Forestry, Politics and Violent Conflict

by Larry Lohmann

first published 1 June 1999


Violence over and against forests cannot be explained by population increase nor by other linear, office-bound models of change which pit abstracted “humans” against an abstracted “nature”. For example, many hundreds of years of forest violence in England centred mainly on local people’s struggle for their rights to use the forests. These rights were continually threatened, yet also partly defined, by both exchange economies and elite economies. Similarly, during the US war in Viet Nam, violence over and against forests was closely tied up not with the ways in which local people made their livelihoods but primarily with a “technowar” theory developed half a world away.

This essay was orginally published in Ecology and Violent Conflict, edited by Mohamed Suliman and published by Zed Books, London.




Forests, many intellectuals assume, are threatened above all by two things: people and progress. "If you took our planet and just put one human being on it," Lord Melchett, Greenpeace's president, said in a recent interview,

"that human being would be consuming resources which otherwise would be available for nature -- for wildlife, for wild animals, plants, whatever. Two human beings consume twice as much, and a million consume a million times as much... Everything we do impacts on nature and to my mind what we need to concentrate on is limiting that impact" (Melchett 1997).

Environmentalists and others are accustomed to viewing the history of forests as one of continuous decline from some earlier, better-adjusted age, whether this is identified as pre-human, pre-agricultural, pre-industrial, pre-colonial, or pre-development. They conclude that as forests become scarcer, the stage is set for more and more violent conflicts over the goods they provide. Some also claim that as ecosystems and traditional management systems deteriorate, "primordial ethnic hatreds" are likely to resurface with devastating effect, particularly in the Third World. Thus journalist Robert Kaplan, in a 1994 article faxed by the US government to its embassies throughout the world, accounted for conflict in the forests of eastern and southern Sierra Leone by pointing to the anarchic results of what he perceived to be the natural proclivity of Africans to populate their countries to the point of environmental collapse (Kaplan 1994).

The weaknesses of such views of forest change and forest conflict are well known. Contesting the belief that there is an inherent tension between forests and human habitation, for example, historian Stephen Pyne has called attention to the way oak, pine, teak, sal, eucalyptus and other forests have evolved together with anthropogenic fire, pointing out that to ban human-made fire from a forest is typically not to "restore a former, prelapsarian state, but to fashion an ecosystem that has never before existed" (Pyne 1982, 1995). Arriving at similar conclusions, anthropologists such as Melissa Leach, James Fairhead, and Darrell Posey analyze instances in Africa and Latin America in which farming and local community management have caused forest islands, which might otherwise have disappeared or never arisen, to expand (Fairhead and Leach 1995, 1996; Posey 1985, 1990). Anthropologist Paul Richards, meanwhile, has disposed of Malthusian explanations for recent armed conflict in Sierra Leone and Liberia by showing it is a response to political failures involving state recession and not to environmental changes, to which local people are well able to adapt through social and technical inventiveness (Richards 1996). More generally, a large and powerful grouping of historians and social scientists, among them scholars such as E. P. Thompson, Douglas Hay, and Theda Skocpol, have rejected the view that violence, including forest violence, is a matter of the mechanical reactions of individuals to regularities visible from the office or laboratory -- to population increases, economic stimuli or supposed primordial animosities (Thompson 1963, Hay 1975, Skocpol 1979). Rather, they have stressed, violence is generally either a subordinate part of larger structures of power tied up with languages, values, narratives and cultures, or the result of a breakdown of, or inability to extend, that power. Understanding violent conflict, on this view, means taking seriously the differences among specific societies and histories.

The "people -- progress -- primordial hatreds" model of forest degradation and forest conflict, however, is simply too convenient for many intellectuals of a certain class or administrative bent to abandon easily. Its advantages are many. By appealing to supposed universal, impersonal human tendencies and a single line of "progress" which all societies must follow, it enables bureaucrats to draw conclusions about any region from the comfortable distance of the meeting hall, classroom, or laboratory. By invoking supposed inevitable, immutable, unreasoning aspects of human nature, it avoids sensitive political and economic issues, attributing conflict to natural forces and the tensions between a few eternally-fixed "ethnic identities" -- neither of which can be changed, but only "contained" by enlightened administration. Given the appeal of this model, it often seems beside the point to observe that it is usually worthless in accounting for any specific instance of violent conflict involving forests. That is not its function, which is not to explain so much as to mark boundaries between certain groups of middle-class intellectuals and the lower orders whose steps they wish to direct. However much evidence is offered against the model -- and it would be impossible to discredit it comprehensively in the short space of one chapter -- it is likely to crop up again and again in future discussions about the environment.

All the same, for observers without a prior stake in any single explanation of violent conflict involving forests, some specific examples may help suggest the shortcomings of the "people -- progress -- primordial hatreds" account. The approach of this chapter will be simply to tell two such stories of forest violence and then to question the extent to which the model illuminates them. The implicit further question for readers' experience and common sense is whether the model is capable of explaining other cases of forest violence any better.

The first story is set in England. Here the course of forest violence over a period of 800 years refuses obstinately to be mapped onto population graphs or to follow directly any line of technical "progress". Here, too, forest conflict has shaped, as much as been shaped by, the politics of identity. In seeking to understand it, it is difficult to avoid coming to grips not only with, for example, how different regions responded to the industrial revolution, but also with such arcana as local cuisine and the role of commerce in forest animals in class differentiation.

A second story relates to a much briefer stretch of time, that of the Viet Nam war. Here it is perhaps even more striking how little light is shed on forest violence by, for example, abstract theories of population-environment relations. More fruitful accounts must turn instead to such matters as international politics, the US culture of technocracy, and revolutionary strategy.

