21 October 2012

Conservation and Sustainability: Who Protects the Forests

One of the recurring themes that came up during our Unit Two trip was villagers having to prove themselves not only as the rightful owners of the land, but also as able and willing to take care of their land and forests in a sustainable manner.  Villagers seeking to prove themselves were most apparent in the villages of Huay Gon Tha and Huay Rahong.

These two villages are in a somewhat unique situation because their lands are located completely inside of the Phu Pha Daeng Wildlife Sanctuary.  In the last decade since the wildlife sanctuary was declared, villagers have faced charges of “causing global warming” for working on their small farms in the name of “conservation” and “preservation.”  More recently, the new head of the sanctuary, Mr. Kung, and the villagers have begun to work together towards a better conservation model, one that allows both villagers and officers of the Forest Industry Organization to participate.

On the one hand, Mr. Kung of the wildlife sanctuary seemed to have a lot of faith in the villagers, stating that, "I think the best people who can take care of the forest are the people who are actually living in the forest."  But, although he believes that the villagers can take care of the forest and that they are perhaps the most qualified to do so, they are not without the need for training and education for conservation.  Mr. Kung’s strategy is to encourage villagers to take ownership of conservation projects in their own communities, including building weirs, and keeping natural water sources clean. 

From the villagers’ perspective, their traditional way of life in itself is sustainable, and what they are really in need of is, perhaps, a good PR campaign.  They know that the global warming charges for small-scale farmers are irrational and based on junk science, and they know that they know more about the forest than any officer serving a 4-year rotation.  Even so, they have organized their own campaigns and activities to show the powers that be that they are serious about conservation efforts, including planting trees, protecting firewood, and organizing youth projects.  As the head of the Phu Pha Daeng Preservation Group in Huay Rahong stated, “We want to show the government that we [the local villagers] are the true protectors of the forest.”

While it may seem unjust at first that the villagers must prove the lifestyle that they have been living for generations to be “worthy” to outside forces, the need to do so may not be entirely unfounded.  Both wildlife sanctuary officials and villagers have confirmed that in several nearby villages, villagers have sold their land to private investors, as much as sixty percent in some areas.  In addition to land being sold, even villagers committed to sustainability and conservation admit that the communities are not necessarily united under these causes; both villages have portions of the population who do not care or are actively opposed to joint conservation efforts.  Villagers from the Phu Pha Daeng Preservation Group acknowledged the need to encourage more organic farming in the communities, where many families use chemical agriculture within the wildlife preserve.

With all of this information, it is difficult to know what kind of policy to implement for conservation efforts in Thailand.  Villagers, obviously on the lower end of the power relationship with the government, need to be both respected and involved in the process of forest preservation-- and certainly should not be demonized as they were in the early years of Phu Pha Daeng.  But government oversight may also be necessary, at least to some extent.  The Phu Pha Daeng model works well in this particular sanctuary because it was created directly by the stakeholders on the ground: officers and villagers. While the exact model may not work elsewhere, the approach seems to be a good choice; decisions about conservation should involve all parties to achieve the best results.

Erin Oakley
American University


Mallory West said...

This argument over what seems to be “forest entitlement” is so tricky, especially in this particular case between villagers and the wildlife sanctuary. Both parties keep trying to prove that they are the rightful stewards and guardians to this land in terms of its preservation, but what does preservation really entail? Is it building weirs, like the wildlife sanctuary is promoting? Or is it simply living off the land’s resources like these villagers have been doing for generations? Or, if we really get into technical definitions of preservation and conservation, would the land itself just be better left alone without further human intervention? This third scenario would obviously never be possible given the current state of the world and those private investors eager to develop land, and may not even be the ideal situation, but it is interesting to think about the fact we view nature as irrevocably bound to a custodian for survival in our current age.

April DesCombes said...

I also found it interesting that the sanctuary has said that villagers are in need of training and education when it come to living sustainably on the land. They have been living in the forest for hundreds of years, yet the government declared it a sanctuary then allowed businesses to come in, cut down trees and plant eucalyptus tree farms. I also feel that the trespassing and global warming charges are ridiculous. When the government drew the lines of the sanctuary they did not survey much of the land and drew right in the middle of villages. To add to that the government has not made the boundaries clear to the villagers. As far as the global warming charges, if the government is going to charge the villagers then they should also charge the lodging companies that they allow to destroy the forest. Throughout the semester the theme of the government not consulting the villagers has come up, it is also apparent in the case of the sanctuary as well.

Nicole Hale said...

The issue of conservation and preservation is far from being black and white in any country and coming to this realization in Thailand has been very difficult for me. It seems that no matter what nothing is corruption-free, especially not the government and unfortunately not even the villagers. So the question I always have is: What is the best way to create a system of governance or regulation that holds strong against corruption? Is it even possible to develop ways that are corruption-free? I certainly don’t hold the answers and I am not even sure if they are out there. However, I think you hit on a good method of governance when it comes to conservation that may be a step farther away from corruption. You stated that, “decisions about conservation should involve all parties to achieve the best results.” I couldn’t agree more. By involving all parties and having their participation in decisions made, needs are heard and better met. Not to mention by having everyone involved abuse by any one party can be better regulated and checked by the other. While this system is not gold, it is heading in a better direction than Thailand is right now with its current policies and methods of governance. Overall, what it comes down to is more of an emphasis on cooperation and mutual, peaceful coexistence.

Erin said...

Like Anya, I also was unaware of the way our National Parks in the US came to be. I was also unaware of how deeply rooted the American idea of “nature” is, even in my own head. It’s a little scary to think about how I’ve never questioned the concept of “pristine” wilderness and where it came from. After Unit Two, with all its readings and then the real-life version of what “emptying the wilderness” looks like here in Thailand, I am thinking a lot nature, and about the way I think about nature. I once heard a speech given about the National Park system in which the speaker proclaimed proudly that the United States had enough public national park land to cover half of France. Our National Park system is a source of national pride, and the idea has been exported to other countries looking to prove themselves worthy enough the “protect” their own forests and lands. No one ever seems to think about how the cost of “protection” is the destruction and disenfranchisement of local peoples.

Gargi said...

Money fuels everything. The villagers who sell their property for private investors do so in the effort to gain money. Sure, peaceful co-existence would be ideal. It would be great if all the villagers would be on board with living with the sanctuary as opposed to against it. It would be great if all sanctuary Heads honored the villagers lifestyle prior to claiming that land as a “sanctuary.” The sad truth is that money is always a factor in all issues. As stated in the entry, as much as 60% of villagers in nearby villages have sold their land to private investors. That is a significantly large number and to some people monetary profit just seems like the better solution than fighting for rights that may never be granted.