Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers

My recent reading has led me through sort of a triptych of perspectives on Thailand and forest ecology, starting with the overview A Land on Fire by James Fahn, moving on to Thai Forestry: A Critical History by Ann Danaiya Usher, and finishing (sort of) with Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers by Tim Forsyth and Andrew Walker.

Forest Guardians may be the most thought-provoking and disruptive of the three. It’s central point is that no field of knowledge, not excluding ecology, is untouched by discrimination against the powerless.

Its thesis is that narratives of ecological degradation in Thailand are significantly influenced by entrenched attitudes about the hill tribe peoples, particularly the Karen and Hmong. These attitudes encourage the majority culture to uncritically accept inaccurate portrayals of upland ecology which place the blame for environmental decline on the least powerful people in the nation: marginalized hill tribe populations.

Central among the environmental narratives that Forsyth and Walker interrogate is the idea that upland forests are essential for the water supply in the lowland watersheds. According to this narrative, uplands deforestation has led to decreased rainfall and lower stream-flow in the valleys. Cut down the forest, destroy the water cycle–so goes the conventional story.

But the hydrology is more complicated than that. Though lowlands areas have experienced water shortages in the past few decades, and though forests are certainly important for water cycles worldwide, the facts are that Thailand’s rainfall is linked to broader weather patterns, most likely unlinked to local forestation levels. And dry season stream-flow shows an at best ambiguous relationship to upland forest cover in most trials.

A more unbiased assessment would seem to indicate that the cause of recent water shortages has much more to do with downstream water demand than upstream water supply. During the same period that deforestation occurred in Thailand (mostly due to government-sanctioned logging, not hill tribe agriculture, by the way), there was also a great increase in dry-season cropping–farmers planting a second crop of rice or corn using irrigation during the dry season. This intensification seems to be the most likely cause for water shortages, not the upland shifting agriculture that lowland farmers typically blame.

Forsyth and Walker explore these power dynamics through other environmental narratives as well, analyzing popular conceptions of erosion, chemical use and biodiversity. In each of them, their point is not to deny the existence of environmental degradation, but to reveal how power dynamics and ethnic profiling have led to false conclusions about the extent and cause of environmental problems.

They argue that popular images of the Karen people romanticize them as “forest guardians” living in unsullied commune with nature–much as North Americans tend to romanticize Native American tribes. This romanticized vision implicitly removes them from the rights and concerns reserved for the modernizing majority population. Meanwhile the Hmong are demonized as “forest destroyers” because of their association with opium production and pioneer agriculture (clearing virgin forest).

Both of these profiles justify political marginalization for the hill tribe peoples. Neither the guardians or destroyers are offered the same economic rights as the majority population, and neither are fully consulted in the process of defining the ecological challenges of the upland environment.

Forest Guardians, Forest Destroyers is a powerful reminder that injustice can be found in all human endeavors–including environmental protection. The message I came away with is that we can not take conventional wisdom for granted–in any field–without seeking the perspective of the more marginalized and powerless people involved.


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