Forests in England: Unending Conflict

Up through the 18th, the first part of the 19th, and, to some extent, even some of the 20th centuries, dwellers in forest-endowed parts of England lived off local woods to a degree difficult for urbanites to imagine today. Farmers, tenants and cottagers might release their livestock into forests to forage or graze them on wood-pastures, special landscapes where trees had been trimmed to allow crops of poles to sprout out of reach of grazing animals yet also encourage the growth of grass underneath. For the poor, this was often the only pasture available, and often made the difference between subsistence and destitution. Meanwhile, villagers might meet fuel needs by picking up deadwood from the ground or breaking off smaller branches of trees by hand or with a metal hook or a crooked pole. (The expression "by hook or by crook", as William Cobbett noted, still applies "to those cases where people will have a thing by one means or another" (Cobbett 1930: I, 53).) Gorse was meanwhile collected to fire brick- or pottery-kilns, lime-kilns or bread ovens. Hazel poles were harvested and woven into frames used for gates and fishing weirs and wood lopped or shredded off trees to be made into fences and carts. Timber might be cut to be used for ploughs or doors, furniture and frames of houses; wood taken away for hop-poles, barns, baskets, wagons, spades, clothes-pegs, brushes, ladders, and rakes; and wood-ash used for potash and dyes. In the spring, bark was stripped and cleaned to be used for tanning or sometimes rope-making, or osier peeled for basket-making. In autumn, pigs might be let loose to fatten on acorns or beech-mast; in the 11th century woods were sometimes measured according to how many swine they could support. Autumn, too, was the season for cutting peat or turves for fuel, and the best time to collect mushrooms, hunt or snare rabbits, and gather bracken or fern for horse-bedding or pig-litter. Stone and gravel could be dug for house construction and clay for bricks and dams, as well as sand, marl, chalk, loam and iron ore. Fish could be caught in woodland streams, and rushes cut for thatching and lighting. In season, woods were also sources of honey, herbal medicines, watercress, blackberries, edible birds, birds' eggs, hazelnuts, fruit, briars, moss, and other useful goods. Forests drew specialized industries as well. Blacksmiths, glassmakers, bakeries, meat-smokers, smelters and mobile forges required easy access to wood or charcoal fuel; common English surnames such as Wright, Sawyer, Smith, Carpenter, Cutler, Fowler, Tanner, Wheeler, Cooper (barrel-maker) and Turner (maker of turned implements like dishes and cups) were concentrated early on in woodland zones (Rackham 1986, Kitteringham 1975, Birrell 1980, Stamp and Hoskins 1963, Eversley 1910).

Forest areas, with their abundant pastures, relatively scattered settlements, low density of gentry, and difficulty of cultivation, helped poorer rural dwellers keep their distance from big landlords and agricultural improvers. In addition, although forest areas were also economically unstable and often dependent on grain imports, their comparative remoteness, inability to exclude outsiders, plentiful use-rights and opportunities for land and industrial employments attracted dispossessed or impoverished migrants and outlaws on the run; not for nothing was it the home of idealized rebel figures such as Robin Hood. This in turn often fostered further development of non-agricultural industries such as nail-making. The rural campaigner William Cobbett observed in his tours of the countryside in the early 19th century that the "labouring people ... invariably do best in the woodland and forest and wild countries. Where the mighty grasper has all under his eye, they can get but little". As elsewhere in Europe, the forest was the "poor's overcoat", protecting not only against want, but also against attempts to increase outside surveillance and control in cleared agricultural regions (Pettit 1968; Cobbett 1930: I, 233; Manning, 1988: 255; Thirsk 1967: IV, 97-8; Appleby 1976; Westoby 1988).

Ordinary rural dwellers' need for forest access had to mesh not only with the claims of their fellows from the community and outside, but also with those of manorial lords, monarchs, and industry. In the forest where commoners exercised rights to deadwood or turf or fodder, the local lord was likely, from at least as early as the 11th century, to hold the soil, the minerals under it, and the trunks of its trees that grew on it, while the Crown might well have arrogated to itself the right to keep deer and, in order to protect them, appoint forest rangers, hold forest courts, and pocket fines for infractions of special forest laws (Rackham 1976: 174; Birrell 1987: 41).

Conflict was inherent in this situation. Over many centuries, at least two interrelated and overlapping but distinguishable types of economy hedged in or threatened, yet also helped indirectly to define, coincident forest use-rights. First, manorial lords and the Crown, as well as their agents, faced perpetual temptations, shaped in part by the ups and downs of the agricultural and wood economies, population decreases and increases, and pressures for more intensive agriculture, as well as the state of their own fortunes and alliances, to encroach on or tighten regulation of access to the forest for material or financial gain. Royal hunting forests and deer parks, for example, were made to yield a flow of fines from the middle ages, and in the 13th century rising prices and craving for luxuries motivated seigneurs to try to squeeze more income from forest commons through wood sales, clearance, and fees for use. In the 14th century plague deaths led to labour shortages and wage rises, pushing lords into selling lands which were then enclosed for sheep pastures, which expanded again in the 16th century following the growth of the European cloth industry. In the 17th century the Crown tried to raise money by leasing or selling royal forests to agricultural improvers, compensating commoners for lost coincident rights over large areas of "waste" with small private plots of land, and attempts were made to enclose part of the Forest of Dean in southern England for timber. Manorial lords and gentry meanwhile took over still more land in woodland areas to build and rent out cottages to the landless for profit. Commercial rabbit warrens became profit-making ventures at the expense of local pastures. Growing sanction and means for industrial capitalist enterprise further encouraged enclosure attempts. In the mid-18th century in Cumbria, for example, some landowners' investments in mines, harbors, and other enterprises, together with a growing market for pit props, bobbins, shipbuilding, and charcoal for iron smelting and gunpowder, impelled them to new efforts to cash in on their forests, resulting in an assault on tenants' rights to take wood for repair or subsistence (Birrell 1987: 35, 41, 45; Manning 1988: 55; Sharp 1980; Hay 1975; Searle 1985: 127).

