21 November 2011

Is There Room for Thailand at the Preservation Table?

I’m confused and uncomfortable. I’d even venture to say that it feels like I’m in a state of mental limbo of sorts.

I left my beloved Ann Arbor this past summer and descended upon Thailand thinking I knew exactly where I stood in terms of my own environmental ethics and practices. I mean as someone who is finishing her last year as an undergraduate I should know.

My views were challenged on a recent unit trip we took, the topic of which was land rights. The problems that the communities we exchanged with encountered mostly revolved around their relationship with nationally established wildlife sanctuaries nearby, which are essentially preservation areas. At the core of the issue was rights to the land and accessibility to resources on said land. In many cases, the villagers had been living in a given area and growing crops there or foraging in a nearby forest for several generations. However, the establishment of a sanctuary resulted in drawing of boundary lines that excluded villagers from their land and denied them access to resources they’d been reliant on for decades.

To anyone who has even a basic understanding of what preservation means, it might seem logical that the wildlife sanctuary severely limits villagers access to resources within the sanctuary’s boundaries. It makes little sense to have a preservation, the purpose of which is to protect an ecosystem and all of it’s components, only to let people come in and take things to sell or use for their personal consumption. At least this is the viewpoint I more or less adopted. I’ll defer to Aldo Leopold, the father of ecocentrism, who came up with a fantastic working definition of preservation in The Land Ethic when he said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

I have good intentions behind why I believe preservation of unique ecosystems is important in that I like to think there’s intrinsic value in nature. Thus, the importance of preserving such ecosystems outweighs human reliance on or desire to use and [potentially] exploit such resources.

However, I came to find that my view is too simplistic in the case of Thailand. This is not a country where wilderness was overpowered in favor of industrialization and thus confined to an existence in national and state parks. Thailand is still green, and very green at that. With this in mind, I wonder if the western idea of what preservation means is appropriate for Thailand. I don’t mean imply that I think Thailand should not be concerned with preserving its ecosystems; rather I think that a different definition of preservation is more feasible and applicable here. Of course I don’t hold the answer to this question, but I am starting to recognize some of the components that might prove useful for such redefinition in the context of Thailand.

In the past two months I have been here, the fog has started to clear and I’m coming to understand that the culture behind peoples’ interactions with nature here is totally different than in the US. Villagers here have a longstanding relationship with the land that many of us have lost touch with back home. Given that their livelihoods are dependent on their immediate surroundings, many villagers show genuine respect and appreciation for nature. I think they see both the intrinsic and instrumental value in nature, which is why they’re able to strike a balance between using nature but also cherishing it given that their lives, and the lives of their predecessors, depend on the preservation of such a relationship. Thus the western construct of what preservation is seems inappropriate in the case of Thailand, and possibly the rest of the global South, given that the western ethic it is based on is also completely different.

In an exchange we had during this unit, the way that the leader of Huay Ra Hong [village], Paw Praset, explained the relationship between people and nature is telling. In response to a question one of us asked, he said without any hesitation, “The community relies on the forest. Without the forest, the villagers cannot live their lives. The soul of preserving nature is within every farmer.”

So does preservation have to be put in the hands of a national organization, such as government, or is this idea simply one way to practice preservation?

Jenny Vainberg
University of Michigan


Joe Stzempko said...

Jenny, in this post you have illuminated what is a very difficult situation in which there are really no easy fixes. Preservation of the environment is obviously a critical issue and one that is certainly worth a great deal of sacrifice and inconvenience on our part. However, I would not go so far as to agree with Mr. Leopold that the ethics of land use can be simplified into “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” To me this is overly rigid and simplistic to apply to real life and, more importantly, ignores the human element. Are the livelihoods of those who have the least in this world really worth sacrificing in order to preserve some pretty flower or some rare bird? This case illuminates the dilemma that is central to most efforts in community development: a choice between the lesser of two evils.
-Joe Strzempko CIEE SL Dominican Republic,
Clark University

Morgan Tarrant said...

Jenny, thank you for your thoughts on land conservation. I find myself agreeing with you that a Western idea of the preservation seems inappropriate for Thailand. I have also thought about how vastly different relationship and culture related to land for non-farming Americans. This has led me to consider that entrusting people with the role of conserving land is viable in the case of Thailand and potentially in other pockets of the global South. I consider the people we have stayed with as stewards of the land in a way the government seems incapable of replacing with distinct boundaries. I wonder if the next generation of villagers felt they had the same ownership and stewardship over these natural resources, if they would stay in villages and further invest in farming skills. It seems the state’s ultimate ownership over land and large scaled development projects creates insecurity in pursuing the same lifestyle as their parents’ generation. One question might be, how do we equip the next generation to continue this stewardship of the land.

Anonymous said...

Jenny, “...I wonder if the western idea of what preservation means is appropriate for Thailand.”
I think the Western idea of preservation is appropriate for the West. Western ideas cannot be applied to the whole world, because every small town, every country, every region is unique. In the United States, preservation is important because the land and environment have been so brutally abused. It seems that in an organic farming community, where there is respect for the land, the land is already being preserved. (Forgive me if I am ignoring a precise definition of preservation.) If the Thai people of that community use that land in a sustainable way, unlike much land is used in West, then putting red tape around that territory will only harm the people that use it in a healthy way. And, to Joe Strzempko, “some pretty flower or some rare bird” does not need to be sacrificed for one to use the earth in a sustainable way--there can be harmony between man and nature.

But now even considering what I have said about the West, it is difficult to generalize. I think for somebody from the United States, it is difficult to imagine when preservation is actually harmful to a community, but preservation in the West can come at a price too. For example, preservation of Native American lands have pushed Native Americans out of the land that they had used for hundreds of years in a sustainable way. When contemplating this issue, it is always important to understand the context of the land that is preserved, to consider who suggests its preservation, and whose interests it serves.

Natalia Salazar, CIEE SL, Dominican Republic, Clark University

Jenn F said...

Jenny, I’ve had such conflicting thoughts on the topic of land rights. I agree that there are rights that should be granted given that the villagers we’ve exchanged with have worked on that land for decades but the environmental consequences of these people (I hesitate to call them indigenous) are becoming more evident as the years go on. In 1945 61% of Thailand was covered in forest land but by 1975 that declined to 34%. The rapid deforestation of Thailand has caused the extinction of many large predatory species, including tigers which are almost entirely bred in captivity at this point. It’s hard for me to lobby for villagers to continue using land and precious resources when they have been irresponsible by practicing unsustainable farming techniques for so many years. I understand that the forest is a source of culture and resources for many people but it’s hard for me to be on their side when they have been clearing forests so they can grow eucalyptus and rubber trees and continue to build new structures without making an effort to replant trees. I think there is a compromise that can be reached but at the moment my vote is for the creation of more preservation forests.

Charlotte Kaye, CIEE Service-Learning Santiago said...

Great point! I love the idea of giving land back to the people. This process was actually implemented in Namibia. They created an interesting and unique system that has been working out thus far. Part of this system involves the instigation of a practice of eco-tourism. I think this would be a great implementation for many developing countries including Thailand and the Dominican Republic. Eco-tourism allows countries to use the land in a safe manner while still gaining revenue and access to it. Preserving wildlife is also key to eco-tourism practices because they need to preserve the cool wildlife in order to attract tourists. The use the wildlife in their natural environment for profit. At least in the DR, and sounds similar in Thailand, the resources are at their fingertips, they just need to figure out how to employ them in a sustainable, eco-friendly, profitable way. Thanks for your post, it really got me thinking!