21 November 2011

Ethics of Forest Preservation

Transitioning from Unit 1 to Unit 2 has presented an unexpected experience - as if the glasses we wore for Unit 1 to read between the lines weren’t working well enough for our new unit. In Unit 1 (Agriculture), it was easy to see that chemical agriculture promoted by the government was clearly wrong and that organic, integrated agriculture was right but Unit 2 (Land) had more gray lines.

The general situation is as such - communities had lived in the forest for at least 50 years until the government came and set up national parks and wildlife sanctuaries around 1999. Afterwards, the interactions between the state and the communities became very tense - the park officials would constantly arrest the villagers for trespassing on their own land or forcibly remove them and destroy their crops. The villagers suffered from unclear boundaries and lack of cooperation from the courts and local leaders that hindered their process of attaining community land titles.

However, from analyzing the conflict of land titles and forest preservation, it seemed like the villagers weren’t completely right and the government wasn’t completely wrong either. The villagers were being denied their livelihoods and kicked off their land but they weren’t truly living sustainably in the forest. On the other hand, the government unfairly charged the villagers for trespassing and global warming but the officers had to enforce the laws set in place. So I began to see another argument - why should these villages be given a community land title if they didn’t practice sustainable development and drew an excessive amount of resources from the forests? Why couldn’t they live somewhere else so the forest preservation officers could do their job?

Hearing all the different opinions on forest preservation - I struggled to define my personal ethics on forest preservation to try and reconcile the differences. I wondered whether our values of conservation and preservation were subconsciously influenced by the American idea of an “untouched wilderness” that caused us to believe that perhaps these villages shouldn’t be living in the forests. Now I believe that people don’t belong anywhere else if not the forest - how often do we see such an intimate connection between individuals and the land? The conflicts mainly exist because of the lack of communication between the state and its citizens and the government’s unwillingness to change its outdated, inaccurate laws that directly clash with human rights principles. The gap between our ideal values and reality create this dichotomy I wasn’t fond of. I find myself wistfully wishing for a perfect world where these conflicts did not exist because the forestry departments preserved land the villagers weren’t living on and the villages always practiced sustainable agriculture.

But that would only happen in the world of What-Ifs two hundred steps back into the past. What counts is that one step forward. Many of the villages we talked with have created rules for community forest management and seeking sustainable development. The new officer of Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctuary even expressed hope for future cooperation and collaboration with forest communities to resolve issues.

In the end, I realized that despite the imperfections on both sides, reconciliation would be possible if we chose to look at the situation in the best light. The ethics of forest preservation exist not to judge but to guide. With that as a supplement to the Thai Constitution and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, we should support the fight against these human rights violations not because the communities are perfectly right but because they are perfectly human.

Mary Lim
Georgetown University


Eileen K. said...

In my personal opinion about forest preservation, I do believe in the American idea of an “untouched wilderness.” I honestly do not believe that humans can live in a forest without disrupting the natural environment, because of the human desire to turn resources into something considered more useful. For example, to live in the forest, you would need to make room for a house, for which you may have to cut down trees and shrubbery to make space for. By clearing out vegetation for a house, you could, not only damage the soil and its capacity to hold nutrients, but you may also destroy resources that wildlife depends on for food and shelter. If humans were to occupy the world’s forests, then I believe that humans would negatively change the natural ecological system in forests and use up a lot its resources. Thus, forest preservation is an important initiative of the Thai government.
On the flipside, I, also, personally believe that the government should not take land that is already being occupied by people- especially if it’s as much as 30 years- to be a part of a preserved forest. I do not think that it is productive to take land that people already have livelihoods on and have already made use of the land to be part of a preserved forest. In addition, human rights are taken away from people that are being evicted from land without just justification from the government.

Mariko Powers said...

Mary, I love the last sentence of your blog post. At the same time, however, I struggle with the idea that humans deserve certain rights no matter where they live. We’ve heard the argument repeatedly in each village we visit: that the villagers have been living on the land for (at least) decades and have the right to continue to work and reside there. While I agree with this argument, it also seems that if this claim is to be applied on a global scale it reinforces humans’ belief that they have the right to reside wherever they want in the world. I am not sure I support this belief because although I believe that human rights should be protected and upheld I do not necessarily think that humans’ rights should take precedent over the environment’s rights, and in some cases they do conflict. I understand that the idea of “untouched wilderness” is largely a Western concept and that communities don’t inherently live unsustainably on the land, but at the same time the world has to support a much larger human population that ever before, and with that comes necessary adaptations in how we interact with the environment.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that land rights issues became a lot more gray, and both the villagers and the preservation groups have very strong arguments. I think it is important to recognize that this is not just a two-sided argument. The reason there is this push for forest preservation comes down to the fact that the rest of the country is building up cities, the population is growing, and we are using more energy and resources than necessary. It's important for people besides the villagers and forest preservation officers to take responsibility in this issue and see that they play a huge role in the conflict. A lot of the problems we have learned about this semester come down to the fact that people who are not immediately affected by the issue are either ignorant or unwilling to change their habits until forced to. In coming to a resolution, all parties will need to make some sacrifice, including the population as a whole.

Jenny Vainberg said...

Mary, you make an excellent point in saying that Unit 2 was much more of a gray area compared with Unit 1. I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, which is why I also had issues with tackling the ethics behind preservation/conservation and it's role in society (whether Thai or not).

I like what you mention about villagers creating rules for how they use nearby forests, which will hopefully lead them to start acting more as environmental stewards. Something that Paw Praset said in an exchange struck me deeply and also goes along with what you’ve expressed in this passage. Of his village’s relationship with nature, he said, “The community relies on the forest. Without the forest, the villagers cannot live their lives. The soul of preserving nature is within every farmer.”

You mention that in a perfect world, this conflict wouldn’t exist and that (aside from the forestry department’s obligation to change) the villagers would practice sustainable agriculture. My question for you is how would one get villagers to practice sustainable agriculture, especially if they’ve already created a set of guidelines which they deem as ‘sustainable enough’?