Throughout this process, the law slowly came to treat forest commons more and more as the marketable absolute property of landholders, with poorer commoners receiving little compensation for their loss. In 1235 the Statute of Merton had already given lords the right to take over forest commons on their estates, as long as enough was left for their tenants. Gateward's Case of 1607, in which judges ruled that rights to a local common belonged not to just any inhabitant, but only to those with an "interest" in a house, also came to be used to divide poorer villagers from local forests. As the industrial revolution advanced, forest use-rights were threatened further as "customs of manors were scrutinized in new ways by stewards and by lawyers, whose employers saw property in new and more marketable ways" (Thompson 1975b). The exercise of many commons rights was stigmatized, sharpening already-raging battles over rights to firewood. Parliamentary statutes in 1663 and 1671 made it an offense to gather wood from royal forests, and in 1766, when wood had grown even more commercially valuable, it became a statutory crime to cut or break branches off oak, beech, ash, or other timber trees. Intellectuals' attacks on commons rights, from Locke to Malthus and W. F. Lloyd, meanwhile became increasingly confident and peremptory.

Another set of conditions which often hemmed in and defined forest use-rights grew out of aristocrat-dominated economies of prestige, gifts, patronage and martial violence in which forests were either a prize, or an arena of contention, or both. For royals and their imitators, forests were from the middle ages onward a "supreme status symbol and a source of gifts money could not buy" (Rackham 1986: 131-35). These gifts included above all deer. In English, the original meaning of "forest" -- which originally referred to an expanse of largely unwooded ground -- was more political than biological: the word meant "place of deer for royal use", not "place of trees"; it was only by prevention of clearing and customary fire practices that such areas became more heavily wooded. Parks, meanwhile, were private, fenced-off deer preserves for a largely urban-based aristocracy. Landscape parks and gardens, the fashion for which also spread rapidly from royalty downwards, came to serve as additional marks of prestige; the word "park", more than "forest", has kept this connotation of exclusivity and urban-centeredness through subsequent eras of city, national and wildlife parks, golf courses, biosphere reserves, and the growth of a global middle class. Other important transferable tokens of status connected with forests included hunting privileges, giant oaks, and sinecures in the forest bureaucracy. In the 14th century, for example, the cash-strapped Edward III was able to get rid of a debt of what would be nearly $750,000 in today's money just by giving his creditor permission to hunt in Hatfield Forest. His successor Richard II rewarded faithful functionary Geoffrey Chaucer with the under-forestership of a minor royal forest in Somerset. Even as the cash nexus ramified and solidified, the "deer and game nexus" connected with elite preserves remained important to hereditary elites partly because it offered them an arena of status competition in which they could hold an edge over nouveaux riches and other upstarts. Royals, peers, and gentlemen worked hard to keep hunting privileges to themselves. Hunting, even on one's own land, was restricted in 1389 to those who possessed land worth 40 shillings a year, in 1670 to those with manors or incomes of at least 100 pounds a year from landed property. "It is not fit that clowns should have these sports," James I reminded Parliament in the early 17th century (quoted in Manning 1993: 65). Eating the fruits of the hunt was also a mark of status: in the 18th century, gifts of game -- which could not be legally bought or sold -- remained "one of the more delicate means by which the gentry expressed influence and solicited favour" (Thompson 1975b: 158; see also Hay 1975: 246-7; Chafin 1818; Manning 1993: 60). "Nobody would care," Lord Londonderry reaffirmed in 1827, "for a present which everybody could give" (quoted in Hay 1975). One of the incentives driving ambitious lower middle-class males to join the colonial service was that in India and other overseas possessions they would be allowed to enjoy the status of participation in blood sports which was denied to them at home (Rangarajan 1996: 154).

Also tied to the symbolic economy of hunting were recycled traditions of martial derring-do important to those at the top of the social pyramid. In the medieval and early modern period, aristocracy and gentry often provoked or settled internal rivalries through ostentatious, militaristic, ritualistic poaching on each others' parks, decked out in full war weaponry in zestful anticipation of skirmishes with keepers and at the head of mini-armies which included tenants and other commoners. Hunting was also sometimes conceptualized as an outlet for the aggressions of off-duty soldiers of noble rank or as a preparation for war, and martial rituals helped emphasize the boundaries between higher and lower orders of society (Manning 1993: 136). In this context, many grievances over use of hunting preserves, whether they concerned hunting privileges themselves, fees for forest use, deer eating local crops or competing with sheep for grass, or encroached land or restrictions on pasture, could be seen as challenges to elite standing. Reading them this way helped them become so.

Unsurprisingly, forests always seemed to ruling elites to present special challenges to discipline. One reason was political. From the 14th century, elites feared that unauthorized hunting parties could mask insurrections or be a cover for banditry, perhaps remembering how often in history they had been used as covers for military raids. And in fact rural rebellions in 1381 and 1549, as well as the Civil Wars of the 1640s, all saw pointed attacks on royal and aristocratic deer parks (Manning 1993: 49, 61; Charlesworth 1983). In addition, gentry sometimes led or provoked enclosure riots against political rivals. In the 1720s, legislators were concerned not only with "attacks upon royal and private property" and a "sense of a confederated movement which was enlarging its social demands", but also fears of political rebellion and "repeated public humiliation of the authorities" by lesser gentry, yeoman and commoners reacting to the perceived abuse of manorial privileges by an arriviste class of landowners (Thompson 1975a: 190). Over the centuries, as the main source of threats to particular states moved downwards from disgruntled nobles to envious lesser gentry to smallholders and land-poor artisans, affrays in the woods involving more than a few people were consistently viewed by the courts as having an at least potential political meaning, and every period of popular rebellion was followed by new game laws. Hunting at night or in disguise were first made felonies in 1485; the Black Act of 1723 authorized the death penalty for more than 50 offenses connected with hunting or defiance of hunting laws; and the game laws of 1828 made it not only possible but likely for any three men found in a wood together to be banished to Australia for 14 years if even one of them had been carrying a gun or bludgeon.

