TEACH: Ritual and Ecology in Southeast Asia

I’m very pleased that I have been awarded a grant from the Presidential Initiative on Curricular Renewal (PICR) here at Macalester College. The topic of this year’s PICR grants was ‘sustainability,’ and the class for which I received the grant is titled Ritual and Ecology in Southeast Asia.

Here’s the description of the class from the grant proposal (after the jump):

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Sounding on Archaeology for June 21, 2010

There’s been some pretty crazy-great archeological news out there.  Some of the stuff I starred to point out specifically, recently, were these:


Milton Osborne: The Mekong River Under Threat

Read this. Dr. Osborne has been a scholar and authority on Southeast Asia for many years, having written crucial texts, including one biography of Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk which all Cambodianists should read.  He has also had a long-standing interest and authoritative position on the Mekong, having authored a wonderful history of European attempts to achieve its headwaters, and most recently, a more contemporary and scientific examination of the Mekong and the (already going on but oftentimes described as ‘impending’) water wars. His bio at the Japan Focus site (which includes directions for getting to the entire paper by Osborne at the bottom of the page) follows this excerpt.

The Mekong River Under Threat

Milton Osborne

Until the 1980s the Mekong River flowed freely for 4,900 kilometres from its 5,100-metre high source in Tibet to the coast of Vietnam, where it finally poured into the South China Sea. The Mekong is the world’s twelfth longest river, and the eighth or tenth largest, in terms of the 475 billion cubic metres of water it discharges annually. Then and now it passes through or by China, Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is Southeast Asia’s longest river, but 44% of its course is in China, a fact of capital importance for its ecology and the problems associated with its governance.

The Mekong is Southeast Asia’s largest river, seen here at sunset in Luang Prabang, Laos. (Photograph by Milton Osborne)

In 1980 not only were there no dams on its course, but much of the river could not be used for sizeable, long-distance navigation because of the great barrier of the Khone Falls, located just above the border between Cambodia and Laos, and the repeated rapids and obstacles that marked its course in Laos and China. Indeed, no exaggeration is involved in noting that the Mekong’s overall physical configuration in 1980 was remarkably little changed from that existing when it was explored by the French Mekong Expedition that travelled painfully up the river from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to Jinghong in southern Yunnan in 1866 and 1867. This was the first European expedition to explore the Mekong from southern Vietnam into China and to produce an accurate map of its course to that point.

Since 2003, the most substantial changes to the Mekong’s character below China have related to navigation. Following a major program to clear obstacles from the Mekong begun early in the present decade, a regular navigation service now exists between southern Yunnan and the northern Thai river port of Chiang Saen. It is not clear whether the Chinese, who promoted the concept of these clearances and carried out the work involved, still wish to develop navigation further down the river, as was previously their plan. To date, the environmental effects of the navigation clearances have been of a limited character.

read the rest here.

The Mekong at Sunset near Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by M. Osborne

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Arsenic in the Mekong: Not Good, Not Tasty, Not Right

After surveying wells along the Mekong, which flows through Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and governments concluded that as many as 1.7 million people were at risk of arsenic poisoning, whose long-term symptoms include skin lesions and cancer.

Twenty-one percent of the Vietnamese population is exposed to arsenic above the World Health Organization's acceptable level of 10ppb (parts per billion). It is found not just in groundwater but in bottled water, tap water, even fish, according to the Vietnam Ministry of Health.

In Cambodia and Laos, the precise numbers of people exposed to arsenic contamination is not yet known, though UNICEF and government agencies are compiling a report to be released later this year.

In some provinces along the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, residents are exposed to 30 times the acceptable level of arsenic, according to data from the Vietnam Ministry of Health.

Water containing arsenic above 300ppb could cause cancer within three to four years, the Health Ministry said.

via IRIN Asia | Asia | Cambodia | CAMBODIA: Arsenic in Mekong putting 1.7 million at risk | Early Warning Environment Health & Nutrition Water & Sanitation | News Item


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.