guardians’ and ‘forest destroyers’ is unproductive and socially unjust. (25)

In tackling the various issues addressed, the authors manage to convince the reader – at least, this reader, but I was already there, I suppose – that traditional upland agriculture is not damaging, and that the transformations that have emerged in upland agriculture (cabbages as the most visible example, for instance) is neither an uncomplicated nor clear-cut cause of difficulty. More clearly and persuasively yet, they discuss (in the chapter on Water Demand) the fact that the questions are posed in precisely a way that prevents any clear understanding of the overall issues: water provision in the uplands is directly related to water demand in the lowlands, though the questions are delinked, so that water demand is not normally studied, and and lack is attributed to the ‘savage uplanders.’

I confess, however, that I felt an itch at the back of my head throughout the reading of this book, and my discomfort led me to take longer reading it than I normally would require. What was the source of this feeling? After lengthy consideration, I think that my concern comes from the fact that the book itself seems to implicitly rest within a very instrumental problem closure of its own: directed seemingly toward policy-makers, it must make obscure some of the tensions which most directly animate the discussions under review, and give short shrift to others that the authors themselves recognize as crucial. That is to say, I got the persistent feeling that the authors’ implicit focus on policy obscured the force of their arguments and weakened what could have been an even stronger book.

First, the book is a scientific-political book which appears to aim at policy-oriented, state-based solutions. The state, as the authors finally mention in a brief three and a half pages toward the very end of the book (“Environmental knowledge is linked to statemaking.” [cf. Tilly] (231-234) is in many ways the dominant party involved in the transformation of upland agriculture and the various conflicts that exist regarding it. But there are few direct criticisms of this, or intimations that non-state solutions might be pursued alongside policy formulations: the book seems very loaded toward the policy angle.

I suppose we might say, “Who can blame them?” Certainly, no other institution has the level of power and practical ability to implement environmental planning changes in Thailand as the Thai state. And the need for rapid change appears to be crucial (though some of the felt peril is addressed in this book as a sort of unscientific amnesia and narrative force, rather than based on real experience). However, by orienting a book like this so fully toward policy, we do miss out on precisely the opportunities farmers – Thai and non-Thai – have to make changes in their own practices.

Perhaps more significantly, I felt a real lack of clarity existed in the discussion of the ethnic divisions between lowland and upland, the ethnic superiority (read: racism) of the lowland cultures against the upland, and the long-term and well-studied role of lowland cultural institutions in demonizing and then incorporating upland, non-wet-rice-based agricultures.

The stories in this book constantly revolve around the demonization by lowland Thai farmers and environmental groups of the upland agriculturalists whom they see as stealing or destroying ‘their’ water. The uplanders, on the other hand, are real people trying to make it in a world that has made its restrictions on their traditional agricultures clear, and provided them with new and different niches. Even occupying their assigned niches does not protect them from the denigration of their lowland fellows, which may be as strong an argument against a nation-state-based policy as I would care to make.

There is a stunning quote from a Buddhist monk (traditionally both religious and agricultural missionaries in upland Southeast Asia, as well, apparently, as in ancient India) included in the book that illustrates the sort of racism that uplanders must contend with. The monk, Phra Phongsak, claims that

Man coexisting with the forest: that’s a romantic idea, little more than wishful thinking. People still talk about it because that’s the way they’d like things to be. The hill tribe population is growing rapidly. They don’t just farm to live, they farm to sell and with the support of vested interest groups. They have TVs, motorcycles, and cars. [quoted in Fahn 2003:145] (96)

Precisely these sorts of statements continue to be made regarding Native Americans in the United States: somehow, indigenous groups, or upland groups, are supposed to retain their traditional methods and remain in relative financial poverty while the settlers and the lowlanders grow them out of space. The possession of TVs, motorcycles, and cars (I’ve even heard ‘medicine’) somehow is supposed to display the evil and grasping nature of the uplanders.

This division, while clear throughout the book, never really becomes the central argument that it seems it must. Perhaps this is because, as a policy-oriented book, emphasizing the ethnic tensions could sink its chances of seeping into the paternalistic Thai policy machine.

Towards the end of the book, the most concrete suggestions are made, and they happily settle into what must be described as a radical program of democratization, whether the authors would countenance that characterization or not. Arguing that environmental knowledge must be more politicized, the authors argue that

a more politicized account of how environmental knowledge is formed is necessary before assuming that it provides an accurate basis for explaining environmental problems or for indicating appropriate regulatory responses. (228 )

The concrete suggestions are threefold: (1) Redefine Problems (by increasing participation), (2) Use diverse knowledge claims critically, (3) Diversify expertise and increase participation. All leading to a (very good) emphasis on Participatory Land-Use Planning. (pp. 238-246) Essentially, in other words, numbers 1 and 3 both argue that increasing participation in thinking about and planning agricultural practices will help to create new solutions. The second one is a bit more tendentious, since it implies that someone must be empowered to dismiss or authorize the outcomes of such participatory planning, but perhaps that was not intended.

Overall, and in spite of these problems, this book is vitally important, concrete, well-positioned in debates about land-use, culture, and policy, and, hopefully, will become widely read and used; perhaps even by those bureaucrats who have so far done so poorly in ‘managing’ the northern Thai environment. Walker and Forsyth deserve to be complimented on this important achievement, and undoubtedly will be. Anyone interested in mainland Southeast Asia should read this book, for in it are many challenges to the conventional wisdoms of local knowledge (as long as it is the possession of lowland, dominant ethnic-group), and the effects of narratives in environmental politics.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers, by Andrew Walker and Tim Forsyth

  1. andrewwalker says:

    Hi Erik, thanks for this very thoughtful review. I think your critical comment are fair, though I would like to make a couple of brief comments in response.

    1. First, yes, I suppose the book does have a strong “policy” focus. But we were also trying to show that there are broader “narratives” that tend to shape both official policy and alternative responses (such as the responses put forward by some NGOs). You are right, however, in suggesting that local practice takes something of a back seat in this book, though we tried to have an emphasis on case studies.

    2. Second, could we have put more emphasis on ethnic divisions, even racism? Perhaps. But another of our aims was to show that popular environmental narratives seem to inform both very negative attitudes towards uplanders (the “forest destroyers” perspective that you rightly refer to as racist) and also much more sympathetic perspectives (the forest guardians perspective). My view is that there is a subtle interplay and mutual reinforcement between these positive and negative perspectives and some of this would have been lost with an over-reliance on a racism/ethnic prejudice framework.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful and thought provoking comments.

    Andrew Walker

  2. erikwdavis says:

    Dear Andrew, thanks for engaging and commenting with this review of your – let me say again – excellent book. Both of your comments are well taken. I remain somewhat unhappy with the policy focus, but that would be true, I imagine of my reactions, of any book with a policy focus. And since I don’t want to arrogate the right to tell people not to write policy-oriented books, the criticism can be gently brushed aside. Also, your point about the narratives driving policy is well taken.

    I am in complete agreement with you on the inter-relation of the forest-guardian/forest-destroyer perspectives, though I will say that I think that the supposedly positive views of uplanders as forest guardians is quite comfortably described as racist. As is true of First Americans and indigenous peoples all over the world, the Environmental Native is a role that *must* be played fully, and cannot be. This ‘positive’ depiction is therefore an ideal against which real people will always fall short, and therefore be ‘justifiably’ condemned (not ‘real’ Indians, not ‘good’ uplanders, etc., etc.).

    At any rate, the influence of racism (and the genuine applicability or non-applicability of the term in Southeast Asia) are complex discussions for another time. In the interim, congratulations on an excellent work.

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