The importance of game animals to elite identity was another incentive for game laws: deer, birds, and rabbits had to be kept off limits to the lower orders. Yet such laws only generated fresh problems of discipline. Hard as it was to establish territories to hunt them in, direct enforcement of absolute ownership over the animals themselves was pretty close to impossible. The creatures could not easily be confined to a single territory nor stamped with their place of origin, and were never felt by ordinary people to be permanent property at all, a judgment with which many lawyers agreed. Nor was there any point in cashing them in to avoid the costs of enforcement, since it was precisely their non-exchange value which was vital to the elite status economy. What with such difficulties, the only way to enforce property claims on such animals was through the blunt instrument of laws which criminalized any circumstance in which they might be poached. Thus blanket bans were slapped on walking at night, for example, or on acquiring certain kinds of dogs. Sledgehammer-like penalties and crude technologies of terror like spring guns and man traps were additional, and not very successful, attempts to make up for the inherent difficulties of privatizing wildlife. The problem became particularly intractable in the early 19th century, when at a time of crisis in the rural economy pheasant-mad landowners packed their woods with forbidden "tame and docile birds, whose gay feathers sparkled among the trees before the eyes of the half-starved labourers breaking stones on the road at half a crown a week" (Hammond and Hammond 1970: 163). What ensued was a virtual class war pitting plebeian poachers of birds and rabbits against landowners who had to suppress feuding among themselves in order to forge a united front to contain the lower orders. Although wood-stealing was probably the most common rural crime, game offences took up most of the time of many country magistrates in the 18th and early 19th centuries and interested Parliament deeply. Between 1827 and 1830 at least one in seven convictions in the country were Game Code violations. In time, the consequences of the criminalization of the most enterprising young men in the countryside began to frighten even some elements of the elite. In 1815 one self-identified gentleman, proprietor of game and magistrate wrote following a killing on his manor that

"the regular army, as it may be called, of Game keepers and their assistants are assailed in their nightly bivouac by the irregular tirailleurs of the bands of poachers, and the savage import and consequence of a war of posts are perpetuated in every village. All moral ideas of right and wrong are confounded; all love of the spirit of place and history are banished from the breasts of the contending parties; and even the shedding of a neighbour's blood is considered matter of triumph among their several advocates ... That this condition of things should ultimately prepare the minds of the lower classes for every crime to which the circumstances of their station may tempt them is not surprising..." (Anonymous 1815).

Among the "crimes" in which lower-class poachers subsequently became involved were the risings of 1816 and 1830 (Hobsbawm and Rudé 1968: 63). In a parallel movement, some 18 years previously Sir Frederick Eden had worried in a report on The State of the Poor about the consequences of the criminalization of the wood-collecting children of rural laborers. These "young marauders", he wrote, who spared "neither hedges nor trees" were "calculated in the art of thieving, till, from being accustomed to small thefts, they hesitate not to commit greater deprivations on the public" (quoted in Bushaway 1982: 214). Here again, the difficulty of privatizing a good to which it was in principle difficult to restrict access (the space to be patrolled was huge, and much of the dead wood which the poor had traditionally had the right to collect was attached to live trees, leaving open large areas for contestation) had led to impossibly unwieldy regulation efforts.

Lower-grade threats -- vagrancy, masterlessness, laziness, poverty, rowdiness, immorality, overbreeding and, not least, disrespect for authority -- were also persistently associated with forest commons. One genteel 17th century observer fulminated that forests were

"so ugly a monster as of necessity will breed ... more and more idleness, beggary and atheism, and conseqently disobedience to God and the King ... wherein infinite poor yet most idle inhabitants have thrust themselves, living covertly without law or religion, 'rudes et refractori' by nature, among whom are nourished and bred infinite idle fry, that coming ripe grow vagabonds, and infect the Commonwealth with most dangerous leprosies" (quoted in Pettit 1965: 163).

Such heavy-duty abuse is not usually generated out of a comfortable ideological hegemony. There was something in the woods that touched a moral nerve in the elite of every era, and that wouldn't go away. When late 18th century apologists for agricultural improvement branded the commons a nest of indiscipline, when Malthus formalized his views of the breeding habits of the lower orders, when the Victorian middle class complained about the uncouth insults with which they were greeted when they walked across suburban heaths, they were building creatively on old traditions. Such traditions presumably owe their longevity to a number of enduring factors, economic and other: competition for land; need for safe, direct commercial routes; a wish not to face directly the social results of dispossession; the inappropriateness for a capitalist economy of forest dwellers' ways of organizing space and time; a yearning for a safe medium for unscrutinized middle-class movement; and no doubt many others.

Yet despite conflicts involving land, status and discipline, the relation between use of forest commons and elite-dominated economies was never one of simple opposition. Commoners of different statuses were accustomed to operating within, reshaping, and adapting the resources of, a variety of cultural systems. By the 13th century, for instance, tenants usually had to work within the legal fiction that they owed all their rights to the forest to the gracious grants of lords some time in the past. Yet the fact that the manorial courts which helped police the exercise of such rights were composed mainly of commoners themselves and were "seldom unduly favourable to the lord's interest" (Rackham 1986: 121) left a lot of room for maneuver; and grants by the nobility were appealed to by commoners on innumerable occasions. Commoners in one part of Epping Forest near London, for example, defended their customary right of lopping trees from St. Martins Day (11 November) until St. Georges Day (23 April) by claiming that it originated in a grant from Queen Elizabeth I, though records indicate it was in fact much older (Fisher 1887: 248). At the same time, the martial culture of the hunt was often mined for useful materials by those further down the status hierarchy, who both imitated and mocked it. Not only did envious status-consicous lesser gentry, in the centuries preceding the Civil Wars, constantly lead aggressive poaching parties into the parks of the great, often injuring or killing keepers. Carefully-prepared illicit hunts involving both gentry and ordinary commoners were also one way of carrying out community judgment on an encloser or emparker felt to be exploitative. The church meanwhile evolved a role which not only mediated in disputes among commoners themselves, but also provided them with some purchase in their conflicts with higher-ups. On Rogation week, the week following the fifth Sunday after Easter, clergy led annual mass "perambulations" around parishes to reaffirm forest common boundaries, and these often provided not only much-needed legal evidence but also moral legitimation for popular claims. More generally, the whole arcane vocabulary of English commons rights -- "housebote" and "cartbote" (the right to collect timber for house and cart construction, but only a certain quota), "hedgebote" (the right to lops and tops for making hedges, but only a certain amount collected by certain methods), "firebote" (the right to collect firewood in limited quantities), "turbary" (the right to cut turfs in certain areas), "pannage" (the right to set pigs loose in the wood in autumn, usually for a fee paid to the lord), not to mention rights of way and rights of access, which are still important common rights today -- can be seen as a collective creation worked up out of the tension among different parts of the social hierarchy, none of which was able completely to dominate the others (Thompson 1990).

It was when such cultural webs could not be modified fast enough to contain emerging tensions that violence rose to unusual levels. Landlords might evict cottagers, fence out their animals, order officers to take brutal action against forest users, see to it that commoners were transported for forest use, or launch pre-emptive strikes against whole stands of trees to which commoners claimed use-rights to remove the cause of contestation. Forest officers and keepers, moreover, might abuse their authority when centralized controls lapsed. Commoners, especially those lacking the wherewithal to pursue matters through courts and petitions and unlikely to be compensated sufficiently for loss of pastures or firewood, might respond with tactics progressing from experimental invasions of fenced-off areas to anonymous threats to fence-breaking, forest raids, destruction of trees, animals, gardens and fields, arson, assaults on lords' or landowners' servants and mass riots. Raucous poaching raids, draining of fishponds, or pilfering of wood from enclosure hedges might combine material appropriation with symbolic protest, and assertion of right with criminal riot (Hopkins 1986).

All this went on for an astonishingly long period, and, encompassing thousands of recorded incidents sometimes linked in regional rebellions, looms large in the record of popular rural violence in England. In 1311, 18 men broke down a fence in a wooded area of Staffordshire, claiming that the owner had enclosed land they were entitled to pasture their animals on (Birrell 1987: 22). Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, enclosure riots were widespread across the English landscape. In 1569, when the Forest of Westward in Cumberland in northwest England was rented out to local gentry and tenants to sublet, several hundred smallholders and laborers from nearby manors whose pastures were threatened pulled down the enclosures (Appleby 1976). Communities in and around at least seven royal forests erupted in the 1620s and 1630s over plans to convert them to farmland to gain income for the Crown. Miners and other commoners in the Forest of Dean rioted periodically over a 150-year period beginning in 1631 whenever enclosures were made or common rights restricted, and in 1831, when enclosures used to protect young trees were not thrown open to grazing after a suitable period, 2000 people with pickaxes and spades destroyed most of the fences (Charlesworth 1983: 42; Hart 1966: 214). On Cannock Chase in Staffordshire in central England, commoners protested the leasing of common pasture for rabbit warrens beginning in 1690; in late 1753, after further enclosures, 200 people including labourers, colliers, weavers, servants, tradesmen and artisans invaded the local nobleman's land and slaughtered 10-15,000 rabbits worth perhaps 3000 pounds. The rioters had been encouraged by news that commoners in Charnwood Forest 30 miles away had defied troopers and police to dig up warrens on their own commons (Hay 1975, Thompson 1990). After the wall of the recently-enclosed Richmond Park near London was breached several times in the 1750s by commoners concerned about the loss of rights of way and access to gravel, wood and water, a judge finally affirmed the validity of their claims (Thompson 1990). In 1784, poor commoners in Alice Holt Forest in Wiltshire, "assembling in a riotous manner", seized the lops and tops of trees which a local lord had cut down, resulting in legal action against 45 of them (White 1899: 24). In 1866, after part of Berkhamsted Common north of London was enclosed by a new manorial lord who wanted to add it to his park, a wealthy commoner hired 120 labourers to pull down two miles of iron fencing in the middle of the night as a demonstration and assertion of right; four years later his action was judged lawful in the courts, and the common remained open (Eversley 1910: 42-54). Today's well-reported struggles to protect commons and trees against state road-building projects at Twyford Down, Newbury, London and elsewhere should be seen -- as they often are by their protagonists -- as part of this longer history of defense of communally-used land against the encroachments of elites.

Popular violence over forests in England, as in many other places, has generally brought repression or convictions. Yet, together with other, less visible, finer-grained, and more frequently employed forms of contestation, it also slowed the conversion of forests into commercial and state territories, often for decades and sometimes for centuries. Violence, together with other forms of contestation, was capable of weakening the rule of kings, and shaped the way commons were distributed when they were privatized. The mere threat of a mass of commoners ready to rise if their forest rights were undermined was a longstanding and potent influence on the decisions of the great. In April 1617 Fulke Greville, Chancellor of the Exchequer, noted that as a result of plans for a royal purchase of forest commons in Essex,

"the contry growing gealouse of some further intention of inclosing their comons began to mutyne ... what a showre of Shrewes [the surveying official] encountred with I leave to the stories of his own letters. Wherein ye may see how easilie this tight Sea of busie people is raysed up with every wynde; so as a tender proceeding with them can be no preiudice" (quoted in Fisher 1887: 37).

In the next century, Queen Caroline asked her Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole how much it would cost to fence in St. James Park in London. He replied, "Only a crown, Madam." The existence of St. James and other London parks, which the stubbornness of commoners helped preserve up until the time they were taken over by public managers, is evidence visible even to casual visitors to the country today of the power and longevity of the often violent confrontations over forest rights which at one time raged across the country, and which are continued in new forms in today's protests against road and other construction projects (Thompson 1990: 111, 125-6; Eversley 1910).

The US in Viet Nam: At War with the Land

"Power and violence are opposites," Hannah Arendt wrote; "where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power's disappearance ... to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it" (Arendt 1970).

The defeat of the United States in Viet Nam, well under way at the time Arendt wrote these words, is the most spectactular demonstration in recent times of the weaknesses of violence when inadequately supported by power. Between 1965 and 1973 the United States military dropped between eight and 15 million tonnes of munitions from aircraft on Southeast Asia, the equivalent of between four and eight times the tonnage it dropped in the Second World War, or the explosive force of between 600 and 1200 nuclear weapons of the size dropped on Hiroshima (Gibson 1986: 319, 495). The amount of munitions used per US soldier was 26 times that of the Second World War (Kolko 1994). Almost two tonnes of explosive per Vietnamese civilian were expended in the region surrounding Saigon, 775 kilogrammes per person in Laos (Westing 1976: 9) Between 1.4 and two million lives were lost within the borders of Viet Nam alone, over 96 per cent of them Vietnamese. Yet in 1975 the United States was forced to withdraw in disarray.

As in many other wars, attacks on people quickly spread to include direct attacks on forests. In Viet Nam, forests fell victim to US campaigns to reduce cover for enemy forces, to destroy installations, communications, and roadside areas, to depopulate the countryside and create refugees, and to destroy crops. The scale and some of the technology employed, however, were unusual. In South Viet Nam alone, herbicide applications, bulldozing, and intensive conventional and incendiary bombing stripped perhaps 5,700 square kilometres entirely of their forest cover and heavily damaged an additional 56,000 square kilometres of forest land. Together, this comes to some 59 per cent of the south's prewar forest cover (Westing 1976: 9). "Only we can prevent forests," went the slogan painted on the sides of C-123 transport planes used to spray defoliants. The US air force, one Vietnamese politician remarked, seemed "at war with the very land of Viet Nam" (quoted in Weisberg 1970: 53). The damage was all the more telling given that in many parts of rural Viet Nam, as in many parts of England before the latter part of the 20th century, farming families depended for part of their livelihood on local forests (Condominas 1977, Ireson and Ireson 1996).

This forest violence was clearly not due to "overpopulation" or "the inexorable march of progress". Its character and scale, on the other hand, did owe a great deal to the technocratic institutions and thinking which came to prominence in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. Robert McNamara, previously head of Ford Motor Company and subsequently President of the World Bank, took over the US Defense Department in the early 1960s at the head of a self-confident team of university and think-tank intellectuals whose institutional upbringing disposed them to claim that all political and military problems could be neatly divided into means and ends, with rational action being exclusively a matter of applying appropriate quantities of available means to given goals. Progress toward those goals, on this view, could be evaluated and achieved numerically, from a distance. The assurance and glibness with which McNamara's technocrats and their allies pressed this vision intimidated senior officials, politicians and military officers alike (Kolko 1994: 144-45). Institutions concerned with war-making occupied themselves increasingly with creating a numerical reality with which office-bound theoreticians were comfortable.

This situation created an inherent bias against examining either long-term goals -- which remained abstract, fixed, and undiscussable -- or the nature, rather than the quantity, of the means used to achieve them. Patrician bureaucrats eager to uphold US international dominance defended the view that at some stage increasing quantities of violence -- the commodity they happened to have in their hands in abundance, thanks partly to the post-Second World War decision to offer massive subsidies to weapons-producing corporations as a lead sector of the economy -- would be transformed into power in the form of Vietnamese submission, enabling the US to "speak in Viet Nam on many topics and in many ways" (Pentagon Papers 1972: III, 311), and ensuring recognition of US determination and legitimacy by a world public. Unable to quantify legitimacy or influence directly, the US war apparatus obsessively tallied up accumulated bodies, artillery shells expended, sorties flown, and hectares of forest defoliated. Even the Central Intelligence Agency, which was often more skeptical about US prospects than other agencies, maintained in 1966 that "there presumably is a point at which one more turn of the screw would crack the enemy resistance to negotiations" (quoted in Gibson 1986: 97).

While violence is often measurable, however, power is not. To the professed puzzlement of US technocrats and politicians alike, Vietnamese revolutionaries "irrationally" failed to respond in numerical proportion to the violence used to "communicate" with them and failed to realize when the costs of resistance outweighed the benefits (Gibson 1986: 98). Yet instead of attempting to come to grips with this apparent anomaly, US leaders piled more and yet more baroque and counterproductive technical fixes onto the "problem", engendering an unfalsifiable logic of escalation. Partly through the mechanism of ecological destruction, peasants were forced out of their homes on the premise that depopulating the countryside would simplify the war physically for the US side and, in the words of establishment pundit Samuel P. Huntington, help replace the "Maoist-inspired rural revolution" with an "American-sponsored urban revolution" (Huntington 1968: 645). By 1973, 10 million refugees had been pushed at one time or another into strategic hamlets, cities, or camps, causing many peasants to take up arms on the revolutionary side Whereas in 1955 85 per cent of South Viet Nam's people had lived in rural areas, in 1970 only 40 per cent did so, and the population of Saigon had swelled from 300,000 to 3 million (Kolko 1994: 239, 464; Weisberg 1970). US combat soldiers were meanwhile treated largely as bait in high-tech traps. "You don't fight this fellow rifle to rifle," one US Army general said. "You locate him and back away. Blow the hell out of him and then police up" (quoted in Kolko 1994: 179). When massive bombing failed to turn the tide of the war, it was claimed that yet more bombing had to be carried out, partly in order to save the credibility of the quantitative model itself (Kolko 1994: 149). Even attempts to "win hearts and minds" were mainly technical in orientation, as witnessed by the surrealistic flood of consumer goods -- refrigerators, movie cameras -- which helped swamp South Viet Nam in corruption.

The US military's possession of large-scale, coarse-grained, energy-intensive technologies of violence motivated strategists to attempt to create an abstract, simplified battlefield suitable for their use. In addition to alienating rural dwellers and destroying their forests, land and watercourses, this strategy failed even in military terms. The failure, however, was generally more visible to US soldiers on the ground than to theorists higher up. One GI criticized the practice of clearing forest on both sides of roads to prevent ambushes, a technique that the elites of medieval and early modern England had found effective against bandits but which met an unexpected twist in Viet Nam:

"Let me tell you about that defoliation programme. It didn't work... Some idiot somewhere sold somebody the idea that if the gooks couldn't hide, then they couldn't ambush you, and they bought the idea, I mean really bought it. The trouble with the whole thing is that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army use guns in their ambushes instead of bows and arrows. Nobody mentioned that. They don't have to be sitting on top of you to pull off an ambush. An AK-47 is effective up to 1,500 metres and accurate up to 600. So we'll hit an area, like along a busy road, billions of gallons of the stuff, and pretty soon there's nothing except for some dead bushes for 50 or even 300 metres on both sides ... So the gooks will start shooting at you from 300 metres away instead of five, only now you're the one that ain't got no place to hide. Ever try running 100 metres or 200? It takes time, and they're firing at you the whole way" (quoted in Gibson 1986: 123-4).

In reality, the landscape could never be stripped down in a way which would enable US technology to be able to transmute violence into power. Jet aircraft, however effective they might be over a large area on a bare plain, were vulnerable when they had to slow down to enter narrow, short valleys. Similarly, while Cu Chi near Saigon was a good place to station US tanks and trucks because it was perched high above the water table and would remain dry even during the rainy season, the dry ground could also support a vast system of secret tunnels. A revolutionary officer described US soldiers' bewilderment when they first encountered an attack from Vietnamese hidden in the earth:

"They ... did not hide or take defensive positions. They did not know where the bullets had come from. We kept on shooting... Although their fellows kept falling down, they kept on advancing. They should have retreated. They called for artillery. When the first shells landed we simply went into the communications tunnels and went on to another place... [The tunnels] are something very Vietnamese and one must understand what the relationship is between the Vietnamese peasant and the earth, his earth. Without that, then everything here is without real meaning" (quoted in Gibson 1986: 123).

Chemical defoliation was one of the first experiments aimed at simplifying the difficulties of counterinsurgency warfare which was tested in Viet Nam. Singled out as the most promising compounds among hundreds of possibilities, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T -- the components of Agent Orange -- had been synthesized during the Second World War for possible use against Germany and Japan and tried out in India and Australia. After field tests in Kenya and the former Tanganyika, the British military used the two compounds together with another herbicide in the mid-1950s in what was then Malaya, with consultation from ICI, partly to deprive guerrillas of cover, partly against crops. In Viet Nam, herbicides were first employed in 1961, this time with consultation from the ex-director of British defoliation operations in Malaya, who worked with the British Advisory Commission to South Viet Nam between 1961-65 (Luber 1990). Although the US military at first feared "charges of barbarism for waging a form of chemical warfare", the spraying programme in fact attracted little attention in the US until late 1965 (Buckingham 1982).

The Viet Nam war was conducted by the numbers, and there are plenty of numbers to describe the prodigious extent of herbicidal use. The area sprayed each year with defoliants increased from 24 square kilometres in 1962 to 6,800 in 1967. Over a nine-year period approximately 14-20 per cent of South Viet Nam's terrestrial forests and 36-41 per cent of its mangrove forests were sprayed (Westing 1984, Kolko 1994). In terms of land area, over 17,000 square kilometres were treated one or more times, with the bulk of the attacks being directed against forests rather than food crops. Between 1965 and 1969, between 380 and 800 square kilometres of Laos were also secretly sprayed, violating US law, as well as a considerable area of Cambodia, where Kompong Cham province was also severely affected by chemicals drifting across the Vietnamese border (Westing 1984; Pfeiffer 1982: 24; Neilands, Orians, Pfeiffer et al. 1972: 120, 177-205). In all, nearly 55,000 tonnes of active herbicidal ingredients were dispensed (Westing 1984).

The effects on plant life, not so easily expressible in numbers, are less clear, and began to be studied only belatedly. A single spraying of herbicide was enough to defoliate virtually all non-bamboo trees, killing at least 10 per cent outright and gravely injuring a much larger proportion. Because soils in tropical forests cannot hold many of the nutrients released by dead leaves, this resulted in immediate loss of nutrients to the whole ecosystem, and soil erosion also increased. Approximately one-third of the forests treated were sprayed more than once, and the tree mortality rate was far higher here: 25 per cent for an area sprayed twice, 50 per cent for one sprayed three times and up to 100 per cent for an area hit four times (Westing 1976: 31). In coastal mangrove forests, meanwhile, virtually nothing remained alive after even a single spraying. Because mangroves serve as breeding or nursery grounds for marine and some riverine fish, the effects were also felt by the fishing fleet. Long-term effects are uncertain, but it is estimated that it will take 80-100 years for a dense inland forest sprayed even once or twice to recover to a state comparable to that of the original stand. In areas sprayed more than twice, soil erosion, nutrient loss, and repeated fires have changed the landscape permanently. In the 1,240 square kilometres of South Viet Nam's mangroves devastated by herbicides, only about 11 per cent had been rehabilitated by 1983, mainly through replanting rather than natural regeneration (Westing 1984).

Direct effects on human biology are even more uncertain. Although in 1961 McNamara assured the Joint Chiefs of Staff that herbicides used in Viet Nam would not be harmful to humans or livestock, in 1963 the US began to study an especially deadly and persistent dioxin contaminant of Agent Orange -- the herbicide which constituted more than 60 per cent of the defoliants used in the war. This dioxin, known as TCDD, was suspected of causing cancer, birth defects, and other grave problems. By 1967 it was clear that these fears were grounded; today dioxins are suspected also of adversely affecting reproduction, development and the immune system (Pfeiffer 1982, Environmental Science and Technology 1995). Anecdotal reports from the ground in Viet Nam and Cambodia from the late 1960s, however, remained uninvestigated by US officials. Highlanders in Kontum and Pleiku provinces, for example, reported an unusually high number of deaths, especially among children, in areas that had been sprayed, and also complained of abdominal pains, diarrhea, vomiting, respiratory symptoms, rashes, and dizziness. Domestic and wild animals, including fish, were also killed (Hickey 1982: 255, 308-19; Neilands, Orians, Pfeiffer et al. 1972). It took a good deal of political activism, moreover, before any effects on US policy were discernible even from certified laboratory research. As late as 1968, John S. Foster, Director of Defense Research in the Defense Department, claimed that "herbicides would not have a long term negative impact on South Viet Nam's people or its interests", and it was not until 1970 that use of Agent Orange was finally stopped by President Nixon. Only in 1972 did Foster advise the Secretary of Defense that that all Agent Orange remaining in Viet Nam be recalled to the US, since "known impurities in Agent Orange preclude its use by the South Vietnamese". On 8 April 1975, an official order banning the military use of herbicides was promulgated (Pfeiffer 1982; Neilands, Orians, Pfeiffer et al. 1972). To what extent this law has been and will be followed is a matter for investigation, but it is clear that the issue of Agent Orange's long-term destructive effects on human health will remain a contentious issue for some time, thanks in part to the protests of affected US veterans. Dioxin dispensed during the war, having an environmental half-life of at least three years, is meanwhile still present in Vietnamese soils. Most affected is the former Military Region III outside Saigon, where 16.3 litres of herbicide per person were sprayed over the landscape (Westing 1976: 9).

Another technology of deforestation employed by US forces in Viet Nam was the Rome plough -- a heavy Caterpillar tractor equipped with a large blade designed to split, sever, fell and push aside trees of all sizes. By 1968 some 100-300 metres of forests had been cleared on either side of many major road systems in the south, and the tractors were being increasingly employed to remove whole forests suspected to be capable of harboring guerrillas, for example in Bien Hoa, Binh Duong and Tay Ninh. Some 3,250 square kilometres of forests were scraped clean of trees by Rome ploughs in South Viet Nam -- two per cent of its entire land area. Soil erosion and wildlife loss were immense. Bombing, in addition, created approximately 250 million craters across the landscape, displacing three billion cubic metres of soil and obliterating at least 1,000 sq km of forest. It is estimated that over 45 million trees were killed directly or indirectly by shrapnel, with a proportional toll of animal life (Westing 1976: 20, 46, 70).


After this brief look at cases from England and Viet Nam, it ought not to be necessary to stress at length the limitations of generalizing about forest violence using standard-issue concepts such as "population increase", "resource scarcity" and "primordial identities". Who is violent, when, and why, and what that violence brings about, depends on specific social and historical contexts.

Rising population, for example, hardly seems to blame for the violence which tore apart many of Viet Nam's forests during the war, and the concept seems largely beside the point in accounting for the ups and downs of strife over forests in medieval and modern England as well. In the 14th century, for example, increased enclosure and competition over land may have been spurred by declining population, as higher wages pushed landowners to seek new sources of income. Similarly, the upsurge in popular forest violence in 1720s Berkshire had more to do with new state policies than with growing human numbers. As E. P. Thompson remarks,

"It would have been easy to have explained [it] by some gesture towards an (unprovable) demographic crisis, precipitating increasing demands upon the forest's resources. But there is no convincing evidence as to any such crisis, demographic, ecological or agrarian. Farmers and forest officers had rubbed along together, in a state of running conflict, for many decades and they were to continue to do so for many more. What appears as crisis was a conflict in the broadest sense political" (Thompson 1975a: 99).

Yet it is almost as difficult to offer universally-valid political generalizations about, say, the relationship between forest violence and the state. In the Viet Nam of three decades ago, for instance, US state technology devastated forests and dispossessed or killed many of those who lived in or near them, yet in 17th century England, crown control of forests was often, from the point of view of commoners who revolted in order to retain forest use-rights, comparatively benign. Nor is it necessarily particularly illuminating to assume that forest conflicts are attributable to cultural differences between social groups. In England, certain group identities seem to have been as much created out of forest conflict as they inflamed it. Landlords who chose to preserve game for competitive massacre and to press for increasingly vicious laws against poaching and wood-stealing in the early 19th century not only widened class gaps but also helped forge and articulate the identity of "forest criminals" and of themselves. "Criminal" may not in this case be an ethnic identity, but the point is not necessarily irrelevant to so-called "ethnic conflicts" being waged elsewhere today.

A more defensible generalization is perhaps Arendt's: "those who hold power and feel it slipping from their hands, be they the government or be they the governed, have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to substitute violence for it" (Arendt 1970: 87). Violence is never sufficient and often unnecessary for power, and while it usually appears together with power, if "left to its own course it ends in power's disappearance". It does not follow, however -- as many forest users in England and Viet Nam would attest -- that it is always unnecessary.


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Many thanks for comments to David Underdown and an anonymous copyeditor for Zed Press, and for financial support to Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University.


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